The Endocannabinoid System & CBD for Dogs

Discovering the Layers Below the Surface of Behaviour

Many years ago, I started to take a deeper dive into natural therapies and the concept of holism, to better help the dogs and guardians that found their way to my behaviour practice. Although I love to teach dogs behaviours and tricks, and had a lot of success with operant focused methods, I always felt like there was something missing in my therapy, and that I was only touching the surface with skill building and training.

As I started to expand my knowledge in the scientific studies of physiology and anatomy, I got really curious about gentle, natural ways to support the body back into balance and address the underlying factors influencing mood, emotions and behaviour of dogs. Not long after exploring natural modalities, I realized that my initial intuitive instincts were right, there is so much more to helping dogs with their behaviour, than just operant and classical conditioning. 

Over the years, I’ve studied essential oils, herbalism, nutrition and massage to understand how natural therapies can support the body, but the most interesting topics of my study has involved learning about the Endocannabinoid System. 

The Endocannabinoid System

In humans, there is scientific evidence that shows a link in deficient ECS signalling and anxiogenic behaviour responses and how modulating these signals with exogenous cannabinoids, such as CBD, can produce biological effects that promote well-being. There is definitely more research to be done on this, and research on animals is limited (but growing), but given the fact that dogs also have an ECS and a mammalian nervous system like humans, the health and wellness of dogs could benefit from a further exploration into these discoveries. 

Here is a quote of particular interest from a study by Matthew N Hill and Boris B Gorzalka, "The central endocannabinoid system is a neuroactive lipid signalling system in the brain which acts to control neurotransmitter release. The expression patterns of this system throughout limbic regions of the brain ideally situate it to exert regulatory control over emotional behaviour, mood and stress responsivity." (Matthew N Hill, Boris B Gorzalka, The Endocannabinoid System and the Treatment of Mood and Anxiety Disorders)

The endogenous cannabinoid system or as it is colloquially known as the Endocannabinoid System, is a ubiquitous biological signalling system that was first discovered in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Although there is still much to learn about the ECS, it is known to have appeared early in evolution and to have important regulatory functions throughout the body in all vertebrates, including dogs and other animals. The ECS enables the body’s natural endocannabinoids as well as exogenous cannabinoids, to attach to nerve receptors and send signals to the body through interactions with receptors found in the central and peripheral nervous systems as well as other cells. 

To truly comprehend the role of the endocannabinoid system, it is important to understand homeostasis, which is one of the most fundamental concepts in biology and a vital mechanism to maintain a stable internal environment, despite any changes present in the environment. The ECS modulates many biological processes involved in achieving and maintaining internal balance or a relatively stable internal state. 

The ECS is largely comprised of endocannabinoids, receptors, and enzymes that are believed to help regulate a variety of functions including sleep, mood, memory, appetite, reproduction, and pain sensation. The receptors for the endocannabinoid system are located in the central and peripheral nervous system as well as the cellular membranes of other systems such as the immune system. Both the body's natural cannabinoids, called endocannabinoids, as well as cannabinoids from other plant sources, called phytocannabinoids, can bind to these receptors. Although several ECS receptors have been identified, the most researched receptors are the CB1 and CB2 receptors. 

The body produces endogenous cannabinoids, or endocannabinoids, that engage with ECS receptors. There are only two known endocannabinoids, anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (better known as 2-AG) which are tasked with binding to ECS receptors to maintain a balanced internal state. Exogenous cannabinoids, such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) which are both found in the cannabis plant, also produce their biological effects through their interactions with the same receptors. 

The most abundant ECS receptor is the CB1 receptor, which is found mostly in the central nervous system, particularly in the hippocampus, cerebellum and cortex. CB1 receptors are bound by THC and since they are concentrated in the central nervous system, this is why dogs will suffer with impaired coordination when cannabis containing THC is ingested. CB2 receptors are found in abundance in the peripheral nervous system, the immune system cells as well as to a lesser extent, the central nervous system. 

The endogenous cannabinoid, anandamide, also known as the “bliss/happy” molecule, promotes the release of neurotransmitters serotonin and GABA, to provide a calming effect on the body as well as digestive and neurological support. Anandamide also helps support a normal inflammatory response and regulate the immune response by binding to CB2 receptors in this system. 

Interestingly, CBD has little binding affinity for either of the two cannabinoid receptors but one of the primary mechanisms of cannabidiol is to inhibit the reuptake of anandamide by interrupting the process that would break this endocannabinoid down. Preventing the reuptake of anandamide means more of this bliss molecule is left in the body to promote more happiness and calm. There is also evidence of CBD having anti-seizure benefits, antioxidant properties and pain reduction linked to its usage which is why therapeutic phytocannabinoids are of interest for health and wellness support in animals. 

