Even for a puppy, Kat Donatello's black lab, Austin, was hyperactive. After experimenting with natural supplements on her older dog, Brady, Donatello slipped the puppy a special biscuit. "It just kind of took the edge off of him," she recalled.
The treat contained Cannabidiol, better known as CBD, a chemical compound extracted from the marijuana plant.
The CBD supplements were expensive, and options for pet treats were limited, Donatello said. "So I started spending my winters baking dog biscuits." She tinkered with the recipe before launching her CBD-laced biscuit company, Austin + Kat, earlier this year.
Along with Therabis and Treatibles, Austin + Kat is one of several Cannabidiol-for-dogs businesses that have popped up in the last two years, a time period during which CBD pet product sales nationwide doubled, according to data kept by cannabis industry analytics firm MJ Freeway. It's the newest trend in America's booming half-billion dollar animal supplements market, which is expected to grow by more than $150 million in the next four years.
CBD is one of over 80 active cannabinoid chemicals in marijuana, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Unlike tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), CBD doesn't create a euphoric sensation. In other words, these biscuits won't get your dog high. But there's some debate as to what effect the compound has on our furry friends and whether they should be consuming it at all.
Academic research about CBD's affect on animals is nearly nonexistent, and the Food and Drug Administration has not approved marijuana use in animals. Despite this, some veterinarians recommend their use, and producers say pet stores are increasingly beginning to carry CBD treats. Treatibles is even in talks to be sold at a big box pet store, though an executive wouldn't reveal which one, as the deal is still pending.
Veterinarians views on the supplement vary. When asked about the effectiveness of CBD in dogs, Dr. Robert Goggs said there is "virtually no evidence in the veterinary literature on this." By contrast, Dr. Robert Silver and Dr. Gary Richter, both vets, recently hosted a course on the cannabis-dedicated learning website Green Flower entitled the "Cannabis for Pets Masterclass."
Contacted by phone, Richter conceded that scholarly literature is lacking. "A lot of what we're using is extrapolated data from humans, as well as just real world experience on what works," he explained. If it works for humans, he argued, it could work for dogs.
In lieu of research, the CBD-for-dogs industry cites supportive veterinarians and customer testimonials as evidence of the products' effectiveness. On Treatibles' website, an interview with the owner of mixed-breed pup Shelby shows how the dog, plagued with anxiety and fear, was able to settle down after eating a laced treat.
Human studies have linked CBD to anti-seizure, anti-inflammatory, and anti-anxiety effects. In findings presented to the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control in June of last year, Nora D. Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said CBD could potentially aid those suffering from Alzheimer's, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson's. Despite the largely positive feedback in Volkow's presentation, she warned that additional research on CBD is necessary. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agrees and hopes to review further scientific studies on CBD.
CBD is often purchased online, which is technically a violation of federal law, according to DEA spokesman Russell Baer. "Extracts or derivatives from the cannabis plant are Schedule I controlled substances—just like the plant itself," Baer said in an e-mailed statement. "There is widespread illegal distribution of purported CBD products—regardless if they are derived from the marijuana plant or hemp plant," he added.
Understandably, the DEA's attention is not on CBD at a time when the nation faces an opioid crisis, and sterilized cannabis seeds can be legally used in animal feed mixture. (When asked about the legality of the business, Therabis called it a "complex situation." Austin + Kat's Donatello expressed frustration with the DEA's position in light of the federal Controlled Substances Act and her ability to purchase CBD products at Walmart.com. Silver, the vet and a consultant to Treatibles, said on behalf of the company that the law is murky and referenced the Farm Act, a 2014 document passed by Congress to reform agricultural programs. The act mentions industrial hemp research and defers to state laws on industrial hemp cultivation.)
There's also the matter of ethics. Humans can verbally express discomfort when trying a new treatment. Man's best friend cannot.
“If the proper administration of marijuana can truly relieve dogs' pain, then they should be given the same consideration that humans in pain are given, with regular doses to help reduce their misery," said Daphna Nachminovitch, senior vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "But it's an entirely different matter to amuse oneself by getting the cat drunk or the dog high.”
While the researchers debate what, exactly, CBD can do for Fido, investors are excited by its increasing popularity, which has been buoyed by the legalization of cannabis (for humans) and increased dialogue about the medicinal properties of marijuana.
Treatibles founder Julianna Carella has seen sales explode "like wildfire" over the past two years. Therabis has experience equally explosive growth in its first year of business; since February, the company has seen revenue quadruple, and sales have grown 30 percent month-over-month, according to Joe Hodas, chief marketing officer of the treat brand's parent company.
Troy Dayton, co-founder of the Arcview Group, an Oakland, Calif.-based investment firm, was a skeptic before he saw the sales numbers. "If humans are noticing in droves all the different ways where cannabis products can have utility for them, then surely there will be a massive application [for animals,]" he said.
Over the last two years, Arcview has been involved in fundraising efforts for two CBD pet-product companies. Dayton anticipates that additional capital will follow, particularly from investors leery of getting into the recreational cannabis market, which is legally murky. "There's a lot of opportunity" in the CBD market, Dayton said.
"I'm not surprised at all that the space is growing," Carella said. "There's so many pet owners that would do just about anything to relieve their animals suffering."