Fifteen years ago, I went out to buy a Christmas tree in the Adelaide hills and came home with a rescue kitten instead. My boyfriend at the time was not impressed. It’s sort of a long story.
On a sunny Wednesday afternoon last month, that much older cat of fifteen years lost the ability to walk. By the afternoon, she was completely paralysed and I rushed her in to see the vet.
Prognosis? Not good.
Definitely neurological. Cause undetermined.
After a short exam, the vet advised me to take her to a cat neurologist if ‘money is no object”.
Unfortunately for Charli, money is in fact an object in our house and we simply do not have enough of it to take her for spinal taps and MRI's with a cat neurologist. Especially since my little mouser just turned fifteen, the vet in no uncertain terms recommended that I take her home, make her comfortable and hope to see improvement in her function (which his face told me he seriously doubted). If not, then I needed to consider euthanasia as a serious option.
The best he could do was provide fluids and sent me home to discuss the options with my husband, since I refused to put her to sleep without him there.
Somehow, she survived the night, but was barely clinging to life and twitching uncontrollably. She managed to drag herself into my closet and I thought for sure I would find her cold body amongst my shoes in the morning. I thought she had gone blind, as she didn't flinch or respond to my hand in front of her face.
With a broken heart, I made the decision the first thing the next morning to release her from her pain. Unfortunately, we couldn't get her in to be euthanized until later that day.
My husband gently asked me one question "Are you sure you are ready to let her go?"
My husband knows I am a realist who prefers to end a pet's suffering rather than needlessly extending their natural life. He also knows that I have had Charli since I was 20 years old. She has lived with me in seven different houses on two continents. She has been by my side through good times and bad. She is the very last of my three rescue pets I brought with me when I moved from Australia to California.
I mulled this over.
No, I wasn't ready to let her go.
No, I didn't want her to suffer this way.
No, I didn't have thousands of dollars to spend on definitively diagnosing her neurological problem (which most likely couldn't be fixed).
Yes, she did seem to be stubbornly clinging to life.
What could I do?
In my desperation, a vague idea started to form in the corners of my mind. Of the possibilities the vet had described as the potential cause of her symptoms, I reasoned the most likely was a brain tumor. Right before my nana died from breast cancer in 2013, several friends had sent me information on how medicinal marijuana could be used to treat cancer. I had read numerous articles and watched documentaries on the ability of cannabidiol (CBD) in Cannabis to shrink tumors.
Could this work for my cat? What did I have to lose? I didn't even know for sure if she actually had a brain tumor, or whether she had had a stroke or a bacterial/viral infection such as meningitis which were other possible causes of her symptoms. None of these suspected causes had a particularly good outcome. But, she purred when I stroked her fur, and I knew she was still in her poor, frozen body.
By the time early afternoon on Thursday had rolled around, Charli had actually shown some improvement and had regained a little strength in her front legs. I agreed to give her the weekend to try to rest and recover, as long as she wasn't in copious amounts of pain, and look into CBD oil as a treatment alternative.
CBD oil is made from Cannabis strains high in CBD and low in THC (the compound that gets people stoned). Thus, CBD oil typically doesn't get users high. It is purely for therapeutic benefit, without the harsh side effects that you typically find with prescribed pharmaceutical drugs.
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Now - I've never been a pot smoker. Thanks to the 'Just Say No' campaign in the 80's, I thought marijuana was a terrible and destructive drug for a long time. I have witnessed firsthand, people very close to me that have had some pretty serious problems with pot.
My viewpoint has shifted in recent years however, simply due to education. Now that I live in California, the laws and the attitudes towards both medicinal and recreational marijuana use are very different than in Australia.
I have a dear friend who has Multiple Sclerosis. Medicinal marijuana has immensely relieved the severity of her symptoms and provides excellent daily pain relief for her. It's incredible to watch the immediate effect marijuana has on her physically when she has a spastic attack. She goes from being cramped up and basically unable to move or get around, to relaxed and 'normal' within minutes. It does so without the harsh side effects that come with the many pills she must take each day. It is also more cost effective in the long run – some of her prescribed medications cost thousands of dollars each month in the United States.
Whilst it essentially amounted to a shot in the dark, we made the decision to treat our cat with CBD oil, since the alternative was obviously to put her out of her misery. We started her on CBD oil the following Monday.
It's surprisingly easy to get CBD oil in California – you can order it online these days, although you have to do your due diligence and find a quality product.
I have to say – the results were ASTONISHING. Her right pupil had been dilated for days (a possible indicator of a brain tumor) and went back to normal the day after she started on the CBD oil. Within four days of starting on CBD oil twice a day, Charli started to eat and drink on her own again. Prior to that, she had been refusing all food and water and I had to keep her hydrated (and alive) by using a baby syringe to get water down her throat.
Five days after starting on the CBD oil, she was able to use her front legs again and was able to slowly sit up and prop herself up against walls and furniture, even though her back legs still did not work. The following day, her back legs started to work again, but she was weak and wobbly and struggled to take more than a few steps. A full week after starting on CBD oil, our cat was up and walking again – albeit tentatively.
