Fermented Fruit Leads to Drunken Animals

Written by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

animals drunk from fermented fruit

Story at-a-glance -

  • Fermented fruit may intoxicate lightweight birds, but the raccoons who reportedly were drunk on fermented crabapples in Milton, West Virginia, in fact had distemper. Two of three of the raccoons were recaptured and euthanized
  • Alcohol use disorders are rising in humans, but while some animals may overindulge on fermenting fruit, only smaller, lightweight animals — like birds — will be affected by the low percentage of alcohol by volume found in naturally fermenting foods
  • Distemper can be transmitted to humans, but while fatal in most animals, it triggers no symptoms or illness in humans. Rabies is another condition causing strange behavior in animals, which is fatal when not treated immediately
  • Protect yourself and your pets from contracting rabies by vaccinating your dogs and cat, keeping them indoors, or confined and supervised when outdoors, and report any stray dogs or cats and any animals who appear sick or injured

Animals and alcohol don’t mix. Residents of Gilbert, Minnesota, have reported birds flying under-the-influence in their community. They were flying into windows and cars and generally acting confused after partaking of fermented berries in the neighborhood before flying south.

The chief of police reported the younger birds were getting more “tipsy” as their livers may not handle the toxins as efficiently as the more mature birds.1 In Wayne Township, Indianapolis, a woman called on firefighters in the early morning hours, frightened her pet raccoon was in danger after having eaten someone else’s marijuana.2

More animals are presenting at the veterinarian’s office after having imbibed alcohol or marijuana-laced treats as they typically don’t have the impulse control to stop at one.3 Just as overindulging on alcohol is not healthy for animals, it isn’t for humans either.

Incidence of Alcohol Use Rising

Alcohol use disorder is a diagnostic classification that is widespread and often untreated in the U.S. While lifetime prevalence is 29.1 percent, only 19.8 percent of adults have ever been treated, according to data released in JAMA Psychiatry.4 

Alcohol use disorders are among the most prevalent mental health disorders worldwide, contributing to an estimated 88,000 deaths from alcohol-related causes annually and an economic burden of $249 billion.5 Globally, 3.3 million deaths in 2012 were attributed to alcohol consumption. In 2014 the World Health Organization (WHO) reported alcohol contributed to more than 200 diseases.

It was the fifth leading risk factor for premature death and disability worldwide, and in a 2015 national survey,6 86.4 percent over age 18 reported they had consumed alcohol at some point during their lifetime, and 70 percent reported they had something to drink in the past year. In the same survey, 26.9 percent over age 18 reported engaging in binge drinking in the past month.

The number diagnosed with alcoholism increased by 49 percent during a study evaluating data from 2001 to 2013.7 Researchers from the University of Illinois in Chicago8 revealed alcohol may increase your risk of developing Alzheimer's disease by disrupting the way amyloid-beta is cleared from your brain.

Binge drinking or heavy alcohol consumption may make it more likely your brain will accumulate damaging proteins and contribute to the development of Alzheimer's. Generally, women are more vulnerable to alcohol poisoning and feel the effects of alcohol faster than men of the same size. They're also more predisposed to suffer from long-term alcohol-induced damage in the body.

Not All Raccoons From Milton Were Drunk on Crabapples

You might not imagine wildlife or your pets getting drunk, but that's what appeared to have happened to raccoons in Milton, West Virginia.9 Residents of the town reported seeing raccoons acting strangely and suspected they may have been infected with rabies. Officers staked out the area where the animals had been seen and caught two.

The first raccoon was caught near a crabapple tree where fruit was fermenting on the ground. It appeared the raccoons were not rabid but instead drunk from eating fermented crabapples. In an official statement to the community, the police said,10 “Turns out they appear to be drunk on crabapples.”

The raccoons were held in custody to allow the alcohol to be metabolized before being released into the wild. The story quickly spread through social media outlets. Unfortunately, just days later the police were once again called about a third raccoon who had fallen out of a tree.11

At this point they called local wildlife rescue group Point of View Farm, which suggested the animals may be suffering from distemper. They suggested all three raccoons be caught and tested. The police had the third raccoon and were able to track the second, which they found just 10 feet from where he'd been released, suffering continuous seizures.

