Do Animals Feel Pain?

When I was a first year vet student our anatomy lab was just next door to the medical school anatomy lab. One day we had a visit from our fellow Med students while we happened to dissect a dog’s brain. I recall that one of the visitors commented in genuine surprise – “I didn’t know dogs had a nervous system”. Well, aside from the simple ignorance expressed in this comment, it actually represents an unfortunate misconception, which is common even with many intelligent and educated individuals. That is, animals are built completely different from us and, among other differences, they don’t feel pain like we do.

I would like to dispel this misconception once and for all. It is true that animals don’t say “it hurts” in plain English. It is also true that animals can tolerate chronic pain pretty well without showing overt signs. However, that doesn’t mean animals don’t feel pain. In fact, they feel pain just like we do, it affects their quality of life significantly, and therefore they deserve their discomfort to be treated effectively.

The perception of pain, its type and intensity, is a subjective phenomena, yet pain can be detected and measured scientifically and objectively. Pain sensors of different kinds are located throughout our body. When these sensors come across something they should “report”, like a piece of glass cutting a finger or an infection invading a tooth root, they send the information through designated tracts of nerves in the nervous system all the way to the brain, where the sensation of pain is taking shape and form. This is a very sophisticated system with an added ability to modify and control the sensation. That is why, for example, some people can train themselves to walk on fire or to lie on a bed of nails. The inner workings of the pain system, or as referred to in professional jargon – the nociceptive system, are the subject of intensive research. Numerous types of drugs and treatment modalities (e.g. massage, acupuncture) were developed to mediate pain perception.

So what about animals?

Anatomic and physiologic studies have conclusively determined that mammals, including our dogs and cats, possess the same components of the nociceptive system

as ours within their nervous system. Moreover, the same drugs and treatments that alleviate pain in people have the same effect on animals. The conclusion is inevitable – animals feel pain in a similar way that we do even though they can’t express it verbally. It is wrong to assume that someone doesn’t feel pain just because they don’t say so. All we need to do is learn how to detect pain despite not having verbal communication. An example – in my clinic, I often have to explain to pet owners that lameness invariably indicates pain. People often reply with surprise – “Fluffy never cried”. They thought that without crying there is no pain because this is how young children, who, like animals, can’t express themselves verbally, react to pain. I then explain that limping is their way of expressing the pain. Putting weight on an injured leg hurts, hence the animal shifts its weight away from that leg, which creates the limp.

In the last 2 decades extensive research in the veterinary field was undertaken to detect and measure pain in animals. Multiple parameters, both physiological and behavioral, were found to be closely correlated with pain, and pain scoring systems were developed to help veterinarians and owners monitor pain levels in dogs and cats. We at PetPace believe that our smart collar, which monitors these exact parameters, can help tremendously in detecting and evaluating pain in dogs and cats. We hope that it will increase owners awareness to their pet’s discomfort and encourage them to take action to improve their pet’s well-being and quality of life.

Dr. Asaf Dagan, DVM, DABVP, CVA, LLB
Chief Veterinary Scientist
PetPace LTD