Animals who use drugs

Humans clearly use drugs for pleasure, not just to remove withdrawal symptoms if you’re addicted. Alcohol is a solvent, dissolving anxieties and making it easier to socialize; marijuana has a variety of pleasant effects depending on the consumer (I tend to giggle and get a bad case of munchies); and psychedelic drugs truly can give you an idea about what your neurons are capable of producing.

What we don’t often realize is that, as a new piece at the Animal Cognition site emphasizes, drug use is not a rarity in the animal world. Now I’m not talking here about animals self-medicating  by ingesting various natural remedies, such as primates’ use of plants to eliminate internal parasites and microbes. Rather, I’m talking about the use of drugs for fun. We all know about one such drug: catnip (Nepeta cataria), which some domestic cats (including my last one) love to sniff, lick, and eat. Yes, the active chemical (nepetalactone) is said to mimic cat pheromones, but it would be hard to deny that the cats—including big cats like tigers—really enjoy using the stuff.

But the site gives other examples (with references) of animals using drugs for fun. I’ll just list them, as you can read the piece for yourself, and put up two videos:

  • Cows grazing on locoweed (it’s toxic but seems addictive)
  • Bighorn sheep gnawing lichens off rocks; the lichens are said to affect the sheep’s behavior, and perhaps cause hallucinations
  • Cervids eating psychedelic mushrooms, including fly agaric, which makes them intoxicated
  • Wallabies eat opium! Wallabies are said to cause serious damage to legal opium-poppy fields in Australia. After the marsupials get high, they “run around in circles, then they crash”.
  • Bees preferentially drinking ethanol over unfermented saps and nectars. Sadly, really drunken bees are killed by their nestmates, probably because their aberrant behavior suggests that they’re ill.
  • Australian lorikeets get drunk on fermented nectars, as do many primates.

Now I’m not saying that all these animals take “drugs” because they enjoy the effects. They could be attracted to other things, like flavors, and the drunkenness could be a side effect of that. Or they could be seeking out botanical remedies that have intoxicating side effects. But at least in the case of catnip and the two examples below, it seems as if the animals really enjoy it! And why not? Who knows whether members of another species might, like our own, enjoy altering their consciousness.

Here’s one I didn’t know:

Dolphins have been observed on multiple occasions carrying puffer fish in their mouths, squeezing them, and passing them along to other dolphins. It is speculated that the dolphins are trying to get the puffer fish to release a small burst of neurotoxin, which puts them into a trance-like state.

This behavior was recorded in a BBC documentary produced by zoologist Robert Pilley, who commented “This was a case of young dolphins purposefully experimenting with something we know to be intoxicating. After chewing the puffer and gently passing it round, they began acting most peculiarly, hanging around with their noses at the surface as if fascinated by their own reflection. The dolphins were specifically going for the puffers and deliberately handling them with care. Dolphins seem to be experts on how to prepare puffers and how to handle them.” Since the toxin released by the puffer fish is deadly in large doses, the dolphins would indeed need to handle the fish delicately in order to avoid lethal poisoning.

Have a look at this video, and you tell me.  “Hey, Joe, don’t bogart that puffer!”

And we’ve all seen this BBC video of drunk monkeys. I suggest that they really like getting tipsy.

Some of the animals that indulge in ethanol become dependent on it, showing signs of addiction. When given the option, chimps will consume enough alcohol on a regular basis to experience withdrawals when access to the alcohol is removed. Fruit flies show a preference for solutions containing ethanol, and the higher the ethanol level, the better. Because of this and the fact that they will return to “binge drinking” even after long periods of being denied alcohol, fruit flies are considered a suitable animal model for studying alcoholism.  It’s interesting to note the relation that alcohol consumption has on fruit fly sexuality, and vice versa. Fruit flies that are sexually deprived tend to drink more alcohol, and when they are continuously drunk, male flies will display homosexual behaviors.

h/t: Nicole Reggia


  1. joyandorla
    Posted September 28, 2016 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    When I lived in Costa Rica, cattle would munch the hibiscus and get stoned.

    Also, my Chihuahua was put on Prednisolone for back issues, and it turned a sweet and timid dog into a hostile, aggressive PITA. He’s off the stuff now, and has returned to his old self.

  2. GBJames
    Posted September 28, 2016 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Humans take drugs because they enjoy it. Humans are animals. It seems to me that the burden would be on those who say other animals don’t do it for that reason would need to show evidence for why humans would be different from all the rest in this regard. Nobody doubts that animals eat their food to satisfy hunger, after all.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted September 28, 2016 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

      Saying that humans take drugs because they enjoy it strikes me as an oversimplification. There are plenty of instances when humans take recreational drugs even when they know they’re probably not going to enjoy the immediate effects nearly as much as they’re going to regret the aftereffects. But they do it anyway for a variety of reasons that don’t directly relate to the pleasure induced by the drug.

