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Hemp for elephants: Inside the zoo giving anxious animals CBD



Warsaw Zoo is exploring the effects of CBD in elephants

CBD is widely thought to relieve stress and anxiety in humans – but what about elephants? Cannabis Health talks to veterinarian Dr Agnieszka Czujkowska, who is leading a groundbreaking project to find out.

Warsaw Zoo caused a stampede of media coverage last summer when it announced it was going to be testing the effects of CBD on its elephants.

The Hemp for Elephants project, which is thought to be the first study of its kind, aims to determine whether regular doses of CBD oil will reduce stress levels in the animals. If it proves to be successful, the zoo hopes to roll it out to other large mammals in its care, with giraffes, polar bears and rhinos all next in line.

But first, the eyes of the world will be on Fredzia, Fryderyk and Buba – the three elephants at the centre of the Polish zoo’s experiment.

The trio were thought to be the perfect candidates, when the zoo was approached by Polish CBD company Dobrekonopie at the beginning of last year.

Veterinarian, Dr Agnieszka Czujkowska, who is leading the project told Cannabis Health: “There’s always going to be an indication with elephants because they are really social creatures and they live in very complicated social groups.

“Elephants sometimes have various conflicts with each other – sometimes it’s the weather, sometimes it is caused by a changing environment – there are many factors that can make an elephant feel uncomfortable and stressed.”

After the death of Edna – the head of the zoo’s elephant herd – Fredzia was having trouble adjusting to her new position as the leader of the pack.

Dr Czujkowska said: “It’s not that there is an emergency in the group right now, because that would be the worst time to conduct this experiment, but we did have some changes. After our oldest elephant Edna died, they had to adjust to a new situation.

“Fredzia has always wanted to dominate and now she can, she’s in control of the other elephants so there is a little bit of stress involved.”

This combined with the fact that the elephants are in a small group, are well trained and the zookeepers know them all well, means it should be easier to monitor their behaviour during the project.

A pilot study was carried out first to measure the amount of cortisol, the hormone produced in the bodies of humans and animals in stressful situations, in the elephant’s saliva and determine which time of day it was highest.

For the study itself CBD hemp extracts will be mixed in with the elephant’s food or administered directly into their mouth at regular intervals.

Dr Czujkowska and her team will begin by following the guidance around dosage in horses – around 40-50 drops every six hours – and will then adjust this for each elephant throughout the project, collecting samples of their blood, faeces, saliva and urine to monitor the levels of cortisol.

“When you conduct an experiment like this, you have to have full control over the group,” she said.

“This is easy in the elephants because the keepers know them really well and they can catch the tiniest differences in their behaviour.”

She added: “We will expand into others such as giraffes, polar bears and rhinos.

“But these are wild animals and the problems that you have to solve are completely different from those in domesticated animals.”

Dr Czujkowska is hopeful that CBD could provide an alternative option to the strong pharmaceuticals that large animals are currently treated with.

“We have a whole pharmacy full of different drugs, but they are not natural and these drugs really change the animals’ behaviour,” she said.

“There are many antipsychotic drugs and true narcotics that you can use in elephants if you don’t have any other choice. For example, if you have to sedate or anaesthetise the animal or it’s a dangerous animal and you cannot approach it, or it has a huge wound that you have to clean every day and it’s not going to cope with the pain.

“Otherwise I think we should look for something natural, and CBD is a very potent substance so why not try it?

Dr Czujkowska continued: “We would rather work really hard through a lot of enrichment to manage the behaviour in the group and try CBD oils than just put them all on Prozac. That is not the solution.

“We have the people, we have the skills so we would rather work harder and give something natural a try, than just go for the easy option.”

The Hemp for Elephants study will be a long-term project, with Dr Czujkowska not expecting to be able to make the first conclusions until around one year down the line.

The study will also have to take into account environmental changes such as weather conditions and other outside factors that may impact on the elephants mood and behaviour.

“We might see that CBD solves some of our problems, maybe not all of the and maybe there will be some side effects. I don’t know and that’s the exciting part of the project,” she said.

“It’s not just about proving that it works. A project like this takes so much labour to collect all those samples and watch the animals, but it might benefit other elephants if people can look up the data and see the results for themselves.

“We thought let’s just try because it’s for the good of the animals, not just the science.”

CBD in the animal kingdom – what the research says

The use of CBD in animals is a growing area of interest and the internet is bursting with anecdotal evidence to suggest how it could help our furry friends – although so far the science to back it up is relatively thin on the ground.

In humans, cannabis is widely-thought to help relieve symptoms such as anxiety, chronic pain and to reduce seizures. Given how close we are to our pets, it was only a matter of time before people started to explore how it could be used to treat similar health concerns in the animal kingdom.

A study by Dr Stephanie McGrath at Colorado State University gave 14 dogs two daily doses of CBD oil for 12 weeks and the results showed a significant decrease in the number of seizures over this period.

Meanwhile Californian company Phyto Farmacy is marketing CBD oils for pain relief in farm animals, particularly horses.
A review of cannabis in veterinary medicine published last year by Dr Joshua Hartzel reported that although it has not seen the same advances as human medicine, there are now several university-based, clinical studies examining CBD from hemp extracts to measure its safety and pharmacokinetics, including the effect of hemp oil extracts on osteoarthritis and epilepsy.

The review concluded: “Due to the nearly universal distribution of the endocannabinoid system in all chordates, and in many invertebrates, the same or similar benefits of cannabinoids found in humans also can be applied to most veterinary species.”

Despite concerns around treating animals with cannabis, a study published by the Veterinary Information Network showed that 80 percent of dogs that were given CBD to help relieve pain and anxiety experienced no adverse effects. However, the British Veterinary Association is reluctant to support CBD use in animals until more evidence about its impact emerges.


Photos courtesy of Dr Agnieszka Czujkowska, Warsaw Zoo


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