Pain is a private event that can only be felt by the person experiencing it. Among humans, healthcare practitioners have learned to rely on self-reporting of pain or distress by afflicted people, sometimes using a numerical scale. This number cannot be measured independently, so it is not considered a true value. But despite the difficulty of objectively measuring and documenting pain, we know pain is real. For patients who are unable to speak, medical professionals can also observe the patient’s facial expressions, movements, and muscle tension. In nonhuman animals, the presence of pain is also inferred through observation.
While there are fewer studies of lobsters and other decapod crustaceans than many other animals, there is evidence that they experience stress and anxiety. Using the precautionary principle, animal welfare campaigners are not stymied by the lack of a definitive answer to the question, do lobsters feel pain, and instead say there is enough information to push for the protection of a species whose suffering is often overlooked by society, the food industry, and scientific research.
As a result of the actions of decapod crustacean advocates in the United Kingdom, lawmakers there are awaiting a report they commissioned in 2020 on the sentience of decapod crustaceans and cephalopod mollusks. Advocates reportedly aim to prevent lobsters and crabs from being sent alive by mail, from being kept alive in shrink-wrap at the market, and from being boiled alive without being stunned first, among other harms. The goal is to make sure decapod crustaceans and cephalopod mollusks are not excluded from the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill.
Why Do People Cook Lobsters Alive?
Boiling lobsters alive is a way to reduce the risk of food poisoning from bacteria that live in their flesh and that quickly multiply on their carcasses, according to Science Focus. Plus they have been deemed tastier and better presented on the plate when cooked this way.
Do Lobsters Feel Pain When Boiled?
Most likely, yes, say animal welfare advocates. Lobsters belong to a family of animals known as decapod crustaceans that also includes crabs, prawns, and crayfish. Scientists have observed immediate and long-term changes in behavior in decapods that show that they respond to stress and learn from painful experiences. Lobsters try to escape their captors when they are taken out of the water, handled, or boiled alive on the kitchen stove.
You can learn more about scientific studies of pain in decapod crustaceans from Crustacean Compassion.
Do Lobsters Feel Pain When Cut in Half?
Again, probably. The more humane method would be to first electrically shock the lobster, using restaurant-grade equipment that is out of reach for most household cooks and low-budget operations, according to animal welfare advocates.
While slicing a lobster down the middle is purportedly done to get rid of their sensation by crushing their main nervous center first, doing so with accuracy and precision is tricky. It could cause “severe suffering” if it is not done correctly, according to the Crustacean Compassion website.
How Can We Know if Lobsters Feel Pain?
Lobsters belong to the group of marine animals known as decapod crustaceans, and scientists infer that knowledge about other decapods can likely be readily applied to lobsters. “Decapod crustaceans are capable not just of a reflex, nociceptive response, but of an actual experience of pain,” writes co-director of Crustacean Compassion Dr. Maisie Tomlinson for the British Veterinary Association blog.
Behavioral, physiological, and neurological studies are one way to begin inferring answers to the question of whether a lobster—or any other individual—feels pain.
The Experience of Pain
When lobsters try to escape harmful situations like the boiling water of a pot on the stove, they are demonstrating preference, “the decisive criterion for real suffering,” writes David Foster Wallace in his 2004 essay, “Consider the lobster.” These preferences include temperature, low lighting, and uncrowded spaces.
The opposite of pain is pleasure. That decapods, including lobsters, seek out certain experiences demonstrates their awareness of less pleasant, or aversive, options. Scientists have also shown this by putting decapods—usually crabs, crayfish, or prawns—through shock treatment, demonstrating their desire to avoid certain conditions when given the opportunity. Decapods seem to soothe themselves by rubbing, grooming, or guarding a particular body part that has been wounded or exposed to a harmful chemical.
Being able to identify and respond to a harmful event is what scientists call nociception. Nociceptors are a type of nerve cell that responds to tissue damage, mechanical stimuli (which includes touch), and harmful chemicals. When activated, these neurological pain receptors trigger an automatic response that is similar to how you might yank your hand back from touching an extremely hot surface “before you’re even aware that anything’s going on,” as David Foster Wallace puts it.
That is, nociceptors are mechanisms that lie outside the “emotional experience of pain,” as Francesca Conte and collaborating researchers explain. Decapods have nociceptors. Since decapods have brain structures that are different from those of humans, however, studies have not conclusively explained how or whether pain lobsters perceive pain.
Yet enough evidence exists to show that they might. Decapods, a subset of crustaceans to which lobsters belong, “have pain systems, including the sophisticated brain system necessary for this function,” write Donald Bloom and Ken Johnson in the 2019 edition of “Stress and Animal Welfare.” Evidence suggests that decapods can sense harmful events not just through nociceptors, but also through sensilla, the hundreds of thousands of hairs peeking from the edges of a lobster’s shell. Sensilla contain nerve cells, or neurons, that help the lobster detect changes in temperature, motion, touch, chemicals (like smells), and more.
Some arthropods, another umbrella group to which lobsters belong, have been shown to have “advanced cognitive processes,” that could also signal the potential for lobsters to experience pain. Finally, physiological responses have been seen in decapods experiencing tissue damage and commercial trawling.
Lobsters Facts and Statistics
- Pain typically leads to stress. When decapods undergo stress—or a taxing demand, they release crustacean hyperglycemic hormone (CHH), epinephrine, and serotonin. CHH is similar to the hormones that humans release in a fight-or-flight response, cortisol and corticosterone.
- Decapod crustaceans such as lobsters are aware of their choices and can make difficult decisions. In scientific experiments where they were given the option to do so, decapods have voted against electric shock, the presence of predators, and bright environments.
- Canada and the United States produced 62 percent of lobsters globally in 2013, at 145,221 tons. That number was 86,000 in 2007.
Where Is It Prohibited To Cook Live Lobster?
It is illegal to “boil lobsters alive” in Switzerland, Norway, and New Zealand, as The Times points out in an article on the legislative campaign gathering momentum this year to expand animal welfare protection in the United Kingdom. The efforts aim to “recognise that lobsters, crabs, octopuses, squids, and other invertebrates feel pain as part of legislation that will formally acknowledge that animals are sentient beings.”
Advocating for Lobster Sentience
The work of protecting more and more living things in nature can be measured by such policy change. The advocacy materials being used by those in the UK currently pushing for change rely on scientific reports of how decapod crustaceans feel pain because people can empathize with the desire to avoid pain and generally support action to reduce the suffering of others. As a layperson, David Foster Wallace seems to agree that decapod crustaceans suffer when they are boiled alive. Though his description seems closer to what it is like to cook live crabs than live lobsters:
If you’re tilting it from a container into the steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container’s sides or even to hook its claws over the kettle’s rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof. And worse is when the lobster’s fully immersed. Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you can usually hear the cover rattling and clanking as the lobster tries to push it off. Or the creature’s claws scraping the sides of the kettle as it thrashes around. The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water (with the obvious exception of screaming). A blunter way to say this is that the lobster acts as if it’s in terrible pain, causing some cooks to leave the kitchen altogether and to take one of those little lightweight plastic oven timers with them into another room and wait until the whole process is over.
The question of whether people are willing to examine the potential pain in the experience of a lobster being fished, caught, transported, and slaughtered forms the conclusion of Wallace’s 2004 essay, which also reviews scientific explanations of lobster pain. Nearly two decades later, the populations of several countries around the world are starting to take note of the emotional experiences of lobsters, crayfish, crabs, prawns, and shrimp—even as they kill and eat them.
Hemi is a writer, educator, and founder of Learning with Donkeys.