No one knows if lobsters feel pain, which makes boiling them alive rather complicated (2023)

No one knows if lobsters feel pain, which makes boiling them alive rather complicated (1)

If you like eating lobster but have never cooked one yourself, here’s a brief word of advice: don’t.

Before you’ve plunged one into boiling water with your own two hands, it’s easy to imagine lobsters as big-clawed bugs who feel nothing as they’re cooked alive. And listen—it’s possible that’s true. Science hasn’t come down definitively on one side or the other. But once you’ve heard them banging on the inside of the pot trying to claw their way out, you won’t ever be able to not hear it as you eat a lobster.

Which is, oddly, not to say you shouldn’t eat them. This is not a campaign against the consumption of delicious, delicate crustacean meat. But since Switzerland recently abandoned their historic neutralism to take a stance on lobster morality, we figured we should take a look at just what the evidence says on whether our crustacean buds can feel pain or not.

Starting in March 2018, it will be considered an act of animal cruelty to boil a lobster alive in Switzerland. The Swiss will need to stun or kill animals before boiling them, and lobsters can’t be kept alive on ice. It’s actually not clear how the Swiss government thinks a lobster should be killed, but they’ve decided that enough research suggests they experience pain that we cannot boil them alive in good conscience.

The problem with pain is that it’s phenomenological, which is a fancy philosophical term for something made real just by the fact that someone experiences it. If you think that you’re in pain, then you are. No one else gets to tell you that you aren’t in pain, because they cannot possibly know whether you are or aren’t. If you feel it, you’re in it. Pain is not more or less real because other people or organisms might not feel pain in the same circumstances and can’t experience your pain for themselves.

This poses something of a quandary for scientists. They’re never going to be able to prove that lobsters feel pain because we can’t know what it’s like to be a lobster. Plenty of mammals and other vertebrates exhibit behavior similar enough to ours, and have nervous systems close enough to our own, that we can say pretty definitively that they feel pain. An injured dog whimpers, licks its wounds, and avoids the source of its injury. A fruit fly doesn’t do any of those things. It will try to avoid certain stimuli, like a sharp needle or intense heat, but it doesn’t tend to its wounds. It doesn’t give any sign—that we can recognize—that it’s suffering.

Unfortunately for lobster-lovers, crustaceans do exhibit some of those signs of feeling. Crabs that have their claws removed seem to nurse the amputated stump and get stressed when they have electrical shocks applied to them, and lobsters who get a mild acid (think lemon juice) painted onto their antennas will stroke them afterwards, as if soothing the injury. And we know that both will avoid hot water.

No one knows if lobsters feel pain, which makes boiling them alive rather complicated (2)

But we can’t go on behavioral evidence alone. Humans are wont to project their own emotions onto animals, especially if we feel bad for something we’ve done to them. Famously, one experiment on dogs found that the expression they made when they’ve done something wrong only seems like guilt because dog owners project how they’d feel in the same scenario. Dogs will make that face—even if they’ve done nothing wrong—to show subservience to their owner, who seems upset with them. What if we’re doing the same to lobsters?

After all, their brains aren’t much more complex than an insect’s. They only have a hundred thousand neurons, and no true centralized brain. They’ve got a set of ganglia (which is like a smaller, less organized brain made up of far fewer neurons) spread throughout their body. In terms of mental capacity, there’s a decent argument to be made that lobsters and crabs are just big bugs.

Flies, like crustaceans, will avoid unpleasant stimuli, but only because it’s an instinct for them. They move away from sharp objects the same way a caterpillar builds its chrysalis—even complex behaviors can have zero underlying thought.

Except, well, insects are clearly only avoiding things out of instinct. As one wasp expert told the Washington Post, a locust has plenty of survival reflexes, but even as a praying mantis is chowing down on its abdomen, a locust will eat if you feed it. It’s hard to fathom an animal that feels pain as we know it taking a dinner break in the middle of being eviscerated.

