Bioethics Blogs

Dogs on drugs

That people in all cultures around the world use plant drugs to heal, intoxicate, or enhance themselves is well known. What is less well known – at least to me – is that many cultures give drugs to their dogs to improve hunting success. A new paper in Journal of Ethnopharmacology by B.D. Bennett and R. Alarcón reviews the plants used in lowland Ecuador, Peru and elsewhere.

They find a wide variety of drugs used. Some are clearly medicinal or just hide the dog’s scent. Others are intended as enhancers of night vision or smell. Some are psychoactive and intended to influence behaviour – make it walk straight, follow game tenaciously, be more alert, understand humans, or “not become a vagrant”. Several drugs are hallucinogenic, which may appear bizarre – how could that possibly help? The authors suggest that in the right dose they might create synaesthesia or other forms of altered perception that actually make the dogs better hunters by changing their sensory gating. Is drugging dogs OK?

A first potential argument against the practice might be that it forces dogs to do something they would never do on their own. However, many animals in the wild appear to voluntarily and deliberately ingest substances that change their mental stateCatnip is perhaps the most well-known. In fact, there are some claims that jaguars deliberately eat ayahuasca vines to improve their hunting, although it could just as well be for purging or intoxication.

Of course, this argument is also a naturalistic fallacy: even if dogs would not on their own ingest these plants, their use may be ethically OK.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.