The Many Myths Surrounding Animal Suicide

Unbearable stress can lead animals to self-harm, but is suicide really their goal?

Animals suffering from emotional abuse may display self-destructive behaviors. By: miss_pupik

My New Year’s call from my millennial son went something like this: “Hey Mom, my friends and I were just wondering if pets commit suicide. My friend says her dog has gotten under her car 3 different times and didn’t get up, even after she started the car.”

“No, pets don’t commit suicide,” I said. “But is her dog old and deaf?”

“As a matter of fact, he is,” he said. “And sort of blind.”

That solved the mystery for me. Lots of dogs like to lie under cars, but at the sound of a human approaching the car or the sound of a key in the ignition, a healthy dog gets the heck out. The deaf, soundly sleeping, geriatric dog, however, might not be so easily roused.

My son’s friend’s dog was not on a suicide mission — he just wanted to keep sleeping and didn’t hear the car start up. But is the idea of pet suicide so easy to dismiss?

Stress, Suffering and Self-Harm

From Aristotle to modern times, great minds have pondered the issue of animal suicide. Recently, serious researchers, psychologists, and animal behaviorists have even weighed in on the topic.

We now know animals and our pets suffer from stress, loss, sadness — in other words, emotions. And they can express self-destructive behaviors too, like gnawing at a foot or feather picking. But can they intentionally end their own lives?

Most of the anecdotal tales of animal suicide have a reasonable explanation, but some examples still make us wonder, like that of a mother bear trapped on a Chinese bile farm. When she heard her cub screaming while being tortured, she broke free, smothered the cub to end its suffering and then bashed her head into a wall.

Dolphins, special creatures with big brains, have supposedly held their breath until they die rather than live in captivity. Birds will stay by their dead mate until they themselves die.

Most likely, these animals are trying to escape their imprisonment or pain. Stress leads them to self-harm. But is this suicide?

The Myth of Lemming Suicide

Lemmings throwing themselves off a cliff is perhaps the most famous animal suicide tale. A myth that was shamelessly manufactured in the 1958 Disney movie White Wilderness, it maintains that lemmings, adorable little North American tundra rodents, commit mass suicide when migrating. They throw themselves off high cliffs to their death into rushing water below, the legend goes.

Lemmings, however, are not suicidal — they are extremely prolific self-preservationists. When their numbers go through the rodent roof, their food sources become scarce, so they migrate. Being good swimmers, lemmings can cross small bodies of water. But as they search for life-sustaining food, they sometimes misgauge the expanse of the water and drown in large groups.

So how did the Disney film capture the alleged lemming suicide? In the 1980s, an investigation into what happened behind the scenes of White Wilderness found that lemmings were heartlessly tossed off cliffs by the Disney movie’s crew to achieve the visuals that supported this myth.

Chilling stuff.

Lemmings are not suicidal — in fact, they are keenly interested in their species’ survival. By: jar0d

The Scottish Bridge

In Scotland, many dogs have reportedly been known to leap off the Overtoun Bridge to their deaths. The local myth is that these dogs were suicidal and took their own lives.

But it’s more plausible that the dogs were intent on the musky smell of the local mink population, followed their noses, jumped onto the wide, flat border of the bridge and kept tracking. The hunting dogs did not realize there was no ground beyond the bridge and fell to their deaths in the water below.

Self-Destructive Behavior in Animals

What about the dog who goes off into the woods to die? Or the cat who loses his guardian, stops eating and starves himself to death?

We know animals feel and express emotion. They suffer from mental health issues much the same way we do, which can lead animals to self-destructive behavior. They may not care about life anymore, but it’s a big leap to claim these pets are aware of their own death and make a choice to kill themselves when they isolate or starve themselves.

The 20th century brought with it a deeper understanding of animal intellect, animal emotion and animal suffering. This is not anthropomorphism — this is fact. And, often, an animal’s self-destructive behavior or mental suffering is caused by humans.

Whether or not animals will themselves to die, we are charged to do all we can to further understand them, relieve their suffering and learn how to help them.

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This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed Jan. 11, 2017.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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