The Endocannabinoid System in Dogs and Cats

The Endocannabinoid System in Dogs and Cats

3/11/2024 | 6 minute read

Did you know that you and your pets share a similar bodily system called The Endocannabinoid System (ECS)?

Overall, the endocannabinoid system creates balance in the body through a series of receptors using naturally occurring endocannabinoids.

In recent years, ECS has become a hotbed of discussion for animals and humans alike because it offers a unique way of supplementing treatments for cancer, GI issues, and anxiety disorders in mammals.

Table of contents

How does the endocannabinoid system work?

The groundbreaking work surrounding the endocannabinoid system was first discovered in animal trials as early as 1991-1992, with scientists looking into the human use of cannabis and its effects on the nervous system.

How does the ECS work? The endocannabinoid system utilizes a series of receptor sites along the body's neural pathways. When the body reaches a state of panic or illness, an endocannabinoid molecule (similar in structure to that of a cannabis plant) reacts by positioning itself in the brain and the body’s neural pathways to relay calming messages and create homeostasis (balance) throughout the body.

When these pathways are functioning optimally, your dog's (or cat's) body will be better balanced and healthier.

CB1 and CB2 receptors in the endocannabinoid system

Diagram showing the endocannabinoid system in dogs with location of CB1 and CB2 receptors.
Diagram showing CB1 and CB2 receptors in a canine's endocannabinoid system.

Dogs have two types of endocannabinoid receptors: CB1 and CB2. Both receptors are known to have the same physical configuration, but their locations differ. CB1 receptors are found in the central nervous system, while CB2 receptors are found in the gut and immune cells.

In dogs, CB1 receptors are found in the cerebellum, the medulla in the brain, the peripheral nervous system, and reproductive tissues. They are also found in the following systems: cardiovascular, immune, and gastrointestinal.1 CB1 receptors in canines far outweigh the number in the human brain.

The CB2 receptors are found mainly in the cells of the immune system, the spleen, and the tonsils.

Acting alongside CB1 receptors (located in the brain) and CB2 receptors (in the gut), endocannabinoids help to control temperature, hunger, and even fear and anxiety.  

Working in tandem, these receptors and cannabinoids pair to help control feedback to the brain, turning on or off activity in the body's regulatory system. This system helps perform a multitude of critical tasks like healing a damaged gut, reducing stress, and assisting in healing injuries. It has even been shown to reverse the effects of aging on the brain.

The role of enzymes

The final part of the endocannabinoid system to mention is enzymes. In the ECS, enzymes are proteins that break down endocannabinoids in the body. Two major enzymes, fatty acid amide hydrolase and monoacylglycerol acid lipase, are responsible for this process.

Girl with brown hair smiling and holding small white dog in nature.
Two dogs relaxing on a gray dog bed in front of green plants.

Diving deeper: endocannabinoids, CBD, THC, and hemp

So, what’s the difference between the natural endocannabinoid system and introducing a product like CBD? To understand this, we must understand the different types of cannabinoids that can work with endocannabinoid receptors in the body.

  • Phytocannabinoids. The first type is a phytocannabinoid, a natural chemical found in cannabis from the hemp plant (an herb). You are probably familiar with common phytocannabinoids found in this herb, such as CBD and THC.

  • Endocannabinoids or “endogenous cannabinoids.” Endocannabinoids are naturally occurring molecules in mammals that work to create bodily homeostasis by relaying messages between the brain and body.

  • Synthetic cannabinoids. Lastly, synthetic cannabinoids are made by humans in a lab to imitate natural cannabinoids. This type of cannabinoid is extremely toxic to dogs and cats and should be avoided entirely.

Remember how dogs have more CB1 receptors than humans? This makes dogs more severely impacted by CBD and THC than humans. If you’re looking into CBD for your pets, it’s vital to choose THC-free products to get the most out of CBD without harming your pet.

What’s the difference between CBD and other phytocannabinoids? CBD is not psychoactive and instead boosts the function of natural endocannabinoids in your dog or cat's body. This can lead to positive impacts like decreased inflammation, improved appetite, better joint pain management, support for separation anxiety, and more.

Broad-spectrum CBD products for pets include phytochemicals from the entire hemp plant that benefit pets (like terpenes).

Some pet parents also choose to add hemp seed oil to raw dog food for a healthy source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, vitamin E, potassium, magnesium, and more. Hemp seeds or hemp seed oil are a great addition to a rotational raw diet!

The connection: diet and the endocannabinoid system

The link between the overall health of dogs and cannabinoids is incredible. How does this work?