      I expect animals also have multiple reasons for consuming drugs, some of which are not related to the anticipation of pleasure. One difference between us and animals is that we’re better able to foresee the unpleasant aftereffects and (sometimes) avoid overindulging for that reason.

      So I’d hesitate to conclude that animals take drugs because it’s fun. Rather, they might in some cases have a sort of non-pleasurable compulsion to indulge, which they’re less able to resist than we are.

      At least that’s the impression I get from watching my cats use catnip. The state it puts them into does not seem to me to be a pleasurable state, but rather one of hyperactivity, anxiety, and distress. But they can’t seem to help eating it anyway. So I stopped giving it to them, because it’s not fun for me to see them like that.

      • GBJames
        Posted September 28, 2016 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

        “Saying that humans take drugs because they enjoy it strikes me as an oversimplification.”

        Well, that’s why I’m going to have an Octoberfest in a while.

        I didn’t, after all, say there were no other reasons to take drugs. But that is mostly why people drink wine with dinner and whole those who smoke weed do so. Why would this be unique to humans? Why is your cat’s desire for catnip different from my Octoberfest? (My Mormon colleague doesn’t think it is fun to see me enjoying a beer but that doesn’t mean I’m not enjoying the beer.)

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted September 28, 2016 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

          Someone downthread mentioned coffee, so let’s consider that for a moment.

          It’s a truism that a cup of coffee rarely tastes as good as the ground beans smell. There’s just something about the smell of ground coffee that says “Drink me!” but the actual drinking doesn’t live up to the hype, and the caffeine buzz can be downright unpleasant for some of us. (And don’t get me started on kidney stones.)

          I’m suggesting that catnip might be like that for cats. The smell promises a world of pleasure that the actual consumption doesn’t deliver. I think it would be wrong to says that cats eat it for fun if the fun isn’t forthcoming. Rather, they eat it because they find the smell irresistible, regardless of whether the resulting experience is pleasant or not.

          From an adaptationist point of view, catnip doesn’t need to make cats happy in order to flourish. It just needs to make cats eat it, and make humans happy to watch cats eat it.

          • GBJames
            Posted September 29, 2016 at 6:30 am | Permalink

            “…for some of us.”

            Yes, for some of you. But not for most of us.

            I’m off in a moment to pick up my daily 2-3 cups of black coffee from my corner shop. I drink it because I like it (assuming it is good coffee, properly prepared). The caffeine doesn’t affect me too much. But the point is that I enjoy it.

            I don’t know how you can persist in the assertion that humans are somehow unique in the animal kingdom and that we’re the only ones who use drugs because we enjoy it. (At least most of us, most of the time.)

            Does catnip rely on cats to survive? I didn’t know that. Alcohol and marijuana don’t require humans to exist. They just happen to have an affect that many enjoy. I suspect the same is true for catnip. And puffer fish.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted September 29, 2016 at 11:28 am | Permalink

              Perhaps I’m not being clear. I made no assertion that humans are unique in using drugs for enjoyment. My argument is that the reasons why humans use drugs are more complicated than simple enjoyment, and the same is likely to be true for animals.

              Since Jerry asked specifically about catnip, I offered an alternative hypothesis for why cats eat catnip that doesn’t depend on enjoyment, and seems to explain my cats’ behavior better than the enjoyment hypothesis does. The fact that you like beer and coffee (and by the way, so do I) doesn’t refute that hypothesis.

              • GBJames
                Posted September 29, 2016 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

                OK. But you did say “I’d hesitate to conclude that animals take drugs because it’s fun.” Which is what I’m responding to. I can’t see why this is any more true for non-human animals than it is for the human ones. And there is plenty of evidence that human animals very commonly do it for pleasure.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted September 29, 2016 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

                I gave a reason why it might be more true for non-human animals in the preceding sentence: “One difference between us and animals is that we’re better able to foresee the unpleasant aftereffects”.

                In other words, our calculus of fun is more sophisticated than theirs, so we’re less likely to be lured into an unpleasant experience by an enticing stimulus.

              • GBJames
                Posted September 29, 2016 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

                I’d think that an inability to foresee bad consequences would be supportive of the idea that something was being done for pleasure.

                In any case, your argument relies on non-human animals lacking memory, something which they demonstrably do. The fact that cats go back repeatedly to the catnip (I assume, I don’t have any myself to know for sure) would suggest that the want to go back for more of what they had before.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted September 29, 2016 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

                I don’t think anything I’ve said implies that animals lack memory.

