Do Crabs Feel Pain When Boiled?

There’s no doubt that a crab’s hissing sound is disturbing as it sounds like a scream for help (thank goodness it’s not), so it’s only logical to wonder whether crabs feel pain when boiled.

Crabs feel pain when boiled, which has been proven by research studies. Certain hermit crabs were shocked, while others were not. The shocked hermit crabs left their protective shells and recalled the painful experience, so they refused to inhabit new shells, unlike crabs that were not shocked.

While we might know that crabs feel pain during the boiling process, there is so much more to discover about these intriguing sea creatures and the latest research findings. So, if you want to know more – read on!

Why Crabs Feel Pain When Boiled

New studies have proven that crabs experience pain and can recall the experience if they don’t end up on your dinner plate.

Thus, researchers like Bob Elwood from Queen’s University Belfast, who has studied crustaceans like crabs, lobster, and prawns to ascertain whether they feel pain or not, are calling for tighter laws to alleviate their suffering.

It was previously believed that crabs only have reflexes that make them withdraw from stimuli without experiencing unpleasant pain.

However, recent studies published in an Animal Behaviour journal have proven that previous assumptions were wrong, as crabs were willing to forgo much-needed protective shells to avoid painful stimuli.

Hermit crabs have an instinctive tendency to shelter under discarded mollusk shells, and when researchers administered shocks to their vulnerable bellies, they instantly moved away from their shells because the stimuli were deemed unpleasant or painful.

A subsequent test involved administering a mild shock to some crabs and severe shocks to others, making them all scurry out of their shells.

When they were all offered new homes, the shocked crabs were more likely to look for alternative homes as if they retained the unpleasant memory, in comparison with crabs that were not shocked and promptly moved into their new homes.

Bob Elwood and his colleagues also conducted a study on prawns in 2007 which proved that they have different reactions to painful stimuli as they would rub their antennae when acetic acid was administered and stopped doing so when a local anesthetic was injected.

Another 2005 Norwegian study underscores Elwood’s research findings as they concluded that, like crabs, lobsters experience pain when they are exposed to painful stimuli, although they don’t have the emotional capacity to feel it the way that sentient animals would.

Do Crabs Experience Pain Like Humans?

It is a prudent question as scientists don’t entirely understand why humans experience pain.

While they understand that signals are sent from our nerve endings to our brain, which then releases endorphins, and bespoke physical, or emotional responses, the minute details are still unclear. Therefore, chronic pain is a difficult condition to treat.

So, with that in mind, it is difficult to gauge whether crabs experience pain the way humans do, especially because we don’t share similar brain structures.

Why Do People Boil Crabs Alive?

Scientists believe that crustaceans like crabs contain toxic and potentially dangerous bacteria they harbor within their bodies and their shells which quickly multiply when they are not alive.

Boiling them alive is seen as an efficient way to not only rid crabs of potentially deadly bacteria but also because it is an effective cooking method to retain their unique flavor, and sadly this cooking method is here to stay.

Future Crab Cooking Trends

While there were solid reasons for boiling crabs, the question remains whether this archaic cooking method will prevail, considering recent evidence that crabs experience pain.

According to Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association executive Bill Sieling, the recent findings will most likely not change crab cooking methods, especially because it is a tried and tested method that has been used for centuries.

However, Sieling pointed out that certain high-end seafood restaurants employ more humane crab cooking methods as they either numb the crabs in ice cold water before they are boiled or alleviate their suffering by instantly killing them with an ice pick.

Sieling added that crabs only have a collection of nerve cells and no brain matter, so, in his opinion, people should have the freedom to cook crabs the way they see fit, and he stated that he was not aware of any backlash about how crabs are treated in general.

Crab Protection Laws

Researchers like Elwood vehemently believe that crustaceans like crabs need to be treated with empathy, especially because millions of them are reared or caught without any legal forms of protection (except in Australia), as it is widely believed that they cannot experience pain.

Elwood pointed out that vertebrates are protected by laws to limit their suffering, and it is only right that vulnerable crustaceans are spared cruelty in the same way.

This belief is underscored by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) representative, who stated that their greatest success in lobbying on behalf of crustaceans like crabs has been with consumers.

According to another PETA spokesperson, Ashley Byrne, consumers are starting to understand that all sea animals experience pain and that there is no scientific reason to treat them any differently than cats or dogs.

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More Humane Alternatives To Boiling Crabs

While it would be more kind to simply release crabs, the fact remains that seafood is incredibly popular. So, let’s look at a few more humane cooking methods.

Stabbing Method

The quickest way to alleviate a crab’s suffering is by using an ice pick to quickly stab it in its central nerve (if you have the heart to do so).

Freezing Method

According to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the most humane way is to partly-freeze crabs to force them into a sedated or dormant state before they are cooked.

Microwaving Method

While this cooking method is hotly debated because some would argue that it will not cook the crab on its inside, the instantly raised temperature might numb the crab’s nervous system in a matter of seconds which is far quicker than boiling methods.

Cleaver Method

Some believe that the quickest way to humanely prepare crabs for cooking is by using a cleaver to split them into two halves instantly and to pre-freeze them before doing so.


Research has conclusively proven that crabs feel pain when boiled, so it is up to consumers to ensure that they are afforded the same legal rights as our beloved pets and that we do everything we possibly can to treat them more humanely.