The two raccoons were euthanized, but the police were unable to locate the first that had been trapped and released. Although health officials agreed with the diagnosis of distemper, the animals are being tested for rabies. In their Facebook post, police warned:12

“Sorry for such a long and depressing post but since this incident garnered so much unexpected national attention we wanted to be as transparent as possible. Please do not approach any wild animals that are acting abnormal and remember their natural instinct should be to avoid people or to run away. “

Raccoons Aren’t the Only Animals Eating Fermented Fruit

In preparation for winter hibernation, some report black bears appear to eat too many fermented apples and are found staggering near towns and residential communities. However, it’s unlikely a 600-pound bear will become intoxicated from eating fermented fruit for several reasons.

The idea is when apples fall off the tree, they begin to rot and ferment. Bears eat them and the apples continue to ferment in the their stomach, releasing alcohol. However, after testing the alcohol by volume percentage in fermented berries and Hawthorn fruits, closely related to the apple, researchers found only 0.3 percent could be achieved.13

Wildlife biologist Darrell Smith from Western Wildlife Outreach, believes,14 “One of the issues with fermented fruit is that it would take a lot to get a bear drunk. You know, people don’t get drunk from fermented apples either.”

Although black bears can eat a lot, often up to 20 pounds of food in preparation for winter hibernation, fermented fruit contains an extremely minimal amount of alcohol given the weight of the animal. According to the theory, the apples continue to ferment in the bear's stomach. However, the pH of a bear's stomach is around 3.5, much lower than alcohol-producing yeast prefers.

Birds and Insects Also Experience the Effects of Fermented Fruit

There is evidence some insects and smaller animals consume alcohol routinely. Male butterflies drink beer in order to boost spermatophores and many entomologists often bait insect traps with beer.

In a study comparing the diet preferences of male fruit flies that had successfully mated with those of males who had not mated, data demonstrated unmated males preferred food containing alcohol while the mated males did not.15

Some animals have a high tolerance for fermented treats. Malaysia's pen-tailed tree shrew drinks nectar from the bertram palm, whose flower has the highest alcohol levels recorded in natural food, nearly 3.8 percent. Despite drinking this nectar nightly, they show no effects of intoxication.16

Many bats also eat fermented fruit and nectar but appear unaffected. Birds routinely eat winter berries in the northern hemisphere, which may have begun fermenting after the first frost. Meghan Larivee, laboratory coordinator at the government agency Environment Yukon in Canada, reports:17

"Most birds likely just get a bit tipsy, and very few people would be able to pick them out as intoxicated. However, every now and then, some birds just overdo it.”

Arriving with juice-stained beaks, several Bohemian waxwing birds ended up admitted to the Yukon territory’s Animal Health unit after they were observed flying in uncoordinated flight patterns and unable to walk. Likely intoxicated related to their small size and weight, they were checked for illnesses, recovered after a few hours and were subsequently released.18

Animals Acting Strangely May Be Infected

These anecdotal stories indicate there are some animals that may be affected by fermented fruit. However, it is critical you don’t assume animals that appear to be incapacitated are safe to approach. The raccoons in Milton, West Virginia, were infected with distemper, a condition often fatal in animals. However, while humans may acquire the virus, it produces no illness or symptoms.19

Another condition affecting wild and domesticated animals that can cause strange behavior is rabies. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),20 wild animals accounted for 92.4 percent of cases of rabies in 2015.

In the U.S., bats were most frequently reported followed closely by raccoons and skunks, with foxes a distant fourth. Reports of rabid raccoons reached an all-time high in 1994 when nearly 6,000 were reported and found.21 The number dropped to close to 2,000 in 2014.

