The other day my five-year-old Labrador was diagnosed with acute cannabis intoxication. I had been taking Olga for a walk on Hackney Downs when she disappeared behind an abandoned railway. I imagined she had found some fox shit and was rolling in it delightedly. Bad pooch! On the way home she began to stumble and fall over; half an hour later she was virtually unconscious. With Olga disoriented and whimpering in the car we drove to a vet in Canonbury.
The vet took one look at Olga. ‘Very subdued. Seems almost sedated. Most likely it’s a case of oral marijuana poisoning.’ Marijuana? ‘It’s got nothing to do with me,’ I said. My chocolate-brown retriever was now zonked on the table. The vet asked me to wait upstairs while he administered a sedative preparatory to inducing Olga to vomit to see what she might have eaten. Slug bait would show up green in the regurgitation, he explained; rat poison, blue.
What about cannabis?
‘Cannabis is harder to detect. We’d be looking for a tell-tale piece of shrink wrap. Odds are, Olga gobbled up a stash awaiting pick up. Hackney Downs, you say? She’s quite far gone, poor thing.’ Olga was put on a drip; the whites of her eyes were showing.
Upstairs in reception, I heard an aggressive barking followed by howling. ‘That can’t be Olga,’ I thought. ‘I know her bark.’ In fact she had responded badly to the Diazepam sedation which, combined with the likely cannabis, had evoked a ‘bizarre rage episode’ in her and attempts to bite the vet. Olga was having a bad canine trip, in short, with attendant paranoia, perhaps, and hallucinations.
A call to the Veterinary Poisons Information Service confirmed the vet’s suspicions. Labradors are scavenging creatures who will eat pretty well anything. The man who was supposed to pick up the stash must have been well pleased. Shit, man! Another Labrador. (Olga bites back at Hackney drug crime!) Actually, all over London, vets are reporting a rise in toxicity cases involving canines. After slug bait and chocolate, cannabis is among the most hazardous substances that a dog can ingest. The potent, Special Brew varieties of cannabis currently available to teenagers (skunk, haze) may take your dog to a far continent of anxiety, if not coma.
Comatose canines can choke on their vomit if left unattended, so they require overnight observation. At 5.30 p.m. (according to her clinical records), Olga was conveyed to a 24-hour veterinary practice in Pimlico. A matronlike woman there announced, ‘Your dog is stoned. We see at least one of these a month.’ Olga was looking better, though, if not exactly bright and beatifically attuned. She was kept warm and hydrated for the duration.
Shortly before midnight I telephoned to see how things were going. ‘Your dog’s a lot more alert. Less tense. Her temperature’s normal. Heartbeat’s fine. Breathing — fine.’
Any signs of aggression?
‘None that we can see.’
I imagined the dogs in their beds as they licked and rolled cigarette papers into spliffs.
‘How you feeling, dogs?’
‘We feel all right, matron.’
‘How all right?
‘All right all right, matron. Fulla vibes.’
Only rarely will a dog die from cannabis. Caroline Allen, chief vet at the Canonbury practice, recalled a ‘horrific’ recent case where an ambulance was called out to a party in Finsbury Park after a man was reportedly suffocating. ‘It turned out not to be a man but a Staffordshire bull terrier — the dog was brought to us in the ambulance.’ Caroline believed it had been deliberately drugged. ‘It had gone blue — its airway was so swollen that it couldn’t breathe.’ The dog’s life was saved after an operation under anaesthetic. ‘Once it was over the worst and the owner clearly wasn’t coming back we had to ask the RSPCA to rehouse him.’
Vets are not obliged to report cases of cannabis toxicity to the police; owners are anyway reluctant to reveal the cause of their pet’s glazed appearance. Mostly, dogs tend to pick up cannabis in parks. ‘They come to us with dilated pupils and high temperatures, twitchy, anxious, wobbly, sometimes ravenously hungry (dogs can get the munchies too) and even depressed. I’m afraid they really do look like they’re tripping,’ said Caroline Allen.
The effects of cannabis can last up to 72 hours in a dog; Olga’s was one of the most severe cases the vet had seen.
Lord Byron built a tomb for his pet labrador; Olga deserves a medal for having gone to pot in Hackney and survived.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 17, 2012