Cannabis to treat anxiety has become increasingly popular since marijuana was fully legalized in at least 22 states. For my friend Adrienne, who runs WholeNewMom, cannabis has been a lifesaver in helping her son. And now zookeepers in Poland are using cannabis to help two elephants overcome their anxiety. Cannabis to treat anxiety in elephants? Will it work?
Anxious elephants at the Warsaw Zoo
The elephants live at the Warsaw Zoo. Their names are Fredzia and Buba. Both females, Fredzia and Buba have been mourning the loss of the matriarch of their small herd. Thirty-five-year-old Erna, who was the biggest and most senior female, died this past March. Since Erna’s death, Fredzia and Buba have been anxious, unsure which of the two should replace her.
In the wild elephant groups are hierarchal. Elephants protect each other and their young, circling to keep predators from attacking their babies. Wild elephants take orders from other elephants. They have a multi-tiered, complex society, according to elephant expert Cynthia Moss. Older elephants will discipline youngsters who ignore orders. Moreover, chastised elephants, like human teenagers, may pout and act sullen.
The cannabis to treat anxiety in the two elephants is not psychoactive. Fredzia and Buba will be eating it in the form of hemp oil in their food. And zookeepers will also give the elephants hemp oil directly.
According to Notes From Poland, this is the first time elephants have been given cannabis to treat anxiety.
My friend’s daughter is 12 years old. She’s been feeling a lot of anxiety lately. With fears over coronavirus, social distancing, and masks, her daughter’s been overwhelmed by worry. My friend started giving her cannabis in the form of hemp oil drops to treat anxiety. Taking hemp has helped her feel more grounded and less afraid.
Will using cannabis to treat anxiety make you high?
Hemp oil, rich in CBDs, is usually not psychoactive. Correctly processed hemp contains less than 0.3 percent THC, the compound that makes you high.
The idea is not to have stoned elephants at the zoo, but to help the elephants feel less anxious.
Animal experts weigh in
Some veterinarians are championing this experiment. “I can think of no better natural remedy to help with anxiety in any mammalian species than the use of CBD oil, as long as the hemp plant source has been grown organically and relatively free of pesticides, heavy metals, and THC,” says Michael Dym, a holistic-minded veterinarian based in Palm Beach with over 30 years of clinical experience.
“Research has shown that mammals—and even most invertebrates—produce their own cannabinoids, which are involved in the maintenance of bodily health in multiple organ systems, especially the central nervous system where significant anxiety and pain reducing effects have been seen,” Dym says. “I’m excited to see how the surviving female elephants do taking hemp oil.” Dym adds that addressing the grief that animals exhibiting signs of anxiety feel may require other natural therapies.
But Karen Dawson, a veterinarian based in Brisbane, Australia, disagrees.
“The use of anti-anxiety medication in captive animals raises a number of ethical concerns and questions,” Dawson points out. She has practiced veterinary medicine for 26 years and is an expert in animal behavior. “Why is it required? What does success of treatment look like? Is it to make the animals’ lives better or to make them easier to manage?”
Stress in captivity
Dawson argues that animals in captivity feel stress and anxiety because they’re unable to engage in a range of natural behaviors, many of which humans don’t really understand. She’s concerned that treating elephants for anxiety with cannabis is oversimplifying a complex problem.
“At the core of elephant society is the ability to either form or disband social groups depending on the season, availability of resources, etc.,” Dawson explains. In the wild the two remaining females would likely go their separate ways to form their own family groups, she says.
In fact, the stress they’re exhibiting may come from being forced to stay together.
“Captivity obviously prevents the natural course of action the animals would take in the wild to resolve their situation,” Dawson says. “Therefore, is it right to consider the frustration and conflict associated with the thwarting of a natural behavior as anxiety requiring medical intervention?” Dawson says no.
Medicating our pets
There’s been a growing trend in the United States to treat pets with medication for psychological and behavioral problems. Many pet owner give their dogs and cats anti-depressants. In fact, veterinarians often recommend prescription drugs for their four-legged patients.
Paxil (paroxetine) is a selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitor. Animal doctors prescribe Paxil to treat canine and feline behavior problems including aggression, anxiety, compulsive disorders, and depression. Some vets will also prescribe it to keep horses from “weaving.” Weaving is when a horse compulsively walks in place, weaving its head from side to side. Horses weave when they feel stress.
As “natural” and popular as cannabis is these days, does giving animals cannabis to treat anxiety really make sense? Should we give dogs or horses anti-depressants?
Isn’t the better approach to treat the root causes of depression and anxiety in both elephants and humans?
As Dawson argues, those grieving elephants would certainly benefit from more exercise, a bigger arena, more daily stimulation, and a larger group.
But the keepers at the Warsaw Zoo may not agree. Apparently if their experiment using cannabis to treat anxiety in the elephants is successful, next up they’ll be giving it to the rhinos and then the bears.