Minnesota doctor pushing the notion of cannabis for canines

November 14, 2015

MINNEAPOLIS — Dr. Ilo Leppik has dedicated his career to searching for ways to improve treatment for seizures that afflict those with epilepsy.

"My passion is to find a better treatment for this condition," the physician and University of Minnesota pharmacy professor said of his patients’ debilitating — and in some cases, life-threatening — uncontrolled seizures.

In his quest, he has come to believe in the healing power of cannabis for epilepsy, playing a key role in getting Minnesota’s medical marijuana law passed in 2014. Several of his patients now regularly take a cannabis pill to manage their symptoms related to epilepsy.

But lately, Leppik has turned his attention to another kind of patient: the furry, four-legged kind.

Dogs have higher rates of epilepsy than humans do, and Leppik believes a cannabis pill could do for canines what it’s done for humans.

He is pushing to amend Minnesota’s medical marijuana law to allow veterinarians to prescribe the treatment for animals.

"It could be available to dogs in the same way it is available to humans," he said.

Not only could expanding the law help dogs, but it might also help humans, he argues. The change would open the door for researchers like Leppik to test the effects of cannabis on dogs with epilepsy, which could eventually help lead to a breakthrough for humans.

Legalizing medical marijuana for pets is a novel idea.

So far, half the states have made it legal for people to use marijuana for medical reasons. Four states and Washington, D.C., have gone a step further, legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes. But no state allows pet doctors to prescribe or recommend marijuana use for animals, Leppik said.

Meanwhile, federal law still views marijuana as a drug with no medicinal value and outlaws it under any condition. However, doctors in states with medical marijuana laws are free to prescribe it to qualifying patients without fear of prosecution.

GOING TO THE DOGS?

In veterinary circles, there is widespread discomfort with the idea of giving pot to pets.

"I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that it could help," said Dr. Tim Krienke, of Rice Pet Clinic & Hospital in St. Paul, Minn. "We’re starting to see more collaboration between veterinary medicine and medical doctors because there are a lot of things that are so close. It’ll be interesting to see how it unfolds, but I think most of us would be leery."

Dr. Ahna Brutlag sees potential benefits for pets but also is hesitant.

A veterinary toxicologist with the Bloomington-based Pet Poison Helpline (petpoisonhelpline.com), she has seen what happens when pets get into their owners’ pot brownies and devour the whole pan.

"Over the past six years, as more states have legalized marijuana we’ve had a 448 percent increase in cases of pets overdosing on marijuana-based products," she said.

Animals that overindulge on pot cookies and other "medibles" show the classic signs of someone who is high.

"They kind of look like a person who’s stoned — wobbly and unsteady on their legs, a glassy and dazed expression," Brutlag said. "Those are the milder signs."

As amusing as that might sound, too much marijuana in their systems can lead to serious health problems. An overdose can trigger tremors and seizures, Brutlag said. It can even cause the animal’s heart rate and blood pressure to drop to dangerous levels.

She said research needs to be done to determine what, if any, benefits for pet ailments can be found in cannabis and which of the many chemicals from the plant are effective and not harmful to animals.

"The biggest question will be finding the right dose — finding a dose that’s effective but not so high that it compromises the animal’s health," she said.

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SLEEPLESS NIGHTS

Count Dawn Swanson among the believers in the healing power of cannabis.

She used to suffer repeated, uncontrolled seizures a few years ago. They were so bad that they kept her up at night.

She tried 20 different medications to manage her muscle spasms and severe pain, but nothing worked. Finally, she started seeing Leppik and he determined she was a good candidate for medicinal marijuana to treat her symptoms. Today, she takes a cannabis pill three times a day and has been seizure-free for a year.

The cannabis takes the edge off her pain, too.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, my best day is a 6," she said, noting that before she started taking cannabis her pain level was often at an 8.

"Before, because of my pain, I could only sleep two hours a night. With the medicinal marijuana, I sleep an average of six hours a night," she said. "It changes your life to be able to sleep."

Watching her dog, CJ, who has epilepsy, struggle is painful for Swanson, of Plymouth.

"He will have a seizure. He’ll start shaking. He’ll zone out," she said. "You can tell at first he knows it’s coming on — he wants to crawl on my lap. He gets really rigid — like a human would."

CJ takes medicine prescribed by his vet. It helps but there are side effects, and Swanson said she’d consider giving him a dose of cannabis if it becomes legal.

"Would I rather him take medication that’s more natural than the ones he’s taking right now? Sure, why not?" she said. "Personally after everything I’ve been through, I can’t see a reason why they shouldn’t open it up to more things."

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