This article was published in the June 2022 issue of Pet Food Processing. Read it and other articles from this issue in our June 2022 digital edition. 

The humanization of pets has it perks, dangers and many unknowns. When out on the trails together, the pet parent can nibble on the human-grade peanut butter treats along with their furry companion. But, when sitting back and chilling at the end of the day, the pet parent better make sure no sips are snuck of that cold hard seltzer. In fact, there are numerous substances approved for human use and not considered safe for pets. Chocolate and caffeine, for instance, are toxic to both cats and dogs. Macadamia nuts are one of the most poisonous foods for dogs, while tomato plants can be fatal to cats. Then there’s hemp-derived cannabis ingredients showing up in all types of products.

“COVID accelerated the humanization of pets,” said Bill Bookout, president of the National Animal Supplement Council, Sun City West, Ariz. “At the end of the day, pet parents want to accomplish the same thing for their pets as for themselves, and that is to live a long, happy, healthy life.”

That’s where cannabidiols (CBD) enter the picture. In December 2018, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recognized hemp-derived cannabis ingredients with less than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) on a dry weight basis and CBD as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) for human products such as tinctures and extracts. The THC are psychoactive compounds, while the CBD compounds are associated with relaxation, pain relief, improved sleep, positive mood, better memory and stress response.

This GRAS list does not transfer to pets. Further, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994 also does not apply to animals. And while hemp-derived CBD is not legally (at the federal level) allowed in human foods and beverages, it is being used in states that have approved marijuana, and it’s also being incorporated into pet treats and supplements without any regulatory approval. And pet parents are buying them., an online medical marijuana resource, surveyed 1,061 US CBD consumers in 2021 about their experience using CBD on their pets. Thirty-five percent of respondents said their vets advised them to do so. Before administering CBD, 61% were worried about its safety; however, after using it, 40% were no longer concerned. Further, nine out of 10 indicated they would recommend CBD for pets to others.

More than three out of five (63%) respondents said they tried other medications before using CBD on their pets, with 83% agreeing that CBD was more effective. An impressive 81% agreed that CBD was safer, but there remains some confusion. Of the 92% of pet parents who often read the labels on CBD products before purchasing it for their pets, nearly one out of five (19%) indicated they were not sure they understood the information on the label.

Treatibles Extra Strength Soft Chewables for dogs contain 7 mg of CBD per chew.Treatibles Extra Strength Soft Chewables for dogs contain 7 mg of CBD per chew. (Source: Treatibles)

"A quick internet search will pull up hundreds of animal treats and snacks containing hemp and hemp derivatives, such as CBD and various oils,” said Louise Calderwood, director of regulatory affairs, American Feed Industry Association (AFIA), Arlington, Va. “There is only one problem: there is no legal way to offer hemp in animal food or treats.”

Dana Brooks, president and chief executive officer, Pet Food Institute, Washington, DC, said, “Cannabis-containing and cannabis-derived products, like CBD oil, have become the topic of conversation for both humans and pets. However, the FDA has not approved these products for inclusion in either human food or pet food and prohibits the addition of CBD to prepared foods. While the FDA determines a new ruling on ingredients, such as CBD, research is underway among regulatory bodies, academia and pet food makers to confirm the benefits and safety of CBD for pets.”


Why CBD?

“CBD is being included in pet treats and supplements for the same reason they are being produced for human consumers, for their purported health benefits,” said Hilary Brown, director of research and development, SōRSE Technology, Seattle. “Consumers are typically interested in using CBD for their animals’ general wellness.”

They are also looking to give CBD to their pets for the following conditions: cancer; epilepsy and seizures; stress and anxiety; digestion and nausea; pain and inflammation due to joint problems; aging and degenerative diseases; and skin inflammation and allergies. 

Rover’s Wellness’ Broad Spectrum Hemp Chews for dogs are infused with broad-spectrum hemp oil and include naturally occurring CBD.Rover’s Wellness’ Broad Spectrum Hemp Chews for dogs are infused with broad-spectrum hemp oil and include naturally occurring CBD. (Source: Rover’s Wellness)

“Until more research is done on the impact CBD and other cannabinoids have on animals or humans, it is best practice for companies producing products for consumption not to make medical claims that cannot be proven without the data to back up the claims,” Brown said.

While medical claims should not be made, scientists do understand how CBD functions in the body. Through the endocannabinoid system (ECS), CBD can help the body maintain balance.

