Ireland’s Clonbrien Hero is a powerful, wild-eyed greyhound who took home €30,000 when he won first place at the Laurels in July. He didn’t hold that title for long. On Thursday, the Irish Greyhound Board announced they would withhold some of Hero’s winnings because he officially tested positive for benzoylecgnonine, the major metabolite of cocaine.
Hero’s trainer told the Times that the dog’s exposure to the powerful stimulant was accidental, likely the result of cocaine being transferred from paper money to hands that pet dogs. A far more believable explanation for Hero’s drug habit is, of course, that his trainer assumed that a coked-up dog would move faster, like a human who snorts a few lines at a party. He wasn’t the first to think so: In July, 12 racing greyhounds in Florida also tested positive for the drug. But, popular as it seems, this doping method is actually a terribly imprecise and risky way to cheat.
In an interview with Inverse, Shelly Flagel, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan Medical School who studies the effects of cocaine on rats, explained that animals sometimes get a speed boost from cocaine but that the effects of the drug are hardly predictable, making the apparently very popular dog-doping trend a generally bad idea.
The first few times rats are given relatively low or intermediate doses of cocaine, they do show increased locomotor activity, which is probably what trainers are hoping to see in their dogs. “We do have evidence that with this increased activity comes increased velocity of movement as well,” says Flagel.
However, trainers can’t hope to elicit that same cocaine high from dogs every single time. Not only do individual animals — whether they’re dogs, rats, or humans — respond differently to different cocaine doses; they also become “sensitized” to the drug at different rates as they are repeatedly exposed to it. In psychology, sensitization is the process by which a drug’s effect gets amplified through repeated exposure, and it’s not always predictable.
Rats that get sensitized to cocaine, for example, have increased locomotor activity, but it doesn’t just consist of them racing around their cages. “It’s not necessarily just more pronounced in the sense that they’re just going to move faster, or they’re going to move more,” Flagel says.
As her rats become increasingly sensitized, they run around their cage in intermittent bursts, starting and stopping at the same points. Eventually, they get stuck in a pattern of movement known as stereotypy: “In rodents, it’s often visualized as a head-bobbing or head-waving behavior. They’ll just kind of sit in the corner of a cage and move their head back and forth very frequently.”
Flagel, who only studies rats, can’t definitively say the same will happen with dogs, but extrapolating from rodent studies suggests that administering cocaine to dogs to make them run faster — and around a fixed track — is a tricky thing to do effectively, and it risks long-term effects on the dog’s body and brain. As the cocaine “hijacks” the brain’s reward system, the dog’s normal motivation-related cognitive processes are derailed, ultimately affecting its eating patterns and mood, together with its cardiovascular health.
In an e-mail to Inverse, Dr. Justine Lee, a veterinary specialist in emergency critical care and a toxicologist, confirmed that doping dogs with cocaine is simply a bad idea: “The cocaine helps ‘stimulate’ the dog, and makes them hyperactive with a faster heart rate, so I suspect people erroneously think that it helps racing dogs. It DOESN’T and is extremely dangerous to dogs.”
Animal scientists haven’t spent too much time studying dogs intentionally given cocaine, perhaps because it has not been much of an issue until recently. One retrospective study, published in 2014 in the Journal of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care, looked at cocaine toxicosis in 19 dogs between 2004 and 2012 and found that coked-up dogs show up to veterinary emergency rooms with similar symptoms — like dilated pupils, hyperexcitability, and loss of muscle control — but are diagnosed correctly only “infrequently.”
You can’t blame vets for being unfamiliar with the symptoms; there was a time when giving cocaine to dogs was patently absurd. In the past, victims were largely police dogs who took too big a sniff during drug-detection training.
But now, as “coke dogs” are becoming more common, perhaps it’s time for animal scientists to reconsider the effects of canine drug use — if only for the well-being of the dogs themselves. Fortunately, according to Lee’s blog, cocaine toxicity in dogs can be reversed by inducing vomiting and feeding them activated charcoal, and they can “do well” with the right amount of veterinary care.
If you liked this article, check out this video on how the CIA illegally drugged thousands of U.S. and Canadian citizens with LSD.