Some of a lobster’s reactions to hot water are similar reflexes. The tail flick, for example, is a reaction to any sudden stimulus, even though it seems like an attempt to escape. And some researchers think it’s possible that their desire to avoid high temperatures could just be a survival mechanism to make sure they’re living in cold enough water to thrive. But we also know that crustaceans are more complicated than locusts. They appear to tend their wounds, for one thing, and their lack of a centralized brain doesn’t preclude feeling pain. Octopuses (yes, that is the correct plural) have multiple small brains in their arms, but researchers now realize that they are quite intelligent, and can certainly feel pain and suffering.

In other words, it’s complicated. Sure, we can say that a lobster has neurons that can sense something hot or sharp, but that doesn’t mean it actually feels these stimuli. And similarly, we can’t say that just because it has a decentralized brain that it doesn’t have the capacity for pain. Unfortunately, we can’t very well ask a lobster how it’s feeling.

A crustacean’s lack of centralized brain may not keep it from feeling pain, but it does make it pretty much impossible to be sure you’re killing the animals painlessly. In more complicated creatures, like vertebrates, the most humane way to kill is to sever the spinal cord. It’s basically instant death. Sometimes people looking to ethically end an animal in a lab, like a rat or frog, will use pithing—brain matter itself has no pain receptors, so going straight for the brainstem with a sharp implement is (relatively) humane. But since lobsters have ganglia instead of a single brain, there’s no one spot you can target to sever their sense of feeling. Bashing them against a rock might provide an instantaneous death, but you’re bound to waste a lot of meat (which is just plain rude, and defeats the purpose of killing the crustacean in the first place).

So what’s an ethically-minded lobster-lover to do?

The answer seems to be: to chill. Not you—the lobster you’re hoping to eat. Putting cold-blooded animals like crustaceans (or insects) into a freezer or in icy water numbs them, and they don’t seem to have pain receptors that react to cold (they do live at the bottom of the ocean, after all). Of course, they’ll heat up as you put them in boiling water, but the transition seems to be fast enough that it shortens the time they flail about. Whether it actually changes what they feel is still uncertain, given how little we know about lobster pain in the first place. It may just help you feel better about it. But at least you’re giving your dinner a better chance at a gentle demise.

Of course, even if we knew for certain that lobsters felt pain, it’s not clear that we’d ban their consumption. We know that cows experience distress when we kill them—we even know they feel complex enough emotions to have bovine friends—but most Americans still eat beef. It’s possible that we’d all try to ignore their pain to save our own sensibilities. But given that most folks are much more likely to kill a lobster in their own kitchen than they are, say, a chicken, it’s an ethical question that may hit uncomfortably close to home.


No one knows if lobsters feel pain, which makes boiling them alive rather complicated? ›

The answer seems to be: to chill. Not you—the lobster you're hoping to eat. Putting cold-blooded animals like crustaceans (or insects) into a freezer or in icy water numbs them, and they don't seem to have pain receptors that react to cold (they do live at the bottom of the ocean, after all).

Do lobsters feel pain when you boil them alive? ›

JONATHAN BIRCH: There's evidence that a lobster will carry on living for two to three minutes when it's dropped into a pan of boiling water and that the nervous system response carries on very intensely during that time, just as it would with you or me or a cat or a dog or any animal dropped into a pan of boiling water ...

Why do people say lobsters can't feel pain? ›

Lobsters lack the brain anatomy needed to feel pain, said Ayers, who builds robots modeled on lobster and sea-lamprey neurobiology. Lobsters and other crustaceans are often swallowed whole by predators, he added, so they never needed to evolve the ability to detect pain from, say, warming water or an electric shock.

Do lobsters feel pain while cooking? ›

If one compares the diagram of a lobster's nervous system to that of a grasshopper, the similarities are apparent. Neither insects nor lobsters have brains. For an organism to perceive pain it must have a complex nervous system. Neurophysiologists tell us that lobsters, like insects, do not process pain.

Why do lobsters have to be alive when you boil them? ›

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.

What happens if you don't boil lobsters alive? ›

Lobsters and other shellfish have harmful bacteria naturally present in their flesh. Once the lobster is dead, these bacteria can rapidly multiply and release toxins that may not be destroyed by cooking. You therefore minimise the chance of food poisoning by cooking the lobster alive.