                On the other hand, I don’t think we need to invoke pleasant memories to explain why a cat who’s attracted to catnip once will be attracted to it twice. In fact, if the degree of interest displayed is similar on both first and subsequent encounters, I’d take that as evidence against the hypothesis that memory is a significant factor in the attraction.

                In any case, I’ll leave it there, to avoid testing the limits of Rool 9.

            • Posted September 29, 2016 at 11:50 am | Permalink

              And there’s the other side too. I cannot stand the smell of coffee, and hence have never drunk it.

              I also taste something in booze that I take it is the ethanol (it is the one taste in common in all the drinks I’ve tried, so I assume …) It isn’t enough to put me off drinking them, but I have them rarely and then only in small amounts.

              I also don’t like beer because it is too bitter. Both coffee and the “mysterious booze” item are bitter in a way too, so I wonder if I am just very bitter-sensitive.

            • Posted September 29, 2016 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

              GBJames, I agree. I really like the taste of good coffee. I drink four or five double espressos a day, that I make using good Italian espresso in a good semi-automatic machine. As far as I can tell, the caffeine has very little effect on me. I never get a “buzz” from it. And friends are astonished that I can have two or more double espressos after dinner and go right to sleep!

              • GBJames
                Posted September 29, 2016 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

                According to 23andMe, coffee consumption is a greatly influenced by genetics. (I, too, can drink coffee in the evening without sleep problems. But I rarely do since I only really enjoy it in the morning. Dunno why that is.)

                “The CYP1A2 gene contains instructions for an enzyme that breaks down many substances, including caffeine. This enzyme is one of many cytochrome P450 enzymes.”

                “The AHR gene contains instructions for a protein that helps regulate the amount of certain proteins. One of these proteins is an enzyme, called CYP1A2, that is involved in breaking down caffeine.”

              • Posted September 30, 2016 at 11:24 am | Permalink

                GBJames: If that’s so I’ve been pulled in two directions. My father has tried it but never wants to drink it again, and my mother is “addicted” to even the “decaffeinated” variety.

              • GBJames
                Posted September 30, 2016 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

                Depends on how the genes got shuffled for you, Keith. Are you a coffee drinker?

              • Posted October 3, 2016 at 11:36 am | Permalink

                No. I’ve never even tried, since it smells so awful. A friend years ago took me to a Starbucks, and she said something like “Isn’t this smell wonderful? Don’t you just love the vanilla?” And I replied, “Yes, the vanilla is nice, but the *other* smell, the coffee, is ghastly.”

  3. nickswearsky
    Posted September 28, 2016 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    I studied chimpanzees in western Tanzania. There I met a fellow named Mike Huffman, an American scientist from Japan who was studying chimps use of medicinal plants. His Tanzanian assistant was also a local herbal healer, who pointed out the uses of certain non-food plants that some chimps ate when they were clearly ailing. Very neat stuff. I believe he was funded in part by Japan pharma companies. I believe at least one antihelminthic drug came out of this research.

    • Posted September 30, 2016 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

      These events deserve a book/movie!

  4. garthdaisy
    Posted September 28, 2016 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    Psilocybin mushrooms grow abundantly in horse and cow pastures hidden in the long grass. No doubt the horses and cows gobble them up regularly. Not sure what effect it has on them. In high doses psilocybin produces an almost effect in humans that is almost universally reported. A feeling of “oneness with nature.” In lower doses it has been shown to increases spacial awareness in a way that enhances athletic abilities.

    Moreover psilocybin mushrooms seem to follow humans around. If you’re looking for magic mushrooms, don’t go out into the woods. Look in human landscaped areas. They love beauty bark especially.

    Perhaps psychoactive chemicals in plants are a way in which nature communicates with itself. Recent science in mycelium is revealing an incredible relationship with the entire earth. They are now calling it “the brains of the forrest.” Hmmm. And it follows humans around and makes us feel at one with nature when we ingest it.

    Smokem if you gotem.

  5. Flemur
    Posted September 28, 2016 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always felt sorry for this elephant:
    LSD Related Death of an Elephant

    My daughter’s rat terrier ate a bunch of pot and seemed to be having the time of his life for about 30 minutes, after which he was drooling and could barely stand up. He never ate pot again.

    • Zado
      Posted September 28, 2016 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

      All things in moderation.

      Also, pertaining to your comment above about Doc Ellis, I can personally verify that a moderate dose of LSD does not cause motor impairment. Quite the opposite, in fact.

