Can animals be suicidal? Well, the answer appears to be yes, on occasions when the intention of the suicide is to protect the genes of the species. In other words, the life of one is better taken away when it benefits the whole, the species. That’s a biological reason but the fact of the matter is that we don’t know for sure whether animals can be suicidal or not. It’s work in progress. Experts in canine behaviour say that dogs are incapable of having suicidal thoughts. One example of a suicidal dog, on the face of it, says the opposite (see below). Cats are rarely if ever associated with suicide.
The reason why I asked the question and did a bit of research on animal suicide is because there is a place in Scotland where, over the past 70 years, up to 100 dogs have died after leaping to their deaths from a bridge. In all, more than 600 dogs have jumped from it onto rocky ground almost 60 feet below but clearly the majority of them survived the fall (a testament to the dog’s durability).
The bridge is called “Rover’s Leap”. It’s real name is Overtoun Bridge in a Scottish village called Milton in West Dunbartonshire.
Owners whose dogs have jumped report that they suddenly leapt at exactly the same spot on the ornate granite bridge, between two parapets on one side. The dogs tended to jump off the bridge on clear warm days. Further, all the dogs that jumped to their deaths were long nosed-breeds such as labradors and retrievers.
It is extremely interesting that no other animals including cats have reportedly jumped off the bridge at the same point.
People have speculated as to why the dogs jumped to their deaths, seemingly deliberately committing suicide. Some believe that the bridge is haunted. Paul Owens, a teacher of philosophy and religion who has written a book, Overtoun Bridge, claims that the ghost of Lady Overtoun was devastated after her husband’s death in 1908. She is said to roam the grounds of their Gothic castle which is next to the bridge.
“A lot of local people believe the bridge has mystic powers…It is thought by some to be her presence that lingers in this location.” said Mr Owens.
David Sands, a canine psychologist said:
“When you get down to dog’s level, the solid granite of the bridge’s 18 inch thick walls obscures their vision and blocks out all sound. As a result, the one sense not obscured, that of smell, goes into overdrive.”
I believe that he is referring to the odour from male minks which is luring the dogs to their deaths. This is the current theory which is probably the most sound and it supports why only dogs have leapt to their deaths at this spot.
In 2014, Alice Trevorrow, a nurse from Dumbarton, watched as her springer spaniel, Cassie, jumped off the bridge. Cassie got out of the car and immediately rushed forward. She was looking at the sky and she seemed transfixed. She then immediately ran and leapt and went flying over the bridge’s parapet. Alice remembers it clearly to this day. She believes that Cassie did not do it on purpose as it was completely out of character. Fortunately, Cassie survived and made a full recovery.
There is now a sign on the bridge warning owners to keep their dogs on leads.
The Newfoundland dog referred to in the first paragraph is an example of an animal committing suicide which is difficult to refute. It occurred in 1845. The dog was out of sorts before he ‘committed suicide’. He threw himself into water (a river?) and was perfectly still in an attempt to sink. He was rescued and the process repeated itself several times until on the last occasion the dog kept his head underwater for long enough to take his own life.
There are well-known examples of animals behaving in a way which indicate suicide. Although we could be anthropomorphising their behaviour. For example, a deer leapt from a cliff to its death to avoid being captured by hunting dogs. This may have been a deer who was so frightened that he became careless.
I know of no stories concerning cats of any kind who have acted in a way which indicates that they have desire to take their own life. It must go against everything that they are programmed to carry out during their lives, which is to survive. But we know that animals can get depressed. Cats have emotions.
There is a connection between cats and suicide, however. Infection with the toxoplasmosis protozoan Toxoplasma gondii which is carried by a percentage of domestic cats has been demonstrated to alter the behaviour of mice and rats whereby they become more liable to be preyed upon by cats. That is a rather obtuse association between cats and suicide! However, some extreme scientists (as I would like to call them) have claimed that humans have become suicidal when they have become infected by toxoplasmosis acquired from their domestic cat companion. For me, this is pure hokum.
One last point: domestic cats can take enormous risks by our standards. Such behavior can almost look suicidal but to a cat it is not. Perhaps they were over-confident as they have excellent skills or they panicked.