Endocannabinoid Deficiency

There is a theory that endocannabinoid deficiency can create underlying problems for biological processes. This theory was first proposed by Dr. Ethan Russo in 2001 and it implies that certain factors and conditions can result in neurotransmitter deficiencies and subsequently lead to dysregulation in the ECS. In a study published in 2004, Dr. Russo explores the concept of Clinical Endocannabinoid System Deficiency and details how: “Migraine, fibromyalgia, IBS and related conditions display common clinical, biochemical and pathophysiological patterns that suggest an underlying clinical endocannabinoid deficiency...” in humans. 

The endocannabinoid system plays a critical role in many different systems and bodily functions including sleep, mood, mental focus and so much more, so a lack of healthy endocannabinoid production, in other words, an endocannabinoid deficiency, can manifest into a variety of symptoms and signs of imbalance. All mammals have an ECS and therefore can suffer problems associated with endocannabinoid deficiency. 

Endocannabinoid deficiency can be a result of poor lifestyle choices, diet or even genetics. A genetic cause of endocannabinoid deficiency could be a lack of ECS receptors in the body. If your dog lacks receptors then cannabinoids don't have anything to bind to leading to deficiency. Sleep is crucial for well-being and health. Insufficient sleep and rest will have a negative effect on your dog's ECS and their central nervous system as well. Chronic stress will also have a negative effect on the ECS and CNS. 

In addition to this, a poor diet can also lead to endocannabinoid deficiency. The nutrients that your dog gets from their meals also modulate their ECS and a lack of healthy fats can lead to endocannabinoid deficiency. For this reason, my behaviour programs always start by addressing the dog's diet and ensuring they are getting enough sleep, and that stress levels are reduced to improve their overall state of well-being and quality of life. 

Cannabis Industry Terminology & CBD Safety

There is a lot of confusion about cannabis products, particularly the difference between THC, CBD, Hemp and Marijuana. The industry terminology can make it difficult to understand but this can be remedied by clearing up common misconceptions regarding cannabis products. The term cannabis refers to a taxonomic group of related plants, or in other words, the plant genus classification. Hemp and marijuana plants are subspecies of the plant species, cannabis sativa. 

Cannabis plants that contain high levels of THC, which is the psychoactive phytocannabinoid associated with feeling high, are classified as marijuana. Whereas cannabis plants with levels of THC that are under .3% are classified as hemp plants which can be used for medicinal or industrial purposes. Medicinal hemp plants are rich in CBD as well as other therapeutic compounds such as terpenes and flavonoids. 

Unlike THC, which can create toxicity in dogs, CBD is generally recognized as safe. There are some documented cases of diarrhea and changes in liver enzymes after several weeks of use, but the main concern with the use of CBD is that it inhibits the release of a chemical in the body that is responsible for metabolizing most drugs. This enzyme is called cytochrome P450 and if a particular drug's efficacy relies on how it is metabolized, then giving CBD could make it less effective. 

Additionally, if the safety of a particular drug depends on how quickly it is cleared from the body CBD could cause it to build up to toxic levels in the body. Always check with your veterinarian before giving your dog CBD, especially if they are on other medications, to ensure CBD won't interact with any drugs currently prescribed. 

Supporting Research on CBD for Dogs and Cats

While current research on CBD for dogs and cats is limited, completed studies are showing positive outcomes and this has lead to further research development. Veterinarians from Cornell University conducted a study in 2018 that demonstrated favourable effects of CBD on pain and activity associated with osteoarthritis in 16 dogs. And veterinarians from Colorado State University conducted a study in 2019, that demonstrated a 33% reduction in seizure frequency in the CBD group in comparison to a placebo group. 

Targeting the ECS with phytocannabinoids has been shown to trigger similar physiological effects to the endocannabinoids naturally produced by the body and help to achieve or maintain homeostasis and promote systemic well-being. Supporting research suggests that a balanced ECS promotes healthy sleep, mood stability, emotional regulation, appetite, memory, body temperature, immunity, pain, reproduction and fertility in both humans and animals. 

If the ECS is of balance due to a deficiency in endocannabinoids, negative signs such as digestive issues, sleep and rest issues, lethargy, lack of activity, increased stress levels, anxious mental states, fear or emotional reactivity, poor balance, reduced coordination, pain and inflammation. 

In my experience, full or broad-spectrum CBD products have been the most effective choice for supporting anxious feelings, discomfort and inflammation in dogs and this may be enhanced further with the addition of Copaiba Essential Oil (given internally with CBD). 

Angie Krause, CVA, CCRT, DVM, recommends starting with a dose of 0.5 mg/kg by mouth every 12 hours. She recommends giving along with food and increasing every three days to the desired effect. She states that most guardians notice a positive change within 12 to 24 hours and this has been my personal observation in my behaviour practice as well.*

*I am not a veterinarian. This post is for informational purposes only. I cannot diagnose, prevent or treat illness or disease in animals or humans. Check with your veterinarian before starting a new wellness program and ask about any medication interactions before using natural products with your dog or cat. 

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