Dogs on drugs

drogs, by weegeeboredThat 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. In fact, some of the medicinal treatments discussed in the paper would be impossible for wild dogs to achieve, yet clearly benefit them. Naturalness is not a good yardstick. Similarly the fact that this is indigenous people rather than Westerners have no bearing on the strength of the argument.

A better argument might be that it instrumentalizes the dogs to an unacceptable degree. The dogs are shaped and used as tools for an end. But while we may stretch the Kantian idea of treating others as ends in themselves rather than means outside humans to some extent – other mammals may be similar enough to us that we recognize moral patients that should be respected – clearly many of our domestic animals are more instrumental than ends in themselves. Few would keep cows, pigs or chickens just for their companionship. They have also been shaped through millennia of breeding to fit human uses: many domesticated species cannot survive (or at least not function well) outside the niche of human communities.

Dogs are a particularly interesting example since they have often been bred for participating to some extent inside human social communities. They are social pack animals whose sociality have been turned to include humans. There are sometimes strong emotional bonds between the species shading over into morality (which might be one reason for this post: would I have written it about practices of drugging chickens?) As Bennett and Alarcon write:

The role of dogs in human societies is diverse. They assist in warfare, detect odors, deter pest and predatory animals, guard property and people, guide the blind and deaf, protect other domesticated animals, provide human companionship, pull sleds, rescue lost and injured humans, and track and retrieve game animals. They also provide food and fur, serve as living blankets, and function in symbolic rituals (Diamond, 1997, Coppinger and Schneider, 1995 and Hart, 1995). Dogs play an important role in religions and rituals throughout the world.

Insofar dogs are part of the human social world the instrumentalization argument may have extra strength, as it instrumentalizes a member of our own social community.

However, hunting is a natural thing for dogs to do, and hunting in a mixed human-dog pack might be more about humans opportunistically employing dogs at something they are good at (and presumably enjoy). The use of drugs does not change the kind of activity the dogs engage in: they are still hunting. This is unlike using them for meat or medical experiments, which are uses unlike anything dogs have interest in.

Standard anti-doping and anti-enhancement arguments about humans tend to focus on risks to health, unfairness, and breaking the spirit of the game/activity. These clearly fail except for health concerns (some of the used drugs are related to theobromine/caffeine, which dogs are sensitive to, but others are likely safe). The more elaborate arguments about acceptance of the given, threats to dignity or moral character also largely implode in the case of the hunting dogs. One can argue that an intoxicated animal loses the dignity of its species (after all, if plants can have dignity, why not dogs?)

One way of somewhat consistently arguing for a dignity of animals is to discuss their interests. Is it in the interest of the hunting dog to camouflage its smell, be more alert, be less vagrant or experience the world differently? At least the first two uses seem well aligned with the interests of a dog hunting, especially since it is likely to partake of some of the prey. Even if the dog cannot understand the benefits to it of staying with humans or having synaesthesia that improves hunting performance they serve its likely interests.

There are definitely ways of enhancing or changing animals that are not in their interests (consider doping of horses or colouring chickens), and one should likely not romanticize the life of a hunting dog in an indigenous community (see this fascinating paper by Kohn and this blog post for some notes on Amazonian dog-human relations). But this case seems to be fairly well aligned with the interests of both humans and dogs: it enhances some abilities that are used in a natural way for mutual benefit.

Sarah Chan defined animal enhancement as

(1) Produces an increase in some natural function or confers a novel function; (2) Improves some aspect of the animal for human purposes; (3) Enables greater fulfilment of the animal’s own interests

which seems to fit fairly well here. She concluded that it is ethical to enhance if it is in the interest of the animal, and that we under some circumstances might even have obligations to do so. In fact, Kohn’s paper seems to describe situations where Amazonian people feel they have to temporarily uplift their dogs to a human level to explain certain things to them.

It makes me wonder about the time when my cat seemed to offer me catnip.



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2 Responses to Dogs on drugs

  • Phil H says:

    In deciding whether an intervention in a being is permissible, I think there’s an instinctive distinction drawn between adding something on (on the outside) and changing what’s there already (on the inside). That’s why, for the most part, no-one thinks that giving a person a tool is a moral issue; but giving them a bionic implant might be. Similarly, teaching a skill is uncontroversial; training a person/animal to change their life habits is more open to question.

    I’m not convinced that the distinction I draw above really holds up when you look at it closely, but I do think that it’s a psychological rule of thumb which many people apply in their practical ethical reasoning: an outsider doesn’t have the right to change a moral being, they only have the right to give things to the being (or in some cases, take external things away).

    Chan’s three goals all seem to follow this reasoning – she allows the giving of new skills, or the enhancement of existing features; but not the taking away or changing of existing features. In fact, dogs have had their nature deeply changed by people: their aggression has been reduced, and their suspicion of other species. And it is we who get to decide what their existing features are, and thus determine what it is that we’re allowed to do to them. So I’m not convinced that her goals as quoted really offer a principled, ethical way to treat animals; and even these rather malleable goals have been violated many times over the history of humanity’s domestication of animals.

    • Anders Sandberg says:

      I agree that her definition of animal enhancement doesn’t entail a defense for domestication: many of the changes it involve are likely counter to the animal’s interests before and after the breeding.

      The addition/change distinction might of course just be a temporary/permanent distinction. We can accept temporary changes in humans and animals much more than permanent ones, since they are naturally undone. But I suspect much of this is a framing effect, just like how people are more willing to accept an enhancer described as a herbal remedy than one described as a drug.


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