“The ECS has three components: endocannabinoids, receptors and enzymes,” Brown said. “Endocannabinoids are molecules produced by the body that help keep internal functions running smoothly. The body produces them as needed, making it difficult to know what typical levels are for each. They are similar to the phytocannabinoids like CBD produced by cannabis plants. 

“Endocannabinoid receptors are found throughout your body,” Brown added. “Endocannabinoids bind to them in order to signal that the ECS needs to take action. Enzymes are responsible for breaking down endocannabinoids once they’ve carried out their function. Phytocannabinoids are the active chemical compounds found in the cannabis plant that interact with a human or animal’s body’s endocannabinoid receptors.”

"Unscrupulous, opportunistic suppliers are the greatest concern,” said Bill Bookout, president of the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC).

CBD is only one of more than a hundred different phytocannabinoids that reside in the flowers of the cannabis plant. Knowing how CBD functions is a good thing; however, understanding possible interactions with other medications and overall health and safety remain a concern. In terms of safety, there’s also the concern of toddlers — or other uninformed humans — getting their hands on the product and experiencing a deleterious effect.


Regulatory hurdles

“There is quite a bit of research on the non-nutritional benefits of CBD on pets,” Bookout said. “Safety, however, still needs to be studied, as well as if the CBD ingredient is efficacious and provides a benefit.”

His concern is that some players in this space have a sort of “gold-rush” mentality. They are producing or using poor quality CBD ingredients just to make money.

Hemp Oil Topical Cream is formulated with penetrating ingredients for maximum transdermal absorption. It is ideal for managing joint inflammation, burns, scratches and other minor skin conditions.Hemp Oil Topical Cream is formulated with penetrating ingredients for maximum transdermal absorption. It is ideal for managing joint inflammation, burns, scratches and other minor skin conditions. (Source: Treatibles)

“Unscrupulous, opportunistic suppliers are the greatest concern,” Bookout said.

To move forward, more safety studies are necessary, he said. It will also be paramount to have an audit process with a verification of trust seal.    

“We believe that robust safety research into possible novel pet food ingredients will help to ensure a better understanding of any possible impacts on pet health and nutrition,” Brooks said. “Regulatory bodies can then make sound decisions regarding ingredient definition and approval when presented with the available science. At the same time, this can also help support a regulatory environment that is predictable for pet food manufacturers so they will not depend upon a patchwork ingredient approval system that varies state-by-state within the US.”

In February 2022, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), Champaign, Ill., initiated an effort to address the growing use of illegal hemp products in animal snacks and treats. In collaboration with 16 industry organizations, AAFCO sent an open letter to lawmakers and other agricultural leaders regarding the trend of state legislatures introducing bills that allow the use of hemp and hemp byproducts in commercial livestock feed and pet food.

This CBD oil can be added to pet food, treats or fed directly to dogs, cats or horses.
This CBD oil can be added to pet food, treats or fed directly to dogs, cats or horses. (Source: NuLeaf Naturals)

“It is confusing for consumers to see hemp-based products offered for sale for their pets or livestock, and the hodgepodge of state legislation allowing it creates an unlevel playing field for other ingredients that follow the proper regulatory pathways,” Calderwood said. “The letter highlights concerns that hemp and hemp by-products (e.g., CBD) are being used in animal food before federal approval affirms they are safe and legal to use. Some in the hemp industry are actively lobbying legislators and state departments of agriculture to support legislative pathways for the sale of hemp and hemp derivatives for use in animal food, rather than following recognized regulatory structures.”

The letter states, “Currently, no hemp ingredients have been approved through the established animal feed ingredient review pathways. It would be imprudent to bypass these established procedures needed to protect both human and animal health and unilaterally legislate approval of animal feed ingredients at the state level.”

“CBD given in an edible delivery system offers an easy way for pet parents to administer to their pets. That is why the trend is becoming so popular,” said RaChelle Baca-Lobre, founder and global director of sales at Rover’s Wellness.

The letter encourages proponents of hemp-based animal foods to support research through universities or private labs so that the safety and utility of hemp can be fully understood before it is allowed for commercial purposes.

“This is what companies do when they want to have new ingredients approved,” Calderwood said. “They don’t circumnavigate regulations and move straight to store shelves. They spend the money and time, and have their new products undergo the appropriate testing and review before they are put in animals’ mouths.”


