Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Are Dogs Supposed to Have Alcohol Hangovers?

“Hair of the dogs”, short for “hair of the drunken dog”, is an idiom from the English language primarily used to describe intoxication, typically drunken, behavior on the part of dogs. It is thought that the phrase originated with an Old English term, haremed. In modern times the colloquial use of the term as a slang word for a drinking game involving two or more people is ascribed to the Irish language. The game is called “doggong” in Scotland, and “bobbington” in Australia.

In its most common form of the game of “doggong” involves a series of races, each one longer than the last, with an end-in-itself goal: first place. Each dog must be cleaned (or rubbed) down by its master, who usually does this after each race. If his master does not clean his dog properly, then the dog must drink another cup of his drinking liquid. Thus, hair of the dog that was just consumed must be left on the dog after every drink.

I suspect that the phrase got its start not from an Old English root, but from a Polynesian phrase. Called “pahao” in Tahiti, the game was called “Paa” in Polynesia. Similar phrases have been recorded in Sanskrit, a language completely independent of either India or Polynesia. In the latter it is called “Pingu”, while in India it is called “Pingala.” In any case, the idea of using the head of an animal (the “dog” in “pinga”) to cure a person of drunkenness is highly suggestive of Polynesian origins.

The closest connection I can find to the origin of the phrase is a legend about a merchant in the Southern Ocean who lost his entire wealth to a sea monster. He picked up a chip of rice and began eating it just before sundown, hoping that the salt would somehow loosen the number of mercury stuck to his teeth. It worked, and the merchant ate the whole piece of dry fish that was stuck to his teeth, and thus recovered his lost wealth. If this story is indeed true, it explains a lot about the relationship between dogs and salt. It explains the widely accepted belief in many places that dogs must regularly eat salty food to prevent gingivitis and other dental diseases.

As far as I can tell, the earliest source of this phrase is not actually a cure for drunkenness, at least not in any literal sense. Rather, it was an attempt to explain how a dog might magically transform into a horse. This is probably why the phrase still has a place in popular parlance even today. However, if you hear someone say that they “smell of alcohol on a dog” – or that any dog will do that, for that matter – what they really mean is that their dog is an alcoholic. At least that’s how I understand the phrase.

A more literal example of what I’m talking about comes from an episode of Myth Busters. There was an experiment that several Myth Busters tried to perform, in order to find out whether or not dogs had the same capacity for hangovers as human beings did. After subjecting two groups of dogs (one of which was an alcoholic) to the same conditions, the Myth Busters discovered that one group of dogs couldn’t hangover at all. The other group of dogs did experience hangovers, but they were only mildly painful ones and were able to alleviate them by taking small amounts of alcohol during their hangovers. So there you have it: a method for curing dogs of alcohol withdrawal and/or hangovers, using nothing but a dry dog treat. It works!

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