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In English, just as in my native language, one can speak of an animal and a beast. In Dutch one speaks of "een dier" or "een beest". In Italian, you have "un'animale" and "una bestia". In German only "ein Tier" is used.
So I'm not sure if this the appropriate site. But if, then what is the difference between an animal and a beast? Is it that a beast is referring to a subset of animals? If you say "You're an animal!" then this sounds the same to me as "You're a beast!" So, to use beast as a negatively sounding word doesn't seem to be appropriate.
One can speak of the (small) beasts crawling and jumping on your head (flees). No one says that there are (small) animals crawling on their head.
It's a bit confusing. Are the two words just synonyms? Are all animals beasts and all beasts animals?

Why not say "Beauty and the animal"?

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    To Robert Burns, a mouse was a beast[ie]. But it wouldn't have been so poetic if he'd written Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous animal. You can certainly say "Beauty and the animal" if you want. Jun 9 '21 at 16:28
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    Beast used to be a synonym of animal, but in modern English it usually refers in an idiomatic way to disagreeable or fierce animals ('wild beasts'). Fleas are insects and wouldn't normally be described as animals. There's also the coinage 'minibeasts', referring to small garden creatures that children can study. Jun 9 '21 at 19:08
  • In the 1980s I went out with a woman whose parents were Yorkshire cattle farmers. Every evening Dad and brothers went out to 'see to the beasts'. Jun 9 '21 at 19:48
  • @MichaelHarvey Yes, it had occurred to me that that might be another current usage of the word. Jun 10 '21 at 7:57
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This is an excellent question. From what I have found in doing research, the consensus from dictionaries seems to be that a beast is usually a mammal that

  • is large; and
  • has four feet.

"Beasts" are usually considered to be dangerous and/or vicious creatures, but this is not always the case. According to this definition, a horse could be a beast: however we don't consider horses to be dangerous and/or vicious (of course if you provoke them, they can be).

As such, one could consider animals like tigers, elephants, lions, hippos, and the "Beast" in Beauty and the Beast to be "beasts".

In terms of using "animal" or "beast" pejoratively as you mention in your question, the negative connotation comes from what I mentioned earlier about "beasts" being thought of as dangerous, vicious, depraved creatures. I've rarely heard someone called a "beast" in a negative sense: it seems that the term has gained a more positive reputation recently to refer to someone as being tough or skilled or unique in some other ability.

I have, however, heard the term "animal" used in a negative sense: of course, this stems from the fact that (some) humans consider themselves to be above other animals, whether because of our advanced intellect or our more "cultivated" concept of morality, so to speak. As a result, calling someone an "animal" implies that they are lesser than, either due to their behaviour or prejudice on the part of the speaker towards other groups of people.

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  • That's an excellent answer too! I once saw Dustin Hofmann (in Straw Dogs, playing an astrophysicist who turned violent upon intruders who threatened his wife) saying to his wife "You're an animal", when she tried to pull him in for making love, while he was doing calculations on stars.
    – Methadont
    Jun 9 '21 at 19:21
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    What kman3 didn't say is that beast (in its literal sense) is not a very common word. To me it reads as very old-fashioned.
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 9 '21 at 22:21
  • But beastly is definitely negative, and stems from the use of beast to mean a distasteful or fierce animal. Jun 10 '21 at 8:00
  • Animalistic is also negative but an adjective. Only beast has an adverbial form.
    – EllieK
    Nov 8 '21 at 14:02

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