Well, for dogs to maintain good health and function in the natural endocannabinoid system, they need a natural, whole food source to fuel them.

If you do not feed a high-quality food, provide the necessary omega-3 to omega-6 balance, or feed nutrient-dense meat and bone, your dog’s body cannot effectively activate the neurological pathways to activate the endocannabinoid system.

Tip! Even the addition of a CBD full-spectrum product will be far less effective when paired with highly processed kibble because the nutrients in the food are less bioavailable for your pet. Read more: Raw Dog Food vs. Kibble.

Daily, the canine body relies on fatty acids and enzymes to transport cannabinoid receptors, which help the dog heal successfully. By fueling them with a raw, whole food source like Oma's Pride Raw Pet Food, the dog's system can operate optimally.

Our personal favorites are Whole Sardines, a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, combined with other grass-fed, domestically sourced meats to keep our pets' systems healthy. Additionally, aging pets may need support with an external source of CBD for longevity.

The importance of a balanced endocannabinoid system for pets

Research demonstrates that optimizing our pets’ endocannabinoid system might just be a key to unlocking overall bodily health.

A balanced ECS can lead to better sleep, improved mood, less stress, regulated body temperature, pain management, appetite, fertility, and memory. Signs of an imbalanced ECS include aggression, lack of balance, bodily pain and inflammation, GI issues, vomiting, poor-quality sleep, and more.

The more we address health from the root with proper nutrition, exercise, and healthy lifestyle choices, the better our pets will be in the long run. The incredible endocannabinoid system is just one bodily operation out of many that need proper food and fuel support to operate optimally.

Why we choose Oma’s Pride raw food

We have chosen to work with and feed Oma's Pride products to our dogs because we want to provide our pets with the best sustainably sourced whole foods. All-natural raw food helps our pets' systems work optimally, allowing their bodies’ endocannabinoid systems to extend their longevity and health.

If you haven’t heard of Oma’s Pride, check them out! Here are some quick facts:

  • History. They are a 4th-generation family-owned & operated business.

  • Sourcing. They source ingredients from multi-generational, family-owned farms and USDA processors. Proteins are always USA-sourced and raised completely in the USA (except for some exotics like kangaroo), grass-fed, and antibiotic-free. All ingredients are human-grade!

  • Products. They have an extensive catalog of complete meals, signature mixes, freeze-dried products, ground proteins, raw meaty bones, chews, and supplements for cats and dogs.

  • Production. All ingredients arrive from USDA facilities and are crafted in small batches of 200 pounds or less in a USDA facility in Connecticut.

  • No HPP. All food is 100% raw. They use a natural technology called bacteriophaging to reduce or eliminate the presence of disease-causing bacteria.

  • Shipping. They ship frozen raw and freeze-dried products nationwide in the USA! You can also find Oma’s Pride products at your local independent pet retailer.

Dog smiling next to house, door mat, and delivery box.
White bowl filled with ground raw dog food surrounded by raw vegetables and meat.

Frequently asked questions

Do dogs have an endocannabinoid system?

Yes, dogs have an endocannabinoid system (ECS) that functions very similarly to the human ECS. In dogs, the system is responsible for creating bodily homeostasis by sending calming messages between the brain and body.

Do cats have cannabinoid receptors?

Yes, cats have cannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2, just like humans and other mammals. These receptors work to activate or deactivate the body’s regulatory system and perform vital functions like healing, improving aging, and decreasing stress.

Final thoughts

In the long term, we hope to understand this amazing system better so that pet parents and veterinarians alike can have an alternative way to address digestive disorders, cancers, pain, IBD, PTSD, inflammation, and even Parkinson's Disease. If we can tap into our pets’ natural systems, we can help heal the body without the potentially damaging use of high-potency drugs.

In dogs, we believe understanding the ECS could be a game-changer in addressing health from the core with whole foods, plants, and plant-derivative products to prevent and protect from disease progression and even support better aging in elderly dogs.


About the Authors

The Wholesome Dog comprises of Julielyn Gibbons of Michigan and Wendy Bengivenni of North Carolina. The Wholesome Dog is a resource for pet parents and professionals who want to learn how to best support their dogs to live their healthiest and longest lives possible. We provide information from both a science and holistic and integrative health and nutrition perspective to help your dogs thrive. Both Julielyn and Wendy are Certified Professional Canine Nutritionists via the Feed Real Institute. They are also cat and dog parents with a combined over 50 years of experience serving as medical professionals, advocates, and pet professionals across the country.

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