Do crabs feel pain when you boil them? ›

A favored method of preparing fresh crabs is to simply boil them alive. A longstanding related question: Do they feel pain? Yes, researchers now say. Not only do crabs suffer pain, a new study found, but they retain a memory of it (assuming they aren't already dead on your dinner plate).

Is it true lobsters don't feel pain? ›

Different nervous systems

Some scientists believe that since lobsters don't have the same brain anatomy as we do, that they cannot feel pain. Elwood thinks there's a good chance that different animals, even with very different nervous systems, can perform the same functions.

Do fish feel pain when hooked? ›

The wild wriggling and squirming fish do when they're hooked and pulled from the water during catch-and-release fishing isn't just an automatic response—it's a conscious reaction to the pain they feel when a hook pierces their lips, jaws, or body.

Which animals don t feel pain? ›

While mammals and birds possess the prerequisite neural architecture for phenomenal consciousness, it is concluded that fish lack these essential characteristics and hence do not feel pain.

How intelligent are lobsters? ›

Researcher Michael Kuba says that lobsters are “quite amazingly smart animals.” Like dolphins and many other animals, lobsters use complicated signals to explore their surroundings and establish social relationships.

How long to boil lobsters alive? ›

Clamp the lid back on tightly and return the water to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and cook the lobsters for 12 to 18 minutes (hard-shell lobsters will take the longer time), until the shells turn bright red and the tail meat is firm and opaque when checked.

Do oysters feel pain? ›

Oysters have a small heart and internal organs, but no central nervous system. Lack of a central nervous system makes it unlikely oysters feel pain, one reason some people who otherwise are vegetarians comfortable eating oysters.

Are crabs killed before cooking? ›

Killing the crab prior to cooking is humane and instantaneous, but it also avoids the crab from shedding limbs through shock, which often happens when boiling alive. This shedding of limbs will allow water to flood into the crab and effectively boil out the flavour.

Are shrimp boiled alive? ›

According to Science Focus, crustaceans naturally possess a harmful bacteria called vibrio present in their flesh that can multiply rapidly in the decaying lobster once it's dead — and it can't be eliminated by cooking either. So, to minimize the risk of food poisoning, crustaceans are often cooked alive.

Can lobsters live out of water? ›

A lobster can live out of the water for a couple of days if kept in a moist and cool place. How can a lobster live so long out of water? A lobster can extract the oxygen from the air, but in order to do this its gills must be kept moist or they will collapse.

How long can live lobsters be out of water before cooking? ›

Lobsters should never be placed in freshwater (or really, even saltwater that's not oxygenated). Fresh water will kill the lobster. But they can live up to 24 hours out of the water, if cared for properly. Live lobsters can be kept or packed in wet newspaper or seaweed, if available.

Is it illegal to boil lobsters alive in Australia? ›

"If an animal feels pain, you can't just chuck it into a pot of boiling water." Boiling, microwaving, thrashing, drowning and dismembering live crustaceans has been illegal in NSW since 1997.

What happens if you boil lobster too long? ›

Overcooked lobster will be tough and chewy no matter if you steam or boil them. When in doubt, use a meat thermometer to help you ensure you're not overcooking those large lobsters.

Do crabs scream when cooked? ›

Some say the hiss that sounds when crustaceans hit the boiling water is a scream (it's not, they don't have vocal cords). But lobsters and crabs may want to since a new report suggests that they could feel pain.

Do shrimp feel pain when boiled? ›

Yes, an official government report put together by a team of expert scientists was published in November 2021 with a clear conclusion that animals such as crabs, lobsters, prawns & crayfish (decapod crustaceans) are capable of feeling pain.

Do crabs feel pain when legs cut off? ›

Ripping the legs off live crabs and crowding lobsters into seafood market tanks are just two of the many practices that may warrant reassessment, given two new studies that indicate crustaceans feel pain and stress.

