A series of news articles from Italy has raised the issue of whether dogs commit suicide. It arises out of an annual national disgrace, which results from the fact that thousands of Italian families leave their pets moping at home while they go on holiday. Public outrage has reduced the problem somewhat with only 7,000 dogs left behind today compared to 9,000 three years ago, but that still leaves a lot of depressed and lonely animals.
Recently the level of concern over this problem escalated because of a new phenomenon, namely the alleged suicides of two temporarily abandoned dogs, one in Rome and one in Bolzano in the far north. Reports claim that the dogs were apparently so distraught and depressed at being left alone for weeks on end that they hurled themselves to their deaths from the balconies of their masters' apartments.
In human beings, depression is a major predictor of attempted suicides. This is one of the reasons why severe episodes of depression are treated as a major concern. It is also true that dogs can suffer from depression, and the scientific data is clear that the same kinds of pharmaceuticals that help control depression in people will work on dogs as well. However, to suggest that because depressed humans sometimes attempt suicide means that depressed dogs will also do so might be a hasty conclusion.
Psychologists tend to argue that for an individual to attempt to take his own life he would first have to possess some consciousness of the meaning of death. The reasoning goes that the person that commits suicide does so because they evidently fear the consequences of living above that of dying. They thus turn to suicide because they do not feel capable of being able to continue living and facing their problems, such as loneliness, loss of a loved one, financial matters, ongoing fears and stresses and so forth. Suicide thus involves the consideration of the possibility of the two states, life and death, and the decision that life is too hard and death is easier.
So when we consider suicide in dogs, we must first ask if dogs understand the concepts of life and death. We know that the mind of a dog functions at around the level of a human 2- or 2.5-year-old. Children at that age have no conception of life and death and there is no evidence that dogs do, either. It is clear that a depressed dog may start to disconnect from his surroundings, causing a progressive weakening of strength and energy. There are many stories of lonely abandoned dogs that do not adequately process the environmental information around them, and do not respond to respond to problems or dangers adequately. Some may even enter a semiconscious state in which they simply waste away. Still, the idea of a depressed dog throwing himself in front of a car or jumping off of a high cliff to take his life is difficult to accept. If the dog is dealing with information from the environment, then, when dangerous situations come up, their instinct for survival is triggered and it should be more powerful than their depression. The survival instinct is strong in all animals.
Still the belief that dogs commit suicide persists. In fact, the Overtoun Bridge near Dumbarton in west Scotland has earned the reputation of being "The Dog Suicide Bridge." Since the 1950s, it has been the scene of at least 50 presumed suicides where dogs have inexplicably leapt to their deaths. In recent years, the number of deaths has risen dramatically, with five animals jumping in six months.
As one might expect, a spate of psychic and otherworld explanations have been suggested, since, according to legend, this is a place of dark deeds, tragedy, and superstition. Local residents often mention that on one occasion, a man, behaving very erratically, threw his young baby from the bridge, believing it to be possessed by the devil. Often people then go on to suggest that it may be the bridge itself that is possessed.
However, one need not resort to demonic forces to explain these apparent canine suicides. Rather these fatal leaps might be due to dogs with high prey drive acting on instinct and responding to wildlife in the area. David Sexton, an authority on wild animals in Scotland, determined that there are three main species active in the area; mice, squirrel, and mink. Perhaps the scent of these is playing a role. David Sands, a psychologist from Lancashire in England was able to demonstrate that 7 out of 10 dogs were very excited by, and chose the scent of, mink over the other local fauna. Mink have a very powerful musky scent. They are not native to Britain and have no natural predators. Mink that have escaped from farms have been breeding in large numbers since the 1950s—the same time as the first reported dog death at Overtoun Bridge.
Still, what is it about Overtoun Bridge, and not any other bridges in the area, that causes dogs to leap to their death? Overtoun Bridge spans a deep-sided valley. The parapets of the bridge are 18 inches thick and there is a 50-foot fall to the rocky bed below. Now let's look at this structure from the dog's perspective. Standing on the bridge, all the dog that the dog sees are the stone walls, over which the scent of mink is drifting. If the dog becomes excited by this odor, its natural curiosity and prey drive will motivate it to investigate. His nose tells him that the animal emitting the scent is over that wall. If the dog becomes sufficiently excited he might well leap the wall to give chase, oblivious to the fact that there is a 50-foot drop on the other side. This is not a matter of a depressed dog trying to commit suicide, but rather a life-loving dog that is responding to the pulse of his canine instincts, which have, unfortunately, lured him into making a fatal mistake.
Stanley Coren is the author of many books, including The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses?, The Pawprints of History, and more.
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