Suicide is one of the most common causes of unnatural and traumatic death, claiming a large number of victims each year. It is a type of self-destructive behaviour that has concerned the human being since ancient times, generating a deep research on the subject from fields such as psychology or medicine, looking for the causes and ways to prevent the human being from actively seeking his own death. But this type of behaviour has not only been seen in human beings.

Numerous cases of animals that have somehow caused their own death have been documented. Are these deaths the result of the will to die? Does suicide in animals exist? In this article we will make a brief reflection on this.

Causing one’s own death

Suicide is understood to be the carrying out of a behaviour or series of behaviours that have the aim of provoking one’s own death . Generally, the person who carries it out has the intention of avoiding suffering when faced with a situation that they do not have enough resources to handle, although the reasons why someone decides to take his or her own life may be multiple.

Suicide is an action that presupposes the will of one’s own being to bring about the end of one’s existence, with the active intention that the behavior emitted should lead to death. It is necessary to take into account the concept of death, to know that we can die and that we have the capacity to generate it for ourselves. Therefore supposes a certain level of abstraction, and also of planning . It also supposes the existence of an “I” that wants to die, that is to say, of some kind of self-consciousness of oneself as a being.

These aspects have often made experts doubt whether or not suicide exists in the animal world, as there is no evidence that they possess all these capabilities. It has indeed been observed that multiple species react to the death of their fellows with distress and grief, but it is not known whether they are aware of their own mortality and that their behavior may lead to it.

Are there cases of suicide in animals?

There are numerous cases of animal suicides throughout history, or at least phenomena that have been identified as such. Since ancient times, we can see how different writings document the death of dogs from starvation after the death of their owners (something that still happens today).

In more recent times, in 1845, a case was published in the Illustrated London News in which a dog, which had previously shown signs of a decadent behavior, had thrown itself into the water of a park without intending to swim, leaving its paws alone with the supposed purpose of sinking. The dog was rescued, but after that he tried again. After several attempts the dog finally sank and died. The same type of behaviour has been observed in other animals, such as ducks or penguins that have lost their mates or dolphins that have stopped breathing (in these beings breathing is not semi-conscious as in us but conscious and voluntary).

Another typical example is that of lemmings , of which an alleged mass suicide has been documented when there is overpopulation. However, the truth is that such a mass suicide is not such but something that could happen accidentally when these animals try to migrate massively towards areas with availability of food and come across different geographical features. They would be trying to find food, moving forward with that purpose and not with the idea of killing themselves. In fact, it is speculated that in reality the image we all have of these rodents plunging off a cliff was a set-up, their reliability not being clear.

Finally, the death of whales stranded on the shore is also considered by many to be suicide, although it may be due to illness.

Self-generated deaths

Regardless of what we consider suicide or what values animals may or may not practice, the truth is that there is evidence that multiple living beings have practiced different actions that have led to their own death.

The clearest and best known example is the case of many pets that, after the death of their owner, stop eating until they die of starvation . This type of behavior has been observed since ancient times, and there are stories about this reaction in animals.

The same is sometimes true of some animals in the wild, which act in this way because of the death of their partner. Grief at the death of a loved one can generate serious psychological damage in animals as well, and the presence of anxious and depressive symptoms in different species has been documented. As a consequence of this fact, they lose their appetite. In the case of pets that are very close to their owners , there have been reports of them remaining at the owner’s grave until their own death.

Another behavior of this type is found in animals in captivity and/or in a situation of high stress. Specifically, many animals commit various self-injurious acts that can end up causing severe injury or even death. An example is found in the blows that different cetaceans inflict on themselves against the margins of their enclosure.

Another type of self-generated death in animals is that used to protect another being, usually the creature’s offspring. For example, the parent can be used as a distraction to make the offspring run away or attack the attacker to defend them even though it may cause death. However, in this case it is not a suicide in the strict sense since the objective is not to die, but to protect the other being even at the cost of one’s own life.

One can also find animals that generate their own death through biological defense mechanisms . For example, there are some types of ants that, in the presence of enemies, tense up and generate the rupture of certain glands that end up causing their bodies to explode. This type of suicide ends with the death of the enemy or predator, but also of the subject himself.

Finally, some parasites and fungi are known to generate suicidal behavior in different animals . This is what happens to ants when faced with different fungi of the genus Cordyceps, which end up looking for the stem of a leaf to bite it and wait for death while the fungus develops. In this case we would be talking about an induced suicide, in which the animal does not really plan or want to die. Other bacteria generate behaviors that can lead to suicidal behavior such as getting close to or losing fear of predators.

Arguments of those who defend their existence

Practically until a few centuries ago, a large part of the population considered that only human beings were conscious of themselves, capable of abstract thought and reflection. Therefore, under this type of thinking we would be facing the only animal species that would be capable of provoking its own death voluntarily and consciously.

However, research has shown that this is not the case. Monkeys, dolphins, crows, parrots, rats and other species have shown in different experiments to possess capacities that go beyond mere instinct.

There are multiple species that have manifested the capacity to identify themselves , as occurs with primates and dolphins, and that manifest the capacity to become depressed and feel anxiety (something visible in pets and animals in captivity, but also in animals in the wild). They have also shown intelligence and the ability to sequence actions, as well as to communicate (there are even cases of animals that have learned sign language) and to establish plans.

It has also been seen that many animals can reach an understanding that their actions may or may not have an effect on the situations they live in. A widely known example was given in the experiments that originated the theory of learned helplessness, carried out with dogs that in the presence of electric shocks from which they originally could not escape, stopped trying to avoid them even though in another situation they only had to move to another side of the cage.

However, it is not known whether they have the same capacities in imagination, projection of the future and level of abstraction as human beings, or a sufficient level to enable them to procure their own demise.

Arguments of those who deny its existence

Those who consider that animals do not have the capacity to commit suicide consider that the behaviours associated with autolysis are in fact involuntary, there being no real intention to take their own lives as such.

The self-injuries mentioned above, for example, could be explained as self-injuries aimed at changing states of anxiety or stress, or seeking to free themselves from some kind of suffering (which, on the other hand, makes them similar to the main reasons that usually lead to suicide). Death by starvation may be caused by grief, but this does not imply that there is a will to die. In this case it is proposed that the suffering and grief experienced occupy the mind of the animal , making it forget to eat. Suicide as a defense mechanism would be an instinctive and emotional reaction that would not really seek death but the defense of the colony or offspring.

Finally, the case of infestation by parasites or fungi is not related to a desire to die but to a death caused by external factors, which would not be considered suicide.

A realistic conclusion

Many of the documented cases of animals that have caused their own death have a number of characteristics that may cast doubt on the validity of considering such an action to be suicide or not.

It is undeniable that some animals actively provoke their own death, but it is much more complicated to determine if their actions are really motivated by the desire to die . In this sense, science has not yet been able to determine this fact in a reliable manner, and there is not yet sufficient data to affirm or deny that animals have the capacity to commit suicide with full awareness that they are doing so.

Bibliographic references:

  • Preti, A. (2007). Suicide among animals: a review of evidence. Psychological Reports, 101 (3): 831-848.