Are lobsters killed before cooking? ›

Whether it is believed the lobsters experience pain or not, killing the lobster just before cooking is the preferred method. Perhaps this is for the benefit of the cook as a way to minimize trauma since most people are disconnected from the killing of animals they eat.

How do you cook live lobster humanely? ›

Head First into Boiling Water

Hold the lobster around the middle to avoid those claws and put it head first into the water. It will die quickly. Boiling water is also the best way to cook the lobster so you can leave it in there and carry on the cooking process.

Do bugs feel pain? ›

Scholars have long recognised that the survival value of pain means many animals experience it, supposedly with the exception of insects. But we surveyed more than 300 scientific studies and found evidence that at least some insects feel pain.

Do trees feel pain? ›

Given that plants do not have pain receptors, nerves, or a brain, they do not feel pain as we members of the animal kingdom understand it. Uprooting a carrot or trimming a hedge is not a form of botanical torture, and you can bite into that apple without worry.

Do fish feel pain when cut alive? ›

Fish do feel pain. It's likely different from what humans feel, but it is still a kind of pain.” At the anatomical level, fish have neurons known as nociceptors, which detect potential harm, such as high temperatures, intense pressure, and caustic chemicals.

Do dogs feel pain? ›

Dogs feel pain for many of the same reasons as humans: infections, dental problems, arthritis, bone disease and cancer. They also feel discomfort following surgical procedures. Unfortunately, unlike humans, they are unable to speak to us about when and where they hurt.

Do chickens feel pain when slaughtered? ›

Chickens possess a highly developed nervous system and experience pain when injured and killed. Chickens also have complex cognitive and emotional capacities, which result in emotional distress and suffering during slaughter.

Do cockroaches feel pain? ›

It is likely to lack key features such as 'distress', 'sadness', and other states that require the synthesis of emotion, memory and cognition. In other words, insects are unlikely to feel pain as we understand it.

Do snakes feel pain? ›

Because of their slow metabolisms, snakes remain conscious and able to feel pain and fear long after they are decapitated. If they aren't beheaded or nailed to a tree, they are bludgeoned and beaten.

Do lobsters have empathy? ›

Researchers from York University argue that octopuses, crabs, lobsters, crayfish, and other invertebrates are indeed sentient and can feel pain, anger, fear, and happiness.

Do lobsters have memory? ›

Lobsters are capable of recognizing and avoiding other lobsters that have previously defeated them even after only one 20-min encounter. They can distinguish this opponent even after experiencing many intervening conspecific interactions. This memory lasts from 24 h to between 1 and 2 weeks in some animals.

Can lobsters hear you? ›

A new study demonstrates that lobsters can detect low-frequency sound and suggests that anthropogenic noise could affect lobsters.

How long do lobsters live? ›

They found that, on average, male European lobsters live to 31 years old, and females to 54. There were a few exceptions: one female had reached 72 years old. Lobsters certainly do not live forever.

How long to boil 4 lobsters alive? ›

Bring water to a rolling boil over high heat. Place lobsters in the pot (head first), cover tightly, return to a boil as quickly as possible and start counting the time. Steam a lobster for 7 minutes per pound, for the first pound. Add 3 minutes per pound for each additional pound thereafter.

Do lobsters turn red when boiled? ›

The pigment responds strongly to heat, though: Once you dump a crab or a lobster in a pot of boiling water, it's body chemistry changes: The pigment—astaxanthin—gets separated from the membrane—the crustacyanin—transforming your dinner into that ruby-hued tone we know so well.

Are oysters killed before eating? ›

"When you slurp back oysters raw, they are still alive or just freshly killed or shucked prior to serving, which is why you oftentimes see them on ice," says Alex Lewis, RD, LDN, a dietitian for Baze. This ensures they are fresh when eating, so they maintain the right flavor profile, texture and nutrient density.

Do oysters suffer when you take the Pearl? ›

Bivalve mollusks do not have a central nervous system meaning they do not feel pain like most animals do.

