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A Polish Zoo Is Using CBD To Treat Stressed Elephants

Zookeepers at Warsaw Zoo have announced plans start treating their herd of elephants with cannabidiol (CBD) in order to help them deal with the stress and grief of losing their alpha female earlier this year. CBD is currently used by many people around the world as a medication for anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), pain management and a range of other physical and emotional issues, yet its use in animals remains largely unexplored.

Elephants are known for their emotional intelligence and sensitivity, and their tendency to mourn the death of their kin is well documented. They are also matriarchal, which means that the elder females in the herd generally act as leaders, providing direction and comfort to younger elephants.

Sadly, Warsaw Zoo lost its elder female, Erna, in March of this year, and the three remaining elephants have been displaying signs of grief and depression ever since. Zookeepers are particularly worried about a young elephant named Fredzia, who they say has been heavily affected by Erna’s death.

Handlers at the zoo have measured levels of a stress hormone called cortisol in the blood, saliva and faeces of the elephants, and are now planning to start administering CBD to the three members of the herd, beginning with Fredzia. They will continue to monitor cortisol levels in order to determine if the cannabinoid helps to reduce the animals’ stress levels.

CBD and large animals

The use of CBD as a treatment for farm animals is a fairly controversial topic, as hardly any research has been conducted into the benefits and risks of doing so. In spite of this, there is good reason to believe that it can treat inflammation, pain, anxiety and epilepsy in animals, just as it does in humans.

Over the last few years, CBD has become popular among horse owners, with many anecdotal reports suggesting that it helps the animals remain calm while being transported, as well as reducing pain and inflammation in their joints.

Though there is little scientific data to back this up, one case report that appeared in the journal Equine Veterinary Education described a four-year-old mare that showed signs of extreme pain whenever anyone touched its neck or shoulders, despite the absence of an obvious injury. After all conventional pain medications failed, the horse was started on a course of CBD treatment, which resulted in the problem completely resolving itself after just two days[i].

Researchers from Tarleton State University in Texas are currently conducting a study into the efficacy of CBD as a treatment for inflammation, stress and stereotypical negative behaviours in horses, with the results expected to be announced next year[ii].

CBD and pets

It’s fair to say that vets are divided in their opinion regarding the use of CBD as a treatment for pets, largely because there have been no proper studies into its safety or efficacy. That said, a few small studies have indicated that it could be used to alleviate certain conditions in dogs.

One paper that appeared recently in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science found that dogs with osteoarthritis became more active after being treated with CBD, while also appearing to be in less pain[iii]. Importantly, none of the dogs experienced any side-effects, suggesting that CBD is generally safe for pooches.

A separate study found that CBD caused a decrease in the frequency of seizures in dogs with treatment-resistant epilepsy. However, it’s important to note that some of the dogs involved in this trial had to be removed from the study after they developed side-effects such as ataxia[iv].

While there are still many gaps in our knowledge of how pets respond to cannabis, it is thought that dogs have a higher concentration of cannabinoid receptors than humans, which makes them more sensitive to the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)[v]. For this reason, it’s important to never let your dog get its paws on any cannabis products that contain this cannabinoid.

For now, though, all eyes are on Warsaw, where the results of this unique experiment should help to answer some big questions about the effects of CBD on large mammals. If the trial is a success, then zookeepers say they plan to use CBD to alleviate stress and anxiety in some of their other animals, including bears and rhinos.

[i] Ellis KL, Contino EK. Treatment using cannabidiol in a horse with mechanical allodynia. Equine Veterinary Education. 2019 Sep 5. – https://beva.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/eve.13168

[ii] https://today.tamu.edu/2020/02/12/hemp-for-horses-tarleton-researcher-investigating-benefits/

[iii] Gamble LJ, Boesch JM, Frye CW, Schwark WS, Mann S, Wolfe L, Brown H, Berthelsen ES, Wakshlag JJ. Pharmacokinetics, safety, and clinical efficacy of cannabidiol treatment in osteoarthritic dogs. Frontiers in veterinary science. 2018 Jul 23;5:165. – https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fvets.2018.00165/full?fbclid=IwAR1S16ZSa-DktbvZ1wHFczaD_JV8Eg8mjQqtlNJi8Z0t0xpBGskl2J364no

[iv] McGrath S, Bartner LR, Rao S, Packer RA, Gustafson DL. Randomized blinded controlled clinical trial to assess the effect of oral cannabidiol administration in addition to conventional antiepileptic treatment on seizure frequency in dogs with intractable idiopathic epilepsy. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2019 Jun 1;254(11):1301-8. – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31067185/

[v] Gyles C. Marijuana for pets?. The Canadian Veterinary Journal. 2016 Dec;57(12):1215. – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5109620/

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Ben Taub