The Animal Doctor by Dr. Michael W. Fox

Animals Don’t Feel Pain Like We Do: True Or False?

DEAR DR. FOX: I recently met a brilliant student and animal rehab worker, who said she has heard from hunters that animals don’t feel pain the way people do.

I remember you sending me very quotable words on that subject, but can’t find it just now. I wanted to pass those words on to the student I met, and also have them available to quote in the book I’m writing about my field studies of bears. Do you still have those lines you sent me previously, or could you send them again? -- L.R., Ely, Minnesota

DEAR L.R.: I, and many others, will certainly enjoy your book about your dedicated field studies of the bears in the north woods of Minnesota when it is published.

The belief that other animals do not feel pain like humans do is patently absurd. This is probably a form of denial to allow hunters not to feel guilt or remorse from taking another’s life. Just in Minnesota this season, some 250,000 hunters of white-tailed deer will “harvest” up to a third of the million deer that currently overpopulate the state. By contrast, for traditional indigenous and native American subsistence-hunters, killing is a sacred, solemn ritual involving deep respect and gratitude. I wonder how often such sentiments and ethics are passed on by non-native people to younger generations.

All mammals, the class to which we belong, feel pain as a natural mechanism to avoid physical injury. Individuals have different pain thresholds, be they humans or dogs, deer or deer mice. But we share the same neural pathways that mediate the pain response from receptors in the skin, joints and various internal organs and linings of the body.

Natural opiates may be released following injury to reduce the intensity of pain -- even in earthworms -- and to facilitate escape and recovery. The adrenal glands produce a surge of adrenaline, noradrenaline and corticosteroids following injury and stress/distress. These glands, and the central (cognitive) nervous system, are intimately linked with the nociceptive (pain-response) system, and they are associated with the fright, flight or fight response. They are also linked with alarm signals (visual, auditory and scent) to others and, in some instances, with catatonia (“playing ‘possum”) -- a freezing response of immobility that may help avoid predators. This is seen in some people who are “paralyzed” by fear.

If I were a hunter, I would follow the native American teaching to all young hunters: Kill the deer (or other food-prey) swiftly, with one arrow, otherwise you would be feeding the animal’s fear to your family. All hunters should be concerned about animals’ fear. Indeed, animals that are stressed and fearful prior to slaughter have poor meat quality, sometimes called “slimy pork” and “dark-cutting beef” by the meat industry. In Japan, I learned that fish gourmets can taste the difference between a fish that was caught and killed swiftly and one that struggled and fought to be free from a hook in its sensitive mouth, or struggled and slowly suffocated in nets.


Dogs appear to be able to differentiate between words with slightly different vowel sounds, according to findings published in Biology Letters. Dogs of various breeds were played recordings of people saying six words that varied only by their vowels, and a majority reacted when either the voice or the word changed, meaning “they (might) comprehend more than we give them credit for,” said researcher Holly Root-Gutteridge. (New Scientist, Dec. 4)


Some of the features that make Persian cats popular might also contribute to health problems in the breed, according to a scientific report in Nature. Nearly 65% of Persian cats in the U.K.’s VetCompass database have at least one disorder, including coat, dental and eye problems; kidney disease is the most common cause of death in the breed. (VetSurgeon U.K., Sept. 18)

(Send all mail to or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.

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