How Toad Licking Gets You High (And Then Kills You)

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Toad licking has long been recognized as a stupid, risky way to try to get high. But do you know the biochemistry that determines how stupid and risky it actually, and how high you could get. Let's squeeze some toads.

The first problem with toad licking is that it isn't just any toad that will get you high. The most famous culprit — one that has sent a lot of dogs on bad trips — is the cane toad. It and its general family, the family bufonidae, will secrete the stuff that can be sniffed, injected, or ingested to get people hallucinating.

The stuff itself is called 5-methoxy-N, N-dimethyltryptamine. The chemical gets into the body and acts as a serotonin agonist, binding to serotonin receptors and releasing a lot of the feel-good substance into the body. People who take 5-methoxy-N, N-dimethyltryptamine report a full-body rush and powerful hallucinations.... although notably, most people who take 5-methoxy-N, N-dimethyltryptamine, generally do so in purified form. It is, for the most part, not licked off the back of a thing that sleeps in a soup of brackish water and alligator urine.


As it's not much in the toad's interest to get people high, it secretes some other stuff as well. One of the chemicals it secretes probably could be used to treat people medically. It's a cardiotoxic steroid which is a close cousin to digitalis, the chemical produced by the foxglove. Digitalis is used to treat people with irregular heartbeats. Its use is carefully calibrated, as there isn't much difference between a dose that saves a person's life and a dose that kills them (toads are not known for their mastery of pharmacology). A toad's version of the toxin releases massive bursts of adrenalin in the person or animal that ingests it; the adrenalin first increases the heart rate and then causes fibrillation. Enough of the toxin causes irregular heartbeat, seizures, and death.

Just as a bonus, toads secrete substances that weaken muscles and cause extreme nausea, too. So the overall effect of toad licking can cause a person to have vivid hallucinations, a racing heart, and muscles too weak to carry their constantly-vomiting body to the bathroom, let alone the hospital.


Just say no to toad!

Image: Sam Fraser-Smith.

[Via Myth-Busting Cane Toads in Australia, Toad-Skin Secretions, Toad Envenoming in Dogs, Tripping Over Psychoactive Toads.]