Irish entrepreneur David Hartigan was first exposed to CBD — a compound naturally found in cannabis that has medical benefits but won’t get you high — when managing professional fighters who were using it for recovery, sleep and healing. One of them had given CBD to his dog, who was on ineffective painkillers.
“The vet recommended he be put down, but instead he used CBD and it worked wonders,” says Hartigan. “He lived another two and half years.”
Intrigued, Hartigan investigated the CBD market and went on to launch Hemp Heros, a human and pet CBD startup that is now Ireland’s leading pet CBD brand. It offers seven products — in oil, capsule and peanut butter form — for dogs, cats and horses.
A budding industry
CBD has proven benefits for joint pain, anxiety, inflammation, skin problems and neurological disorders like epilepsy in humans. While there is less data available for pets, studies show it can relieve osteoarthritis in dogs, with some able to come off medication for chronic pain.
Heidi Whitman, a UK-based former global strategy director at Avida Global, a producer of medicinal cannabis oil, says demand will only grow in the future. Obesity, which is a growing problem in pets, often leads to arthritis, she says, adding that consumer awareness about CBD will also put pressure on vets to include it in their repertoire.
“This industry is in the millions heading for the billions,” Whitman predicts.
This industry is in the millions heading for the billions
Cannabis has a foothold in European veterinary practice. In France, the seed oil has been used to treat sores in dogs’ ears and in Italy it has been used for colic and urinary pain.
In Scotland and England, it has been applied in veterinary practice for its opium-like properties and its abilities to treat asthma, convulsions, cough, cystitis and tetanus. While CBD products are currently not authorised in the UK for veterinary use, according to the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD), under the provisions of the veterinary medicines prescribing cascade, vets may be able to prescribe a legally obtained human CBD product.
Switzerland-based cannabis manufacturer Formula Swiss is seeing major demand in the Nordics, Germany and the UK, according to its CEO and cofounder Robin Roy Krigslund-Hansen. He adds it is also seeing demand for CBD in forms like pet food or sticks, and for differently flavoured products.
But growth is bringing challenges, including issues with quality.
There are so many links on the CBD supply chain where quality can be lost
“CBD is such a new industry that there are a lot of bad actors and low quality brands,” says Hartigan. “We have had customers that tried CBD and it didn’t work, and I know of brands that have no actual CBD in their products. There is a lot of fraud and if people have a negative first experience you have to win them back.”
Whitman recommends all CBD products should have a certificate of analysis from a third party. “There are so many links on the CBD supply chain where quality can be lost,” she says.
Sceptical of the white label model — where products are sourced and manufactured by third parties and then simply packaged and branded — Hemp Heros has taken control of its supply chain to ensure quality and scalability.
Hartigan says most of the CBD industry uses either CO2 or ethanol extraction, which effectively flush hemp to extract active ingredients — the cannabinoids. But this technique is expensive and not without risks. Ethanol is a flammable solvent, and any residue can cause serious health implications, including blindness.
Hemp Heros developed a cold press method, effectively juicing raw hemp under intense pressure, giving a cleaner, better quality product. Hartigan decided to own the whole supply chain — from “seed to shelf” — to control costs, provide the foundation to scale internationally and guarantee quality.
However, there are still challenges around stigma and scepticism, especially among vets.
While safe dosages for human use have been assessed and calculated, the safe dosages for the various species and sizes of animals have not been determined.
Hemp Heros is pursuing clinical studies with a veterinary college to explore CBD’s impact on arthritis, a common problem for dogs and for which strong anti inflammatories can cause problems like liver damage over the long-term.
Hartigan hopes that with clinical data, and an end-to-end supply chain, Hemp Heros will expand into the UK, Germany, Italy, France and Malta.
Formula Swiss is also collaborating with researchers at the University of Bologna to develop their own clinical studies to support its marketing claims on the impact of cannabinoids on animals, says Krigslund-Hansen.
For startups in this still-forming market, the challenge ahead is to tackle bias and stigma, while regulators and governments need to ensure the appropriate standards and governance to ensure safety and quality.
This article first appeared in our monthly Unleashed pet tech newsletter, a collaboration with Purina Accelerator Lab. All content is editorially independent. Sign up to our newsletter here to keep up to date with the latest goings on in the European pet tech industry.