Can Animals Get Addicted to Drugs the Same Way Humans Do?

Science provides all manner of possibilities, and an intriguing one is whether animals can get addicted to substances in the same way humans do. Could you, for example, get a cat hooked on catnip or a dog hooked on chocolate? Not that you would want to, of course, but are animals susceptible to addiction? Many studies have been done that provide some insight.

Study on Effects of Addiction in Animals

One study involved getting a number of rats and injecting them with morphine or heroin on a regular basis for 20 days. You can then provide them with a lever that allows them to self-inject the drug. Once they've worked out how to use the lever, they will regularly use the lever to self-inject.

They can be weaned off the drug, but if you dilute the amount that they've been injected with, they'll inject more often, presumably to keep the drug levels topped off. In addition, if the supply is stopped completely (whether through replacing the heroin with a saline solution or through removal of the injector) they'll start displaying abnormal behavior and other standard withdrawal symptoms.

Bees are perhaps one of the less obvious species when it comes to addiction. Researchers in Australia decided to see what would happen when they fed cocaine to bees. Invertebrates tend to react differently to drugs, but apparently bees fed cocaine would exaggerate worse than a fisherman whose catch got away. They would remember where nectar was but over exaggerate the amount that was there. In addition, when the cocaine was removed, they'd suffer from confusion. Researchers worked out that bees can normally tell the difference between vanilla and lemon; bees who were suffering from cocaine withdrawal could not.

Even horses will get high on locoweed. These stoners love it for its psychoactive effects, and they'll consume it in preference to anything else when given the choice. It's pretty common for it to be the only thing available during the winter months, so these nags chow it up and get a taste for the effects. Horses that feed on this this grass end up getting very antsy when denied it. It also shortens their lives quite significantly, as it has a debilitating effect on their equine brains.

Even goats have been known to display narcotic addiction. There's a particular narcotic lichen that grows on really remote rocks in the Canadian Rockies. Goats in the area are known to risk life and limb to get at this plant, which has no nutritional value whatsoever.

So, animals can display symptoms of addictions. They can also be used to test the effects of drugs on brains to see how addictions are caused.

In 2010, a paper reported the effects of crystal meth on snail brains. They trained a load of snails not to do a habitual task. Some snails were in meth-laced water during the training and others were in ordinary water. The methed-up snails learned tasks more quickly than those in non-meth-laced water.

And this difference gives us clues as to how the brain works when getting addicted. If we can learn the exact process of addiction through animal analogs, we can potentially work out how to reverse that process.

There have been other slightly odd-sounding experiments as well. Sheep have been given methamphetamine to see whether a Taser could be used to bring down a human who was high on meth. The sheep were given what would for a human be a lethal dose of meth and a couple of other sedatives and researchers tested out the Tasers on them. The sheep reportedly suffered no long-term effects, and the meth didn't appear to lead to any long-term effects.

Addiction is a weird aspect of nature, and it doesn't just affect humans. It affects all sorts of creatures great and small, and further research may reveal that even more animals can get addicted to various substances.

Animals act as good test subjects for addiction, as we can control their lives and exclude outside influences. As one researcher put it: "A rat addicted to heroin is not rebelling against society, is not a victim of socioeconomic circumstances, is not a product of a dysfunctional family, and is not a criminal. The rat's behavior is simply controlled by the action of heroin."

Addiction in humans is, of course, very real, very common and very treatable. If you, a family member or friend needs help finding treatment for a drug or alcohol addiction, call our toll-free hotlines to speak to someone who can help you determine your options. Call 1-800-928-9139.