Why don't you bite oysters? ›

It's an urban legend that you are supposed to let it slide down your throat without biting into it. Think of an oyster like a grape: if you don't chew the grape, you won't get the full flavour. Step 4 # You want the meat and all the liquor that comes with it so do your best to swallow it all.

How are crabs killed in restaurants? ›

Spiking is using a sharp pointed object (e.g. a thick, pointed pithing instrument, an awl or a sharp-pointed knife) to rapidly destroy the ganglia or central nervous system of a crab. This works well specifically for crabs because they have 2 large nerve centers (Fig. 1) that are easily accessible to spike.

Do chefs cook crabs alive? ›

And then there's the cooking itself — most chefs, professional and amateur, cook lobsters and crabs alive, usually by dumping them in boiling water. Along with the melted butter, that's the appeal of crustaceans — there's no fresher food.

Why can't you cook dead crabs? ›

Meat from a dead crab will get mushy and lose the delicate flavor that fresh crabs have. ... It's best to cook them within 10 or 15 minutes of dying in order to preserve the meat for as long as possible. If they're kept cool, crabs can be cooked 24-48 hours after they die but the flavor and texture are going to suffer.

Is it illegal to boil lobsters alive in the USA? ›

For those who love them on a plate, there was plenty of outrage that a country would ban such a practice. Sources in Maine tell me there is no other way to prepare a lobster. Switzerland is not the first to ban the practice. In fact, boiling lobsters alive has been outlawed in the United States since at least 1999.

Do Japanese eat raw lobster? ›

Ikizukuri (生き作り), also known as ikezukuri (活け造り), (roughly translated as "prepared alive") is the preparing of sashimi (raw fish) from live seafood. In this Japanese culinary technique, the most popular sea animal used is fish, but octopus, shrimp, and lobster may also be used.

How long can shrimp stay alive out of water? ›

When shrimp were held longer than 24 hours, moderate to poor survival was seen up to 72 hours. Protocols that were successful for waterless shipping of marine shrimp were also used on freshwater prawns.

What happens if you freeze a live lobster? ›

When an uncooked lobster is frozen, the meat actually expands and is tightly compressed within the shell walls. When you thaw the uncooked lobster the meat then tears and shreds as the meat shrinks and disconnects from the wall that it was once connected.

What happens if you put a lobster in freshwater? ›

Don't place lobsters in tap water. They are saltwater creatures, and fresh water will kill them.

How old are lobsters when you eat them? ›

A lobster is approximately 7 years old before it is legal to harvest, and it will weigh about 1 pound. A lobster has a greater life expectancy than most humans. A 25 pound lobster could be over 100 years old!

How much pain do lobsters feel when boiled? ›

Lobsters Can't Go Into Shock

When thrown into a pot of boiling water it can take up to 35-45 seconds for them to die and when dismembered, their nervous systems can stay active for up to an hour. Without shock, these experiences must be excruciatingly painful.

How long does a lobster suffer in boiling water? ›

[and] feels all the pain until its nervous system is destroyed. Jaren G. Horsley PhD. Scientists have found that it can take lobsters between 35 – 45 seconds to die when plunged into a pot of boiling water — and if they are dismembered their nervous system can still function for up to an hour.

Do lobsters feel pain when frozen? ›

Putting cold-blooded animals like crustaceans (or insects) into a freezer or in icy water numbs them, and they don't seem to have pain receptors that react to cold (they do live at the bottom of the ocean, after all).

How long can lobster stay alive out of water? ›

How long can a lobster live out of water? A lobster can live out of the water for a couple of days if kept in a moist and cool place.

Can you cook lobster without killing it? ›

A researcher in animal behaviour says it's 'very likely' lobsters and other crustaceans can feel pain when they are boiled alive. A researcher in animal behaviour recommends people kill their lobsters before cooking them, after extensive research suggests crustaceans can feel pain.

Can a lobster survive being frozen? ›

For best quality, lobster should be frozen uncooked. Freeze the lobster whole, or clean it and freeze just shell portions that contain the edible meat. (Some lobsters have large front claws that contain edible meat, while others have edible meat mainly in the tail section.)


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