Animals that get high

Animals deliberately intoxicating themselves may sound more like the plot of an episode of Family Guy than real life, but it occurs more commonly than you might expect. Animals that get high range from coyotes to reindeers to wallabies. Even domesticated dogs and cats have been known to consume potent toxins, such as mushrooms and alcoholic fruit, which elicit a mind-numbing effect. Several incidences of such behaviour occurring in the animal kingdom have been reported in the past decade, causing much amusement to the observers.

In Siberia, it is common knowledge that the reindeer (which are native to the land) consume a hallucinogenic mushroom named Amanita muscaria. Researchers observed that the reindeer act drunk; running around, making strange noises from the effects of the mushrooms. Lemurs cautiously chew on millipedes to harness their dangerous and toxic secretions. They rub the toxins all over their fur as an insecticide. The chemicals have the additional side effect of sending them into a trance-like state. On the Australian island of Tasmania, wallabies are known to enter the plantations for crops which are the basis of painkillers and eat until they pass out! 

The consummation of intoxicating substances is not just confined to land dwelling animals. Marine biologist, Lisa Steiner, observed rough-toothed dolphins playing with pufferfish. The pufferfish produce a highly toxic substance: tetrodotoxin. To humans, this is a poison that is 1,200 times more potent than cyanide. One pufferfish has sufficient poison to kill 30 humans. It was hypothesised that the dolphins were carefully consuming just enough toxin to get a high. It is also known that green sea turtles acquire a toxic poison from jellyfish. This fact was the inspiration behind the character ‘Crush’ in the film Finding Nemo.

Any cat owner will tell you that their feline friends go wild for catnip. Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a member of the mint family, and contains the chemical nepetalactone which induces hyperactivity and drooling. The catnip plant grows in the wild globally and has a similar effect on larger cats such as lions and leopards.

Man’s best friend, the dog, is also impartial to the effects of intoxication. There have been reports of dogs accidentally consuming drugs such as marijuana in food items that have been left out by humans. Usually the food contents of high sugar and fat have more of a dangerous effect on the canines than the drug itself. In fact, research is being carried out to look into the potential use of marijuana as a therapeutic agent for dogs.

It may not be surprising to learn that animals have suffered the effects of toxic substances. Some species, however, have learnt which natural products can achieve a high, and use this knowledge to their advantage; many know exactly how much to consume without being fatal. So, if you ever see a docile animal which has eaten too many fermented apples, don’t be alarmed!

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Lucy Clark

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October 2021
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