Rabies virus variants are distributed in distinct geographic regions. The majority of rabies affecting raccoons occur along the Eastern Seaboard from Maine to Florida. Skunks are more highly affected in the Midwest from the Canadian border to Texas and in small regions in California.22

The condition is a preventable viral disease most often transmitted through the bite of an infected animal.23 The rabies virus can also affect humans and domestic dogs. Cross-species infection from raccoons to dogs or humans is possible and the majority of human deaths from rabies are caused by dog bites.24 

Rabies Presents in Five Stages

With the exception of Antarctica, rabies is found throughout the world.25 The virus is transmitted in the saliva of an infected animal and enters the body through the wound. The disease progresses in five unique stages26  — incubation, prodrome, acute neurological syndrome, coma and death.

Incubation — The incubation period happens after you've been exposed to saliva of an infected animal. It usually lasts between three and 12 weeks but it may be as little as five days or more than two years. The closer the bite is to your brain, the sooner you may expect to see symptoms.

Unfortunately, by the time you experience early symptoms, the condition is usually fatal. Today, less than 10 documented cases of human survival from clinical rabies have been reported.27

Prodrome — Early symptoms include fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or above, headache, anxiety, sore throat and discomfort at the site of the bite. These symptoms can last between two and 10 days and usually worsen over time.

Acute neurological syndrome — During the next phase, neurological symptoms develop, including confusion and aggression, convulsions, hyperventilation, hypersalivation and hallucinations. It is during this phase it appears the sufferer is afraid of water, as it is difficult to swallow. In some instances, contractions of the throat occur even at the thought of drinking water.

Coma and death — Once an individual enters into a coma, death often occurs in a matter of hours from a lack of respiration. Life can be extended if a ventilator is used, but rarely does a person recover at this late stage.

What to Do if You Are Bitten

Whether an animal appears to have rabies or not, it is wise to take precautions if you're bitten. Rabies is spread through exposure to the saliva of an infected animal, so immediately wash the wound to reduce your risk for rabies or any other infection.

If bitten by a domesticated animal, insist you receive a copy of the animal’s rabies vaccination certificate. If in doubt, contact the veterinarian yourself. Report your exposure to your physician immediately, whether the animal was vaccinated or not. Lab tests on the animal may show antibodies, but these often don't appear until symptoms of the disease appear.28

Since confirmation of a diagnosis from raised antibodies or visible symptoms may be too late to take action, patients normally start on a course of prophylactic treatment immediately. Discuss your options with your physician and if you aren’t satisfied with the answer, contact your local health department.

A series of shots is used to prevent the virus from replicating and thriving in the body. A fast-acting dose of rabies immunoglobulin is delivered immediately and as close to the bite wound as possible.29 Next a series of rabies vaccinations will be injected over the following two to four weeks to assist the body in recognizing the virus and fighting it.

Preventing the Spread of Rabies

Although serious, the disease is preventable and controllable in domesticated and wild animals. Regular rabies vaccinations for all domesticated animals and bans or restrictions on the importation of animals may help to reduce the spread of the disease.30

In rural Canada and the U.S., bait laced with oral vaccine has been used to reduce the number of wild raccoons with rabies, and in Switzerland, authorities have distributed vaccine-laced chicken heads. The foxes that consume the chicken heads immunize themselves and the country is now nearly free of rabies in wild animals.31

Protect your own pets by vaccinating them, keeping them indoors or confined and supervised when outside. Report stray dogs and cats, or any animal that appears ill, to local authorities. Never approach wild animals as those with rabies are likely to be less cautious and more likely to approach people.

Keep bats out of your home and seal exterior holes to keep them from nesting. In 2015 a woman died from rabies after having been bitten by a bat in her home during the night. She did not seek treatment as she did not realize she'd been bitten.32 Even if you don't have bite marks or any outward sign of injury, you're encouraged to seek medical health after an encounter with a wild animal.

In the U.S., between 30,000 and 60,000 people seek post-exposure prophylaxis each year after contact with suspected animals. Despite U.S. vaccinations to control rabies in domesticated animals, between 60 and 70 dogs and nearly 250 cats are reported rabid each year. Many of these have not been vaccinated and were exposed to the virus through wild animals.

The prevalence of the disease varies in different countries, so it's important to determine the probability of infection when traveling. If you're preparing to participate in activities where it's likely to come in contact with wild animals, such as caving or camping, discuss the potential for a vaccination with your doctor prior to travel.33