      • Flemur
        Posted September 28, 2016 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

        I can personally verify that “moderate dose” (actually ‘microdosing’ in that link) is the key, not necessarily to motor impairment but to “Is this real? Am I real? Why am I here and why am I doing this? And what is ‘this’?” while staring in wonder at the baseball in your hand.

      • Zado
        Posted September 28, 2016 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

        Yes indeed. I define moderate as “anything less than completely losing your mind.” For Doc, judging by his recollection, that was well within the psychedelic range. But then, he was operating in a familiar situation and had had quite a bit of experience with the drug beforehand. For most people it would be ill-advised to down so much so cavalierly.

        Remember kids, when it comes to psychedelics, you can’t take too little; you can only take too much!

  6. Posted September 28, 2016 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    I have a friendly feral cat goes out of his way to nest in my catnip patch. Locoweed is gnarly stuff. I guess the cows do their best to avoid the really sharp seed pods.

  7. mikeyc
    Posted September 28, 2016 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    I have heard that coffee was discovered by shepherds in what is today Ethiopia/Eritrea who noticed that their goats often sought out coffee plants. When the goats ate the beans they became much more animated and active and I’m sure some bright but sleepy shepherd thought that was good idea. The rest is history, as they say.

  8. nicky
    Posted September 28, 2016 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    Elephants are said to seek out fermented marulas to get drunk. I’m not sure how apocryphical this is, but it does not appear too farfetched.

    • stevenh
      Posted September 28, 2016 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

      We observed this behaviour in Kruger National Park. A drunk elephant is to be avoided!

    • Posted September 29, 2016 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      I’ve heard that too.

      Also that some birds also seek fermented fruits.

      That’s phylogenetically distant, or a very odd convergence. Anyone have any reptile or amphibian data?

  9. keith cook +/-
    Posted September 28, 2016 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    “Who knows whether members of another species might, like our own, enjoy altering their consciousness.

    The dolphins seem to know what they are doing and must like to repeat the effects when they meet a puffer. It certainly looked like they were enjoying themselves and perhaps for these young males, relieved the boredom to have some fun and a bonding exercise.
    That bit of Utube footage is from a very interesting program shot off WA Aust.

    In the case of fermenting fruit , it’s sugar content is just to much to ignore no matter what the hangover brings, the taste and scent might also be a novelty, for it would be a highly dangerous and a risky state for some in the wild, like easy pickings for predators or falling out of a tree.
    It could perhaps also shows that even animals like a little relief from the stresses of life without really knowing it, especially taking that risk and repeating it.
    But, on the whole i would think for some or most animals it’s accidental drunkenness especially for the likes of say insects who gorge on overripe fruit.

    There is a film called ‘The Queen of Trees’ it is on utube. I have to say it is one of the best nature programs i have ever watched, it too has a little drunkenness episode, inebriated butterflies!

  10. Christopher
    Posted September 28, 2016 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    I’ve know several “beer d*gs” in my day, ones that you had to be careful not to set your beer down if they were around. My current mutt won’t touch the stuff, but I d*g-sat a Bichon Frise this summer who took quite a liking to the Boulevard Tank 7 that I had on tap at my parent’s lake house. Sadly for him, his person does not like beer, being from France. I’ve never had a cat that was on the ‘nip though.

    • Christopher
      Posted September 28, 2016 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

      “Fruit flies that are sexually deprived tend to drink more alcohol”

      just read that…and damn, can I relate (he says, finishing his second brew…)

      • Posted September 29, 2016 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

        It is my understanding that for cats, alcohol, chocolate and caffeine are poisonous (including ibuprofen and even aspirin, although aspirin may be administered in tiny doses to prevent blood clots and strokes in cats with A-Fib).

    • darrelle
      Posted September 29, 2016 at 6:47 am | Permalink

      I once knew a Great Dane named Duchess who enjoyed her beer whenever she could get it. She was a neighbor but visited my place on a daily basis. She was a sweetheart but you had to be careful about leaving your beer sitting around untended.

  11. Posted September 28, 2016 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    Apparently ants like Aunt Emma better than sugar.

  12. Posted September 28, 2016 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    The great South African naturalist Eugene Marais had a chapter about drug use in animals in his “The Soul of the Ape,” published in 1925. No doubt his interest was inspired by his own morphine addiction.

  13. JohnJay
    Posted September 29, 2016 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    When I lived in Connecticut, I remember in late fall / early winter there would be a group of cedar waxwings moving through that would get drunk on berries on some bushes and trees. They would be bickering between themselves, falling and catching themselves on a lower branch… or even falling to the ground and be stunned for a few minutes.

  14. jay
    Posted September 29, 2016 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    Years ago my wife was in animal control. In the autumn They would geqt calls about suspected rabid racoons, but in reality they were simply drunk on fermented apples.

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