Animal pain: current concepts

Comparing pain in animals with that of humans


Animals play multiple roles in our lives. They are not only our food but also companions and beasts of burden. They not just enrich our lives but also make us better human beings. From the Islamic viewpoint, animals represent Allah's might and wisdom, and humanity must pay attention to their health and living conditions.
Pain is recognized as one of the most challenging problems in medicine and biology. It varies on a continuous scale ranging from perception threshold to intensities that human beings describe as intolerable. In 1931, the French medical missionary Dr. Albert Schweitzer wrote, "Pain is a more terrible lord of mankind than even death itself." Unrelieved pain has serious side effects; therefore the containment of such a stressor is vital. The chronic activation of the catabolic (the breaking down in living organisms of more complex substances into simpler ones, with the release of energy) process of the stress response can ultimately cause multiple body system dysfunctions.
Human beings irrespective of their level of literacy have always been assuming that the animals suffer from either no or mild pain. But the extensive research in this field carried out during the last two decades has proved this notion baseless. The facts reveal that, in mammals, and possibly in other vertebrates, the receptors (a sensory nerve ending that responds to various stimuli), nerves, transmitters, and spinal pathways are the same as in humans. Since the anatomic structures and neuro-physiologic mechanisms leading to the perception of pain (nociception) and cerebral electrical activity (brainwaves) measured via the electroencephalogram (EEG) are remarkably similar in human beings and various animal species, it is reasonable to assume that if a stimulus is painful to people, is damaging or potentially damaging to tissues, and induces escape and emotional responses in animals, it must be considered painful to that animal. Also there is no reason to suppose that in evolution the perception of pain appears as a wholly new sensory phenomenon in human beings. In fact, the intensity of pain induced by a single pin prick in a variety of creature’s right from a trout fish to an elephant is similar to that of a human being. As in human beings, the pain tolerance also varies widely among individuals and within a given individual from time to time. The eminent British neurologist Lord Walter Russell Brain (1895-1966) observed, “I personally can see no reason for conceding mind to my fellow men and denying it to animals”.
Pain may have a certain protective role in minimizing tissue damage. Animals learn many things about their environment through pain, and acute pain frequently serves to change behaviour and prevent further tissue damage. This type of pain called physiological pain is discrete, proportionate and protective and resolves once the cause is removed or gets subsided. Nevertheless, it must be recognized that alone this physiological pain is a rare entity in the clinical setting. On the other hand the pathological (clinical) pain encountered very often serves as a stimulus for destructive behavior and there are no beneficial effects of this unrelieved pain. The men and animals that have extensive trauma and inflammation will have varying degree of peripheral and central ‘sensitization’ and will experience pain that is diffuse, disproportionate and deliberative and that continues for days or weeks beyond resolution of the inflammatory process. Pain is therefore now considered as the “Fourth Vital Sign” in All Creatures Great and Small.
The intensity of pain in animals should be judged by the same criteria that apply to its recognition and to its physiologic and behavioural observations in human beings. It is difficult to assess pain in human beings, because the experience of pain is unique to each individual. In animals these difficulties are magnified because of a lack of effective means of communication between animal and caretaker. Probably the most practical reflection of emotional pain in animals is their behaviour. Signs commonly associated with pain in animals include: vocalization (grunting or bellowing), abnormal standing posture, teeth grinding, tail swishing, changed facial expressions, decreased body weight or milk production, reluctance to move, decreased appetite, decreased grazing, kicking or stamping of feet, restlessness, head turning, limping and depression.
The use of pain scales to record pain intensity is well established for human patients and is becoming more common in pet animals. There is however, a fundamental difference; human patients score their own pain on the various scales, whereas pain assessment in animals requires an observer (they cannot communicate directly with us). Unfortunately, pain recognition in cattle, sheep, goats and horses is more difficult due to their evolution as ‘prey animals’. These prey animals have learned to hide signs of pain and weakness in order to prevent becoming a predator’s next meal. Horse suffering from highly painful conditions like fractured limb continues to nibble greenery and is said to “kick off” the pain. This self-preservation instinct, a help in the wild, can hinder veterinarians and producers trying to recognize and alleviate pain in their animals. In evaluating an animal for physical pain, it is important to know the normal behavior. The normal behavior of an individual may be quite different from the normal behavior of another individual. Even if an animal is acting in a way that is considered to be normal for that species, but its behavior is a radical change from its own normal behavior, then pain may be the cause. The animal owner may therefore be the best person to evaluate the level of anxiety or pain that the animal may be experiencing. Unlike the situation in small-animal medicine, there are no validated science-based pain assessment tools for use in domestic animals. This lack of validated pain assessment tools provides a significant hurdle in the development of analgesics for these animals.
The overall therapy may use a combination of non-pharmacological and pharmacological (use of drugs) approaches. The pain relieving drugs (analgesics) used currently for animals are generally effective. However, as in medical practice analgesics along with antibiotics are the most indiscriminately used drugs. Their non-judicious use could lead to several side effects in these animals as well as to those species utilizing their meat or products when sufficient withdrawal time is not followed. A withdrawal time is the interval between the time of the last administration of a drug and the time when the treated animal can be safely slaughtered for food or its milk consumed. The death of a large number of vultures in India and Pakistan during the recent past was attributed to the consumption of meat of cattle carcases (dead animals) treated with analgesic Diclofenac before death.
Non-pharmacological approaches to alleviate pain in animals include good husbandry practices, nutritional support, acupuncture and acupressure. Animals should be kept clean, in well-ventilated areas with as little stress as possible. Careful attention should be paid to ensure that their nutritional needs are met with. Concurrent illness or injuries should be treated in accordance with good veterinary practices. Immobilization and support with casts, splints or bandages, physical therapy such as massage, stretching and appropriate use of hot or cold packs should be instituted whenever required.
The current scientific data clearly indicate that the complex pain mechanisms, its intensity and assessment criteria in animals are similar to that of human beings. Similar management protocols need to be followed to reduce their agony. Several sayings put forth more than fourteen hundred years ago by our beloved prophet (may Allah’s blessings and peace be upon him), prohibit us from inflicting pain, thoughtless injuries and cruelty to animals. In fact, the life on this planet is a historical journey traveled together by humans and animals. A sense of great obligation should prevail on man not only to other human life but to nonhuman life as well.
“Unseen they suffer, unheard they cry.
In agony they linger, in silence they die.
Is it nothing to you, all ye who pass by?” -Anonymous.
Dr. Mujeeb Fazili, Associate Professor, Faculty of Veterinary Sciences,  SKUAST-K, Shuhama, Srinagar. Reach him at

Lastupdate on : Fri, 25 Jan 2013 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Fri, 25 Jan 2013 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Sat, 26 Jan 2013 00:00:00 IST

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