Like many captive elephants, Nidia suffered from chronic foot problems. Cracks had formed on the 55-year-old Asian elephant’s foot pads and his toenails had become cracked and ingrown. Painful abscesses persisted for months. Nidia had lost her appetite and was losing weight.
Dr. Quetzalli Hernández, the veterinarian responsible for Nidia’s care at a wildlife park in Mexico, was desperate. He decided to try cannabidiol, or CBD, the non-intoxicating therapeutic compound found in cannabis.
For help, Dr. Hernández turned to Dr. Mish Castillo, the head veterinarian of the ICAN vets, a company engaged in veterinary cannabis training and research in Mexico. As far as Dr. Castillo knew, no one had purposely given medical cannabis to an elephant. But he and his colleagues hoped it would reduce Nidia’s pain and stimulate her appetite, as they had seen the drug do for cats, dogs and other species.
They started with a low dosage and eventually settled on a dose of 0.02 milligrams of CBD for every pound of Nidia’s weight, which she took every day with a piece of fruit. Calibrated based on weight, the dose is between one tenth and one fortieth of that administered by Dr. Castillo to dogs or cats. Yet it worked.
The first sign that the treatment was effective was when Nidia developed a severe case of the munchies. Within a few days of starting to take CBD, she went from finishing only a third of her food to practically all of it, and sometimes for just a few seconds. Within five weeks she had gained 555 pounds.
After Nidia started eating, her behavior changed. “She was always known as the grumpy one; she kicked doors,” Dr. Castillo said. “In the first week or 10 days after treatment, she started to get out of the pen faster and was less in a bad mood.”
Nidia’s abscesses also began to heal, likely thanks to the anti-inflammatory effects of CBD. For months, the pain in her feet had prevented the elephant from walking down a small hill to a drinking fountain in her enclosure, forcing her handlers to give her water in buckets and a hose. When her condition improved, she began visiting the fountain again.
“He continued to improve,” Dr. Castillo said. “We were amazed that this happened with such a low dose response, which led us to want it get this information out before vets start overdosing other species using the dog or cat dose. The correct dosage depends on species-specific differences in metabolism and variability between individuals, he added.