Animal Addiction: Too Much of a Good Thing?
No, this commentary isn't going to be about people who are addicted to animals or animal-related activities, although that's also a subject worthy of exploration. This commentary is about the kind of animal addiction hinted at in a video clip I recently received entitled "African Booze Tree" that shows animals of multiple species getting soused on the fermenting fruit of the African marula tree. This got me thinking about two things. The first was whether this behavior was problematic from an evolutionary standpoint. The second was whether a similar phenomenon occurs in companion animals.
That some animals will consume enough fermented fruit to get tipsy is hardly news. Scientists have known this for years, as have those who occupy buildings near fruit trees where birds congregate in the late summer and early fall to feed on the fermented fruit. When this occurs and if the building's windows are placed just so and the light is just right, the woozy birds will fly into the reflection of the sky rather than the real thing. Meanwhile members of some wild feline species may patronize plants and shrubs that produce pleasurable substances, some of which trigger behaviors similar to those displayed by domestic cats who are catnip-sensitive.
But in spite of evidence to the contrary, scientists traditionally have ascribed to the belief that there was something inherently wrong with the animals who gravitated toward the plants and trees that produced these mind-altering substances. This comes as no surprise because a similar view is often taken of people who do that same thing. However, an article entitled "The Evolution of Drug Abuse" published on the World Science website explores a study that takes a different view. In it, researcher and anthropologist Roger Sullivan makes a compelling case for the behavior being the result of co-evolution. That is, the plants that produce these potentially addictive substances benefit the animals as much as the animals benefit the plants.
For example, in the case of animals eating fermented fruit, the stationary plant needs these animals to spread its seeds any distance beyond the base of trunk or stalk. Seeds from fruits eaten by birds or mammals may be carried in the animals' digestive tracts a fair distance from the source, and then deposited with a lump of manure or droppings to cover then fertilize the seeds when they germinate and begin to grow. Meanwhile the animals gain an abundance of nutrients from that fruit as their reward. In temperate climates where animals need to stock up to migrate or make it through the winter, access to such a supply could mean the difference between surviving and not.
But as always in nature, the key is balance. In each case, the animal needs to balance any physical and/or mental benefits of the substance and any risks associated with it. Just as a courting male must strike the balance between putting just enough energy into the process to attract a female but not so much that he also attracts a competitor or predator, those who consume mind-altering substances must strike a balance between any positive feelings associated with this activity and any vulnerability that might accompany it. Eat too much fermented fruit and you smash into a window or break your leg falling in to a crevasse you lacked the coordination to successfully jump. Spend all your time with a shrub whose chemicals mimic those triggered by sex and you forget all about the real thing.
From these examples, we can see that nature routinely includes a check-and-balance system that ensures the survival of those who use these substances sensibly and eliminates those who don't from the gene pool.
Although I don't know this for a fact, my observation of companion animals leads me to suspect that those animals who use these substances to the greatest advantage and the least detriment are those who are in good physical and mental shape to begin with. That is, they don't use the substance as an escape from a reality that overwhelms them for some reason, but rather to celebrate the fact that they can cope.
But before I can offer any examples of this I must first grovel before the gods of terminology because there are two terms—addiction and obsessive compulsive—that carry very specific definitions in certain equally specifically defined specialties, but which also have a lot in common. Further complicating matters, there are multiple definitions of both terms and equally numerous specialties that embrace one or the other. Consequently, the potential to upset a lot of people with my take on the subject is pretty high. Still, I'm going to propose that the two are more alike than different. In the most general terms, addiction typically is defined as the compulsive use of a substance whereas obsessive compulsive refers to the compulsive display of a certain behavior.
Let's look at an example to see how thin the line between the two can be. When Terry Gilbert comes home from work, he immediately does two things: he greets his dog, Bruno, and grabs a can of beer from the fridge to unwind after another stressful day at work and lousy commute home. As soon as Bruno hears Terry's car in the driveway, he immediately grabs his ball and starts chewing on it because he's never sure what kind of mood Terry will be in. Throughout the evening, whenever he finishes one can of beer, Terry gets another and his mood deteriorates even more. When this or something else upsets Bruno, he chews on his ball with increasing vigor.
In this example, we can see how both the man and his dog are using a behavior—drinking, mouthing a ball—as a way to soothe negative feelings. Other humans and animals may eat under such circumstances, with humans rummaging through kitchen cupboards and the refrigerator while dogs may counter surf or get in the trash. Still other members of both species may chew their nails, scratch or pick at their skin, pull their hair or groom themselves excessively. What connects these behaviors is that they're used as stress-relievers.
Now let's put a different spin on Terry and Bruno's behavior. In this scenario, Terry loves his job and comes home feeling great. Bruno hears the car and then his owner whistling cheerfully as he comes up the walk. After man and dog happily greet each other, Bruno picks up his ball and looks at his owner expectantly. Terry says, "Let me grab a beer and we'll go out and play catch for a while before I fix dinner." Later that evening, Terry has another beer after he finishes mowing the lawn. At that time, he and Bruno may play with the ball again. However, if the game doesn't materialize, the dog will amuse himself with the ball or other toys or even nap.
In this case, the human and animal are using the substance and object that signaled a highly stressed state in the first scenario to signal the opposite: that all is well.
From this we can see that regardless what specific terminology we apply, companion animals possess the same potential to display addictive/compulsive behaviors as wild animals and humans. And, in fact, I'd guess that humans and companion animals possess a higher potential to do so because such characteristics might not be as likely to be selected against as they are in the natural environment. But this in no way means that our pets are being forced by their genes to act in this way. The stressed Bruno reaches for his ball because it comforts him. Relieve that stress by building his confidence and making stress-relieving changes in his environment and relationship with his owner and the need to use his ball this way disappears.
So while a rose is pretty much always a rose, a toy might not always be a toy. If our animals don't feel secure in their environments, that toy might be a pacifier. Or even a life-saver.
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