(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Two years ago, Dingo was going to be put down. The 14-year-old basenji, in pain from arthritis in her neck and spine, could barely walk and wouldn’t eat. She suffered from anxiety and had early-stage kidney disease. Then she started taking cannabis.

Kelsey Brown, Dingo’s owner, decided to dose her with drops of CBD, or cannibidiol, three times a day, using a tincture that runs US$120 for a 1-ounce bottle. It was a last-ditch effort to ease the dog’s pain and anxiety before euthanasia became a reality. “Within a week she could actually jump on the couch again,” says Brown, a dog trainer in Mora, Minn.

Demand for CBD, a nonintoxicating compound found in hemp and marijuana, has exploded in the U.S. since December, when Congress passed a new farm bill that decriminalized industrial hemp. The CBD market could be worth almost US$24 billion in the U.S. alone by 2023, with about seven per cent of sales coming from the pet market, according to Brightfield Group, an industry researcher.

The regulatory situation is still murky for CBD—the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t yet ruled it’s safe to put it in food or drinks, and there are no approved pet products—and its benefits are largely unproven. But that hasn’t stopped pet owners from embracing it as an all-natural way to alleviate a wide range of creature ailments, including pain, arthritis, and anxiety, without getting them high.

Like Brown, whose Dingo is now 16 and thriving, many pet owners swear by the benefits of cannabis. Nadia Knight, a health-care worker from Portland, Ore., says vets in her area refused to talk about CBD, so she consulted “Dr. Google” before beginning to give her poodle mix CBD oil twice a day earlier this year. The dog’s near-daily vomiting episodes have all but stopped. Akanah Fallanassi, an animal caretaker in Germany, gives both his Goffin’s cockatoos CBD to ease anxiety that would normally have them chewing their feathers. For Karen Hayton of Vancouver, the hemp extract is a better alternative for her Havapoo than sedatives to calm the stress of going to the groomer. “It seems to relax him without making him spaced-out,” she says.

Embedded Image

In recent years, growth in the US$130 billion global pet market has been fueled by dog and cat owners’ willingness to spend heavily on premium products, such as grain-free foods or organic treats. Companies are wagering that CBD will become the next profit-boosting premium ingredient.

The US$400 million pet CBD market is fragmented: Startups are finding customers online and getting their products into some stores, while the large companies that dominate the pet market are waiting for the regulatory situation to be clarified. For example, at one of the larger U.S. brands, Therabis, a unit of the Denver-based marijuana company Dixie Brands Inc., co-founder Chuck Smith partnered with a veterinarian to create dog CBD products. The company’s Calm and Quiet, Up and Moving, and Stop the Itch have been on the market since 2017 and are sold in more than 100 stores.

Small brands could become buyout targets for the world’s biggest pet food sellers, including Mars, Nestlé, General Mills, and J.M. Smucker. Canopy Growth Corp., the world’s largest marijuana company, has partnered with Martha Stewart to develop CBD pet products. “Once the Purinas enter the space, they’re going to buy these guys out or take over major retail channels,” predicts Jamie Schau, a CBD research manager at Brightfield Group. Nestlé, the No. 2 pet-care company behind Mars, started selling a line of CBD products in April, offering capsules, oils, and sprays under its Garden of Life brand, which it acquired in 2017. One product, a 1-ounce bottle of peanut butter-flavored drops, sells for $35.99 on its website. Purina, Nestlé’s top pet brand, says it’s considering making CBD dog food.

Vets are prohibited by law from recommending CBD, according to Jim Penrod, executive director of the American Association of Veterinary State Boards. Absent formal advice, pet owners are developing do-it-yourself cannabis dosing programs, falling back on a basic premise: It seems like the stuff works, and there’s little risk of harm.

Anecdotal results are promising, but more research is needed to figure out if CBD can truly treat such things as pain and seizures in dogs, says Stephanie McGrath, a professor at Colorado State University’s veterinary teaching hospital who’s doing a clinical study on CBD. McGrath is relatively comfortable that the substance is safe for dogs, at least in the short term. But that assumes the hemp extract is free of contaminants and THC, the compound in hemp and marijuana that produces a high and is known to be harmful for dogs. She’s also skeptical of marketing that’s positioned CBD as a wellness panacea for pets. “The owners want to believe that it’s helping,” she says. “There’s a huge placebo effect.”

Such skepticism isn’t likely to slow CBD’s march into pet stores. Gregory Baumel, a chef who founded Cozy Bones, a line of CBD dog treats (US$22 for a dozen) made in Brooklyn, N.Y., is sanguine about the potential downsides of giving cannabis to a canine: “The worst thing that can happen? It will get the best nap of its life.”

Cannabis Canada is BNN Bloomberg’s in-depth series exploring the stunning formation of the entirely new – and controversial – Canadian recreational marijuana industry. Read more from the special series here and subscribe to our Cannabis Canada newsletter to have the latest marijuana news delivered directly to your inbox every day.