Delivery methods

There are a number of CBD suppliers, as well as pet treat and supplement companies, doing their due diligence. Take note, dosing is an important consideration. That makes treats and oils the more common delivery vehicles, as these formats make it easier to control and regulate the quantity of CBD the pet ingests.

Treatibles Extra Strength Hard Chews are designed for any size dog experiencing discomfort or stress. They combine hemp CBD extract and turmeric in a sweet potato flavor.Treatibles Extra Strength Hard Chews are designed for any size dog experiencing discomfort or stress. They combine hemp CBD extract and turmeric in a sweet potato flavor. (Source: Treatibles)

There remains, however, a lack of quality, peer-reviewed research regarding pets consuming CBD. Published studies are focused more on perceived effects versus quantifiable data.   

“Data that looks at more empirical evidence and can point to specific interactions within an animal’s endocannabinoid system would be very helpful,” Brown said. “Looking at cannabis’s interactions with other ingredients in the animal’s diet and the safety of consumption are areas where we will hopefully begin to see further research.”   

SōRSE Technology markets water-soluble hemp-derived CBD emulsions in liquid and powder forms. Heirloom Pet Products, Richmond, Va., uses it in an array of pet products, including food toppers, bone broth and stick snacks. Free from THC and its psychoactive effects, the broad-spectrum, water-soluble ingredient is optimized for rapid bioavailability, according to the company.

“CBD extracts are oils, and oils can be tricky to work with [in treats] depending on the product being created,” Brown said. “The extracts are viscous and do not always disburse evenly, which can make accurate dosing difficult. The oil also takes more effort and time to digest.”

Oil “supplements” are a precise way of dosing for pets and humans; however, people typically consume oil by dipping it under their tongue. This is an effective way for the active compounds to enter the endocannabinoid system, but is not so effective with a dog or cat.

“CBD given in an edible delivery system offers an easy way for pet parents to administer to their pets,” said RaChelle Baca-Lobre, founder and global director of sales, Rover’s Wellness, Franklin, Tenn., a manufacturer of broad-spectrum oil. “That is why the trend is becoming so popular. Finding a clean delivery system is key. However, they do have to dose a bit higher, as the CBD/hemp oil/cannabinoids do not travel to the endocannabinoid system the same way that administering oil directly under the tongue or in the mouth would. Also, it is not possible to dose a medication in the pet’s food because you will be left wondering whether the pet got the proper dose — if they do not eat the entire portion — which happens a lot.”

Organic Full Spectrum Hemp Oil for dogs and cats offers support for pets with joint discomfort, mobility issues, digestive upset, anxiety and more.Organic Full Spectrum Hemp Oil for dogs and cats offers support for pets with joint discomfort, mobility issues, digestive upset, anxiety and more. (Source: Treatibles)

Broad-spectrum CBD contains CBD and other cannabinoids but no THC, while full-spectrum CBD contains CBD and all other cannabinoids, including trace amounts of THC (0.3% or less). Isolate CBD contains just CBD. 

NuLeaf Naturals, Denver, markets full-spectrum CBD pet oils. This whole-plant extract contains all of the naturally occurring synergistic cannabinoids and terpenes. The company uses US-grown organic hemp plants harvested at peak perfection. The company controls the entire farming and production process — from seed to shelf — to guarantee quality. Further, NuLeaf Naturals uses independent labs to confirm purity and potency, ensuring pets are ingesting safe and effective ingredients.

Regulations and education are critical in this space. Pet parents need to know that products they may be using can be dangerous to their pets. In addition, with relaxed laws around cannabis in many states, humans may be less concerned with leaving it out. Unfortunately, this means pets may be getting into their owners’ stashes and the results can be harmful.

Trupanion, a Seattle-based medical insurance provider for pets, is experiencing more than five-times the number of claims that involve cannabis ingestion than that of alcohol. THC can cause balance problems, irregular heartbeat, incontinence or worse. Even inhalation through second-hand smoke can be very dangerous to pets. Trupanion has also found that nearly 10% of marijuana toxicity claims for pets are paired with chocolate toxicity.

While there remain many questions regarding CBD and pets, most players in this space support regulations and certifications to ensure safety. For now, pet parents must decide if the purported health benefits outweigh the unknowns.

Keep up with the latest pet food trends on our Trends page.