Updated: Jul 28, 2020
In November 2017, Sophia and I attended an Animal Consciousness conference at New York University. During the enthusiastic and crowded registration process, someone accidentally stepped on Sophia's foot. Sophia is my Service Dog and attends all events with me. She let out a YELP!! that pierced the air and made 300 people freeze in their spot. The primal sound of pain reverberated in everyone's nervous systems and produced empathetic mirror neuron response -- meaning our brains went on alert for a moment. I picked her up and hugged her, and she was fine -- but I tell you this story for a very specific reason.
One of the scientists who was presenting at the conference argued that animals do not suffer. I asked a question from the audience, describing this moment with Sophia, "Do you really believe that Sophia did not feel pain at that moment? Or that she didn't suffer?" He claimed she did not suffer because he was of the opinion that animals do not suffer.
His presentation followed the previous one by Victoria Braithwaite, author of "Do Fish Feel Pain," who presented her evidence that fish do indeed feel pain. Evidence of pain response in many species has been widely reported by several scientists in different countries. Additionally, the evidence is increasingly showing that not only do animals feel physical pain -- but that they SUFFER. And if you are a reader of my blog, you also know that they suffer emotionally as well as physically. Many species grieve, for example, at the loss of a family member.
In spite of recent scientific evidence over the past ten years showing that animals feel both physical and emotional pain, there are still some scientists who persist in outdated opinions instead of staying abreast of current research. Some will admit they feel physical pain -- but are not able to comprehend that they also feel emotional pain - which is referred to as suffering. To my ears, this position is not only false but barbaric.
It is time for the human race to have a more enlightened relationship to animals. There was a time in our not too distant past, less than a hundred years ago, when experimenters would nail a living dog to a table and eviscerate it in the name of science because they didn’t believe that dogs felt pain. According to the website Weird Science, in 1928, public shows were given by Russian Sergei Bruyukhonenko where he performed experiments on dogs with a crude machine called the Autojektor (a heart and lung machine that later led to the development of open-heart surgery). By using this primitive machine, Bruyukhonenko kept the severed heads of dogs alive. He displayed one of the severed heads in front of an audience. To prove it was real, he banged a hammer on the table. The head flinched. When a light was shone in its eyes, the eyes blinked. Another Russian scientist, Vladimir Demikhov, performed experiments in 1954 where he grafted two heads onto living dogs.
To our present minds, the Russian experiments conducted less than a hundred years ago seem insane and barbaric. It has been reported that the sounds of the dogs suffering were so severe, that the wife of the main scientist divorced him rather than continue to listen to the sounds of torture.
Victoria Braithwaite, who was one of the speakers at the NYU conference on Animal Consciousness, published a book called " Do Fish Feel Pain?" In the past 15 years, Braithwaite and other fish biologists around the world have produced substantial evidence that, just like mammals and birds, fish also experience conscious pain... “Fish do feel pain. It's likely different from what humans feel, but it is still a kind of pain.” Patrick Wall's book "The Science of Suffering" provides ample evidence, and The Smithsonian Magazine's headline on this topic read "It's Official! Fish Feel Pain."
Andrea Nolan, Principal, and Vice-Chancellor at Edinburgh Napier University says "Pain can be experienced even in the absence of physical tissue damage, and the level of feeling can be modified by other emotions including fear, memory, and stress. Pain also has different dimensions – it is often described in terms of intensity, but it also has “character,” for example, the pain of a pin-prick is very different from that of a toothache, a slipped disc or labor pain. Nearly all of us have experienced pain in our lives, but for each person, the experience is uniquely individual."
In humans, we rely on their ability to communicate their level of pain. With animals or babies, or people with certain disabilities, we don't have this verbal luxury. In this case, we have to use other methods to observe and calibrate levels of pain.
Nolan continues, "Pain is not all bad – it serves a protective function, to keep us away from further danger, to help us heal, for example by stopping us from putting weight on a sprained ankle. But if it isn’t managed effectively, it can have a major negative impact on our lives inducing fear, anger, anxiety, or depression – all emotions which may, in turn, exacerbate it." And as I have discussed in my other Animal Consciousness blogs, there is ample evidence of animals having these specific emotions.
Pain in Animals
Nolan reports on recent advances to understand and manage pain in the veterinary sciences. "The nature of pain is perhaps even more complex in animals. How pain is sensed, and the physical processes behind this are remarkably similar and well conserved across mammals and humans. There are also many similarities in pain behaviors across the species, for example, they may stop socializing with people and/or other animals, they may eat less, they may vocalize more, and their heart rate may rise. The capacity of animals to suffer as sentient creatures is well established and enshrined in law in many countries. However, we don’t understand well how they actually experience pain." Britain, for example, has legally recognized that animals do suffer, and has created laws to protect some basic "freedoms" such as freedom from suffering. However, in the recent exit discussions, 313 Tory members of the British Parliament removed any traces of the claim that animals are sentient beings in the UK legal code.
"Some aspects of the experience and expression of pain are not likely to be the same as in humans," Nolan says. "First, animals cannot verbally communicate their pain. Dogs may yelp, and you may notice a behavior change, but what about your pet rabbit, cat, tortoise, or horse? Animals rely on human observers to recognize pain and to evaluate its severity and impact. Without the ability to understand soothing words that explain that following surgery to repair a bone fracture, their pain will be managed (hopefully) and will subside; animals may also suffer more when in pain than we do."
Nolan reports a global effort to raise awareness of pain in animals. "Recently, the World Small Animal Veterinary Association launched the Global Pain Council and published a treatise for vets and animal keepers worldwide to promote pain recognition, measurement, and treatment. Dogs may be man’s best friend, but for all those who work with, care for and enjoy the company of animals, understanding how their pain feels is essential to improving the quality of their lives."
Writing in Psychology Today, Bence Nanay, Ph.D. takes on the debate about whether or not animals feel pain. He discusses how chickens and rats in one study self-administered painkillers -- but unlike some humans -- only did this when they were suffering.
He points out that "The process of pain perception is as well-understood as any other perceptual process." And he points out the neurological similarity in how animals and humans feel pain. "The receptors of pain perception in our skin are called nociceptors... When these nociceptors are activated, they send signals to the primary and secondary somatosensory cortices and the anterior cingulate cortex. This happens in humans and in other mammals (and also almost in the same way in other vertebrates). So doubting that animals feel pain is as crazy as doubting that animals see."
While we have progressed from the atrocious previous ignorance about the feeling nature of animals, we still have a long way to go. How would our world change if we believed, as Native Americans and other indigenous peoples do, in the fundamental spiritual unity of all life? For example, would we still tolerate despicable conditions for 60,000 animals every year in research laboratories, in factory farms, animals living in species -isolated cages in zoos? And of course, the excessive euthanasia, about 4,000 a day in US shelters alone.
The more we understand about the emotional lives of animals, and how they suffer emotionally and physically, the less likely we are, as a society, to tolerate inhumane treatment of our non-human animal friends.
Genie Joseph, PhD
Director: The Human-Animal Connection