All in all, our lively and friendly cat spent two weeks in our bedroom ICU, confined to a towel on a pee pad, unable to move or get to her food or kitty litter. Our vet did not have an expectation of a positive outcome for her. Things were not looking good.
Cannabis saved her life.
A month on, and Charli is 95% her previous self. She shows no real signs of any illness. She can jump up on chairs again. Her appetite and toileting habits are back to normal. Her head tic is gone. Her pupils are back to normal. Because I've had her for so long, I can see that she doesn't walk quite as well as she once did, but most people wouldn't know otherwise. She has resumed her life of luxury and spends her days sunning herself in the window, or lounging on the couch.
If I hadn't seen it myself, I wouldn't believe it. The change was MIRACULOUS. My fifteen year old cat was dead. D.E.A.D. Medicinal marijuana changed that. After we started the treatment, several friends shared their own stories and told me they are convinced they have been able to keep their pets alive by including CBD oil in their diet. Multiple people admitted to treating their older cats and dogs upwards of the past three years.
It got me thinking – why didn't I know about this? Why isn't medicinal marijuana widely used to treat very serious health problems in both people and pets, when there appears to be a wealth of anecdotal evidence in support of it? Wil Anderson for example, has been very candid about his support of Cannabis for medicinal use, and his long term struggles with chronic pain.
Here's a fun fact. Did you know that the US Government owns Patent no. 6,630,507 for the pharmaceutical use of Cannabinoids as an antioxidant and neuroprotectant? This patent was filed in 1999 and approved in 2003. Fairly interesting stuff, given the history of the war on drugs in the United states. The very first patent in the US for isolating CBD dates back to 1942.
According to the Australian Hemp Party, Cannabis possession is illegal except under certain circumstances in each Australian state or territory. However, the laws vary widely between the states.
The Turnbull government purportedly wants to enable the safe and legal distribution of medicinal cannabis, with the aim for it to become a standardized medicine like any other.
There are many prominent medical professionals in Australia who support reform when it comes to the use of Cannabis for medicinal use. Dr Alex Wodak AM, is a notable advocate of drug reform laws and believes the basic problem is the negative attitudes to medicinal cannabis hanging over from the prohibition of recreational cannabis.
Controversial Sydney doctor, Dr Andrew Katelaris "The Pot Doctor" has treated many people with Cannabinoids in the last decade, and says he has seen children go from wheelchairs to pushbikes after treatment. "There has been considerable publicity in Australia concerning medical cannabis as more people are being successfully treated for a range of serious conditions.
"It was originally proposed that there be an independent office of medical cannabis to oversee the growing, production and distribution of medical cannabis. However, Australians can only source expensive, overseas, 'approved' cannabis. A licence has been issued for local growing but it is still under TGA control."
The TGA has approved one medicinal cannabis product for use, Sativex, but no stock is held locally in Australia.
There are in the vicinity of 800 natural chemicals in the cannabis plant including approximately the 100 referred to as cannabinoids. Our bodies naturally produce endocannabinoids and therefore we have receptors in our brain and body which the cannabinoids in cannabis can easily bind to.
Laurence E Mather, DMedSc, Emeritus Professor of Anaesthesia at The University of Sydney is a researcher in pain management and was able to explain to me the basic science of why cannabinoids have a range of therapeutic benefits and why it has been so hard to regulate.
The essence is not complicated. The nub of the issue is that various components of the cannabis plant have been found over very many years to be useful as medications by humans. This is essentially the same as have been found for innumerable other plants used as medications, think, as examples, morphine-type chemicals in opium, digitalis-type chemicals in foxglove, atropine type chemicals in belladonna, etc. Folkloric preparations evolved over centuries if not millennia, and when science caught up, synthetic or at least semi-synthetic versions of such.
There are several issues, however, that need amplification. Because of its being from a natural plant source, the chemical composition of any cannabis preparation is likely to depend on the plant strain, growing conditions, harvesting conditions, apart from the medicament making process, and thus could be of uncertain pharmacological outcome.
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The mode of administration also alters the chemical composition that ultimately gets into the body, and this too has implications for effect. The nature of the condition being treated, as well as variability in the conditions being treated in that individual, also can lead to uncertainty in outcomes and successes.
Hence, hard evidence for effectiveness of cannabinoid pharmacotherapy is problematic, and this creates difficulties for regulatory bodies. Anecdotal evidence and the like is not regarded particularly highly by regulatory authorities.
And what does Professor Mather think about the use of Cannabis in the treatment of animals?
"Sure, why not? The endogenous cannabinoid system seems to be ubiquitous amongst mammalian species and the successfulness of such treatments would seem to be just as likely as with humans. But then again, so do all of the uncertainties and variables."
Whilst it might not have been particularly scientific, my experiment with CBD oil saved my cat's life. And that's all the science I need.