Do Animals Really Leave Their Group to Go Off to Die?

There's no credible evidence this is so, yet the myth persists.

Posted Nov 17, 2018 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan

Jessica Pierce's recent essay called "Why Veterinarians Should Stop Calling Euthanasia a 'Gift'" is a must read for anyone choosing to share their home and heart with a nonhuman companion animal (aka animal or pet).

In her very important piece, she summarizes a short essay called "Rethinking Euthanasia: Giving Beloved Family Pets a 'Good Death'” and writes, "It isn’t helpful to be told that euthanasia is a gift, because 'gift-giving' isn’t what it feels like to make the decision to end the life of your best friend. It feels like you are having your heart ripped from your chest." I couldn't agree more.

 PICNIC_Fotografie/Pixabay
A handsome senior dog
Source: PICNIC_Fotografie/Pixabay

When I read "Rethinking Euthanasia," I was surprised to read the following suggestion about what veterinarians should say to their clients: "Put forth this very earnest philosophy for our clients: 'When animals became domesticated, they gave up the ability to separate from their pack when it is their time to die.' Wild animals in decline will fall behind and become prey or they separate themselves from the pack and lie under a bush. Mother Nature’s quick hand, through harsh elements and her laws of predation, cause a frail animal’s life to end quickly. There is rarely a prolonged, lingering phase at the end of life for animals in natural habitats. Frail animals in the wild do not linger on death’s doorstep for long because the sick and debilitated can’t keep up their daily routine for survival, and they are not protected." So, according to the author, because we domesticated other animals, "we took up the ancient contract of the good shepherd. It is our duty to help separate our end-of-life pets when their quality of life declines to a low level or if they begin to suffer relentlessly."

Do animals really leave their group to go off to die?

Dogs and cats rarely 'die peacefully in their sleep,' and they do not wander off in order to spare our feelings. That's a fairy tale invented to make us feel better at their expense. At times they are suffering and they need help in dying, and you are the one who must recognize when that is the case. They do not deserve to meet a frightened, bewildering end out there lost and alone. — Wendy Smith Wilson, DVM

So, do animals really leave their group to go off to die? No, they don't. There's no credible evidence for wild or homed animals that they do. In more than 4500 hours of observing wild coyotes, we never saw an individual leave their group and could unambiguously say they "went off to die." And, in my studies of other animals, I've never seen an instance where we could say an individual left their group to die.

Furthermore, I've seen instances where there is prolonged suffering in wild animals, ranging from coyotes and red foxes, to Adélie penguins in Antarctica and other birds, to various other animals, and I've always wanted to do something about it because I could sense and feel their pain. Of course, neither my field assistants nor I ever did anything to hasten death, but it always generated great discussions about whether or not we should. And, of course, we can't ask animals why they left their group, but there are many reasons other than they're going off to die.

In an essay called "He Just Went off to Die, Doc,” veterinarian Wendy Smith Wilson writes:

Older pets can suffer from hearing loss, impaired vision, cognitive dysfunction (the animal version of Alzheimer’s disease), crippling arthritis and muscle weakness, or a myriad of serious, systemic diseases that can make it impossible for them to return home once they’ve gotten too far away. Even those who are not irreparably impaired cannot escape attack, speeding vehicles, or geographical disorientation. If the weather is bad, they are even more likely to get in trouble — imagine what it would be like for you if you were lost, wet, cold, and afraid.

So, too, can wild animals. They can get sick, suffer cognitive losses and physical injuries, become disoriented, and they can be harmed or killed by other animals or become their meals. During my study of wild coyotes, a mother we simply called "Mom" left her group. After a while, she disappeared and we never saw her again. Did she leave her family to die? We really don't know, however, a few months later, someone told us she was sure she had seen Mom a few kilometers from where we last saw her.

It's also possible that individuals of different ages can't keep up with their group when they're on the move. However, there are instances when a group, or at least some individuals in the group, will wait for an injured and vulnerable individual.

In Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They DoI wrote about a wonderful story told to me by renowned author Elizabeth Marshall Thomas titled “A Friend in Need." Her story is about a dog named Ruby who helped another dog, Wicket, cross a partly frozen stream. Wicket was afraid to cross on her own, and Ruby, who had already crossed the stream, went back to Wicket, greeted her, and after around 10 unsuccessful attempts, convinced Wicket to follow her across the ice. (The entire story can be seen here.)

Another touching example involved wild elephants. Years ago, while I was watching elephants in the Samburu National Reserve in Northern Kenya with renowned elephant researcher Iain Douglas-Hamilton, I noticed a teenage female, Babyl, who walked very slowly and had difficulty taking each step.

I learned she’d been crippled for years, but the other members of her herd never left her behind. They’d walk a while, then stop and look around to see where she was. If Babyl lagged, some would wait for her. If she’d been left alone, she would have fallen prey to a lion or other predator. Sometimes the matriarch would even feed Babyl. Babyl’s friends had nothing to gain by helping her, as she could do nothing for them. Nonetheless, they adjusted their behavior to allow Babyl to remain with the group. 

All in all, it's best for the myth that animals leave their group to die to be put to sleep once and for all. If it actually happens, it's extremely rare. So, when dogs or other companion animals disappear, it's also highly unlikely they did so to spare us having to euthanize them.