I love dogs, they really are our best friends, and for good reason. The most important being that a dog is less likely to eat you when you die. If your body is found a week after you die, your dog is probably going to be found, hungry, beside you. A cat? They won’t wait for your body to get cold before they chow down on your ears, nose, lips, and cheeks. It’s reported as “animal activity” in the death investigation, but it’s not fooling anyone, we all know that’s code for “a cat ate their face.” So yeah, dogs all the way for me.
Besides being our best friends, dogs have purpose. Since domestication over 10,000 years ago, dogs have worked alongside humans in an astounding number of roles. The stereotypical working dogs are the farmers that herd or pull carts and guard dogs that protect. More glamorous jobs, at least from a human perspective, are the bomb sniffing, search and rescue, and cadaver dogs, performing tasks that humans are physiologically unable to do.** Service and therapy dogs rely on an intimate bond between canine and human handler to afford a unique service that many humans are incapable of providing. To say that the lives of humans and dogs are intertwined and dependent upon each other is an understatement.
** A plug for my friend Cat Warren, who wrote the incredible What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World, exploring the fascinating abilities and science of working dogs as well as her own experiences training her dog to sniff out human remains. If you’re at all interested in dogs or fantastic science writing you owe it to yourself to check it out. And available for pre-order is the young reader’s edition!
Let’s take a sharp turn, shall we? The indigenous Shuar and Quichua peoples of tropical Ecuador use dogs to support the hunting of wild game, where the success of the hunt is vital for their survival. But the jungle is not an ideal place for a dog, where dangers of pathogens, parasites, and hunting injuries run rampant. With a lack of veterinarians, the Shuar and Quichua rely on a plant-based pharmacopeia – a.k.a. Nature’s pharmacy – for their ethnoveterinary needs. Though there is considerable cross-over in the medicines they take themselves and give to their dogs – much like modern societies that also give their pets tramadol for pain and diazepam for anxiety – most plants are used to enhance hunting ability.
In order to hide the natural scent of the dog, Quichua hunters will bathe and deodorize their dogs in concoctions of Siparuna and Piper, an aromatic evergreen shrub and spice pepper plants, respectively. That these plants are also believed to remove wicked spirits from the dogs is an added bonus. The remedy for a lazy hunting dog? Ilex guayusa, a relative of the “yerba mate” found in hipster energy drinks and contains, you guessed it, caffeine. All of these seem perfectly reasonable and logical. Where it gets a bit weird is that they also give their dogs hallucinogens to improve their hunting abilities. Hallucinogens. For dogs.
Yes, hallucinogens, that class of psychoactive drugs that includes psychedelics, dissociatives, and deliriants. I’ve touched on each of these a bit with posts on Hawaiian baby woodrose, ibogaine, and scopolamine, respectively. Classically, hallucinogens elicit changes in thought, perception, and mood, but without dependence or addiction – so don’t worry, the dogs are probably OK. Altogether, there are a few dozen suspected hallucinogenic plant species that the Shuar and Quichua give their hunting dogs (1). I say suspected because not a lot is known about some of these species.
Leaves of Justicia pectoralis are mixed with dog food to improve hunting ability, and while it is thought to be hallucinogenic, there doesn’t yet appear to be any scientific basis for it (2). On the other hand, local shamans refer to it as “Leaves of the Angel of Death,” so there’s that.
A bit more is known about Osteophloeum platyspermum and Virola duckei, both of the Myristicaceae family, and whose resin is used to improve hunting ability (3). Members of this family are known to contain the classic hallucinogens N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine (5-MeO-DMT). Both DMT and 5-MeO-DMT exert rapid, vivid hallucinations through activation of the serotonin receptors, like its cousin LSD, but with a duration of action lasting only a few hours.
The most well-studied plants the Shuar and Quichua give their dogs are the “Angel’s Trumpets” of the Brugmansia genus, which I’ve written a bit about before here. Native to Ecuador, Brugmansia versicolor contains tropane alkaloids atropine and scopolamine. Both of these anticholinergic drugs have unpleasant side effects when given in large doses but can be therapeutic in moderate ones. Besides increasing heart rate, atropine also induces mydriasis, a dilation of the pupils, which may help man or beast see better in a dimly lit jungle. Scopolamine helps prevent nausea and vomiting but can induce visual hallucinations, which you can read about here and here. The Shuar also believe that Brugmansia gives their dogs supernatural powers while the Quichua believe it allows the dogs to communicate with their hunting partners.
At a glance, one would think hallucinogens would impair hunting ability, so the question that remains is “why?” Why give plant mixtures containing known hallucinogens like DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, and scopolamine to hunting dogs? Most literature would suggest that hallucinogens impair ability, at least in humans, whether it be driving a car, baking a cake, or hunting rabbits, but there’s got to be something to it. I’m sure there’s a ritualistic component to all of this, maybe even a placebo effect for the hunter – hunters and anglers in the U.S. will buy anything if they think it will give them an advantage.
Serotonin agonists, like DMT and 5-MeO-DMT, may bring about drug-induced synesthesia. We most often hear about a type of synesthesia called chromesthesia, where people see colors when listening to music, but generally speaking, synesthesia is the stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leading to an enhancement of another. With this theory, hallucinations enhance olfactory and visual perceptions, both of which would be advantageous to hunting dogs. (4)
So, hallucinogens for hunting dogs. Sounds weird, but if the Shuar and Quichua believe it works, who am I to argue? I’ll just sit here writing up patents for LSD-laced dog treats. There’s a fortune to be made there.
Bennett, Bradley C., and Rocío Alarcón. “Hunting and Hallucinogens: The Use Psychoactive and Other Plants to Improve the Hunting Ability of Dogs.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 171 (2015): 171-83.
Macrae, W.donald, and G.h.neil Towers. “Justicia Pectoralis: A Study of the Basis for Its Use as a Hallucinogenic Snuff Ingredient.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 12.1 (1984): 93-111.
Bennett, B. C., and Rocío Alarcón. “Osteophloeum Platyspermum AndVirola Duckei (myristicaceae): Newly Reported as Hallucinogens from Amazonian Ecuador.” Economic Botany 48.2 (1994): 152-58.
Stevenson, Richard J., and Caroline Tomiczek. “Olfactory-induced Synesthesias: A Review and Model.” Psychological Bulletin 133.2 (2007): 294-309.