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Vunessuh's avatar

How well do animals understand death?

Asked by Vunessuh (16681 points ) January 16th, 2011

I know that animals have the ability to understand when another animal is dead and that they are programmed to avoid predators if they want to survive, but do they understand that someday their life will end too?
As humans, we know that someday we will die. We don’t know when and we don’t know how, but we know it will eventually happen. Do animals understand this concept at all?
They see other animals die, but do you think they truly understand what has happened when they see another animal die?

I know that animals can grieve over the absence of someone they love very much, whether it’s a mother missing her child or a dog missing his owner, but I’m curious how well animals can relate to death as we understand it.

Here are some other questions to ponder:
– Do animals know when they are dying and even so, do they think this pain they are experiencing means their life is ending or could they think it’s something else?
– Do they know when they’ve come close to death, such as being chased/attacked and surviving it or getting really ill and surviving?

Any information or personal stories you’d like to share would be great. Thanks everyone. :]

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23 Answers

josie's avatar

“Knowing” and “thinking” implies reasoning and a conclusion. To the extent that anybody can tell, animals do not “know” or “think” anything.
“Knowing” and “thinking” appears to be the specific characteristic of human beings.
But clearly living things are pre- wired to avoid those elements in nature that can cause their death.
If that were not so, zebras would not run from lions.
It is simply that they are not thinking “I got to get out of here” when they try to escape.

Meego's avatar

I don’t think they do, I think they just live everyday looking for adventures, I think missing someone or something is way different than knowing that someone or something is dead. When my husband passed away my 2 labs were different. But they also when they saw someone similar to my husbands stature got excited like they thought it might be him, that alone tell me they don’t think about death, or it’s consequences they think about survival and the method to fulfill in which to do so…also known as instinct.

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

The higher animals are able to perceive entities, motions, attributes, and certain numbers of entities. But what an animal cannot perform is the process of abstraction—of mentally separating attributes, motions or numbers from entities. It has been said that an animal can perceive two oranges or two potatoes, but cannot grasp the concept “two.”
Ayn Rand
Sometimes they just act like they don’t understand to get out of paying for funeral flowers ;)

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

@Vunessuh Have you asked a lemming?? XD

downtide's avatar

I think some animals understand when they are dying. Some, particularly herd animals, will leave the herd and find a quiet, secret place to lay down and die, where their corpse will not put the rest of the herd in danger if found by a predator. Domestic cats do the same. They probably don’t consciously think through the part about finding a hidden place to die, but they must, on some level, be aware that they’re dying in order for that instinct to kick in.

Mikewlf337's avatar

Like many things. I don’t think they understand death the same way we do. They don’t see the world the same way we do.

Scooby's avatar

I think animals apart from humans, have a great understanding of death…. They know it’s the end, that’s why they strive to live….. Humans in their arrogance think it’s the beginning of something new! How dumb is that?? :-/

KhiaKarma's avatar

This doesn’t really answer your question, but it’s ineresting…..elephants grieving

Cruiser's avatar

I don’t think so. I would say though my two dogs both knew they were about to be put to sleep and I’d swear they said goodbye to me right as the needle went in.

SamIAm's avatar

I watched a documentary on elephants and they certainly understand and grasp the concept of death.

incendiary_dan's avatar

I find it amusing how people can claim that there’s some sort of consensus that animals can’t think. Because, you know, there is tons of evidence from research proving that animals do think and reason that comes out each year.

Do they understand death? Probably. I bet it depends on species, communities, etc.

Meego's avatar

Maybe the question should be animal specific, because I do know different animals all have different intelligence levels, being that elephants are amongst the world’s most intelligent species. With a mass just over 5 kg (11 lb), elephant brains are larger than those of any other land animal, and although the largest whales have body masses twentyfold those of a typical elephant, whale brains are barely twice the mass of an elephant’s brain. The elephant’s brain is similar to that of humans in terms of structure and complexity – such as the elephant’s cortex having as many neurons as a human brain, suggesting convergent evolution. A wide variety of behaviors, including those associated with grief, learning, allomothering, mimicry, art, play, a sense of humor, altruism, use of tools, compassion, self-awareness, memory and possibly language all point to a highly intelligent species that are thought to be equal with cetaceans and primates.

Pandora's avatar

The only thing close to maybe understanding death by an animal I know of is whales and dolphins that beach themselves when they are old and near death. Of course there has been some records of whales or dolphins beaching themselves in large numbers, even when they are well.
Whether that means they understand that they are killing themselves is another matter. No way to know without asking them and I don’t believe anyone has found a way to ask them directly and getting a direct answer back.

rooeytoo's avatar

It seems to me animals are experts at staying in the moment. So even if they know death is near, they don’t really care because they are still alive. My old akita is 13. He is in pretty good health but has lost so much muscle mass in his rear. He can’t wait to go for his walk in the morning and evening but even though his spirit is willing, his flesh is weak. He wants to go on the long walks we used to take but he gets so tired. He often collapses and then we will rest for a moment, when he starts to get up, I help him and we go on. He doesn’t seem to be embarrassed or resentful of my help, nor grateful either, it is just what he needs to do to continue his walk.

I try very hard to emulate his attitude. I am no spring chicken either and sometimes I lament what is passed and how little could be left, but then I remember the big Red dog and say fuck it and enjoy the moment!

Dogs are so smart!

Arbornaut's avatar

I do a lot of fishing and i know that little fish jumping out of the water means there are bigger fish underneath trying to eat them. So on some sort of level those little guys understand that being eaten is not good for survival. I dunno if they grasp the concept of death as we do, but Im not a fish and try as i do to think like one, Im still never going to know.
And then theres squid… man those guys are freaky smart, and they eat each other as well. theres something about squid..they know whats up for sure.. super intelligent i reckon.

XOIIO's avatar

Yes, they can understand death.

Mikewlf337's avatar

Don’t forget some animals are dumber than others.

Meego's avatar

So does crawling and hiding at the time of death mean that they understand what death is? Or could it just be that they are suffering and want no harm to come to the pack, therefore following instincts. This question is a tough one animals cannot communicate the way we do so until we can know for sure maybe it will always be almost like a matter of opinion as all arguments are pretty good.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

I had two golden retrievers that were inseparable. One died of a stroke when they both were about 14 or 15 years old. The other one quit trying at living immediately and died within 30 days. She was in worse health than the one that had the stroke, arthritis, joint problems, etc, but had stayed chipper right up until the other died. It wasn’t gradual, it was just like a switch flicked and she said no more.

Coloma's avatar

Animals can, clearly, experience feelings of grief, depression, but they do not conceptulize death in their minds like a human.

They may sense that a comrade is ill or injured but unlike humans they do not ‘fear’ death or ruminate on ’ OMG, Frisky is sick, he his going to die and leave me all alone, what will I do?’ lol

Animals are much more in touch with their beingness rather than their minds.

KhiaKarma's avatar

@XOIIO you know that video is from the Onion, right? Thank goodness, that would be so mean!

XOIIO's avatar

@KhiaKarma Yeah, but when /i first saw it I though it was real.

rooeytoo's avatar

I just watched that video. I admit I almost chuckled a couple of times, but I think it was in disbelief rather than from humor. There are weird people in this world, I am referring to the minds of those who make little movies such as that, what sort of mind would conceive of such a situation?????

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