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Drugs

We Talked to a Scientist Who Gave LSD to Cats Back in the 70s

It was a different time back then – all you needed for a legitimate scientific study was a bunch of cats, a sheet of acid and a can-do attitude.

by Kyle Jaeger
04 December 2014, 6:55am

Photo of a presumably sober cat via Flickr user Elvissa.

Today acid is just one of many drugs humans take because they are having a bad time being sober. People drop it at the Kentucky Derby to make a weird experience weirder, they use it to quit smoking, they store a bunch of it in their houses and treat it as art. But back in the 60s and 70s Lysergic acid diethylamide was considered a chemical compound worthy of serious study by scientists and philosophers alike, which is why Dr. Barry Jacobs gave it to cats.

Jacobs is a professor at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute, and in 1976 he and a team from the university's psychology department set out to study how LSD affected felines. That might seem like a bizarre research topic, but hey, it was 1976, they had this acid, they had these cats—what else were they going to do?

In a series of articles published in pharmacological journals, Jacobs detailed the experiments, which involved administering between ten and 50 micrograms/kg of LSD in a number of felines over the course of several months and observing their behavioral responses. Dosing animals with psychedelics wasn't really a novel concept (monkeys, dolphins, and an ill-fated elephant named Tusko were also been subjected to LSD-related research), but the cat studies at least lent support to existing theories about drug tolerance and, more importantly for Jacobs, the function of a specific serotonin receptor that's thought to be the "critical site of action in producing hallucinogenesis" for drugs like acid.

As far as ethics are concerned, there's no denying that spiking Lucy's water bowl with mind-altering diamonds seems like a project for a particularly perverse slacker in a Judd Apatow movie, but Jacobs maintains that the animal subjects were treated humanely and cared for by a scrupulous group of experts in a controlled environment. To get some insight into the findings, I called Jacobs at his Princeton office to ask what he learned from watching cats trip all those years ago.

VICE: So what do cats look like when they're on acid? Did they seem to have good trips?
Dr. Barry Jacobs: With a dog, I could've told you, right? Because he'd be wagging his tail and have a big smile on his face. The one thing I can tell you definitively is that none of them seemed fearful, meaning we studied cats for years in my laboratory and what a typical fearful cat would do is crawl into the back of the cage. These are all done in cat cages, you know, big, large—where they could move around, but nice and clean. They were well-fed, watered, etc. None of them crawled to the back of the chamber and stood there, looking out at you in a fearful manner. That didn't happen. Some of them ran around like crazy people, bounding around. Can I say they were happy? No, I can't tell about happiness. But they certainly seemed—can I say they enjoyed it? They were really bounding around as opposed to having behaviors that looked fearful—they just didn't do that. And a lot of them stared for long periods of time.

Was there any particular reason you used cats for these experiments?
To study the response and expression of behavior in a mouse seems almost unbelievable to me—even in a rat. But with cats, these are highly expressive animals, both behaviorally and in terms of emotion, and so that was the reason. We had literally thousands of rats in our experimental building in those days, so rats would not have been a problem, but I just thought: Evaluating the behavior of a rat? I don't think so.

In the paper, you talk about how the cats reacted to the drug with "limb flicks" and "abortive grooming." Why were those behavioral traits significant?
Well, first of all: Who knows? I mean, seriously. So let me give you an interpretation that is probably correct—but again, who knows? First of all, these are naturally occurring behaviors in cats; in other words, these are not unique behaviors that no one has ever seen. But what the drug did was it brought them out in waves. If you watched a kitty cat for 12 hours a day, it might never do [these things], or it might do it once or twice, but here some of them were doing it like 100 times an hour, so it really was a drug-produced phenomena.

So why were they licking their paws so much?
Maybe—and this is a guess—maybe [it had something to do with] increased sensitivity to their paws. That is, they felt something crawling on their paws, which would be very consistent with a hallucinatory-like interpretation.

After the study was published, did you get any backlash from, say, animal rights groups?
No. This was so long ago... But once we believed that we had figured out the primary site of action of these drugs, that's when I lost interest in it, and so we just quit on our own. And it was just too expensive. See, we were using these cats from a drug company, and to buy them ourselves would have been very expensive. I mean, when we bought and used cats in my laboratory, we used them for many, many months if not years.

Would you call yourself a cat person?
Not particularly. I'm not an animal person, even. I don't want to hassle because of any animal. I don't want to have to walk a dog, especially in the winter; I don't want a cat messing up my house. They're OK. If I go to someone else's house and they have a dog, I love playing around with them and petting them. Maybe when I get old and decrepit, I'd like to have a dog to keep me company.

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