Very few of us have gotten far in life without experiencing some form of physical pain. Although many of us desire a pain-free life, the feeling serves an important purpose: to send the message that something is wrong, so your body can respond and prevent further damage. Think about the times you stubbed your toe. Chances are, you recoiled immediately from the surface that caused your suffering. Thanks to a wealth of evidence, we can answer the question, “Do animals feel pain?” with a clear “yes”. And the way they do it is very similar to the way humans do it.
Do animals feel pain? That’s how we know.
Although animals cannot speak to us by engaging in casual conversation, they are perfectly capable of conveying happiness, trust, fear, and pain. Just like us, animals can scream when they are in pain, like a cat that howls when its tail is stepped on, or they tend their wounds, like a wild wolf that licks its wound and retreats.
It is so pervasive for animals to feel pain that there are animal welfare laws around the world to protect them from needless suffering. “There is no doubt that farm animals experience pain in a very similar way to humans,” explains Gwendolen Reyes-Illg, DVM, MA and veterinary consultant for the Farm Animal Program at the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI). “We know that animals have the same pain receptors and their nervous systems have the same structure as humans.”
When a person feels pain caused by external injuries, such as B. touching a hot stove, the body reacts in different ways. First, Reflexes will make us retreat from the source of the damage. Next, sensory neurons called nociceptors send information about the location and intensity of the injury along the spinal cord and to the brain, resulting in a sensation of pain. Then the brain could release the feel-good chemical dopamine to counteract the uncomfortable feeling.
There’s also an emotional component that can affect how you respond to the pain – someone getting a tattoo, for example, may feel pain, but the way they feel about it is different from an athlete who sprained a muscle. Several studies have shown that responding to unwanted pain works the same way in animals. “The changes in their brain waves and their physiology are very similar to what you would find in humans,” says Reyes-Illg.
While we know that animals experience pain, not all of their pain is treated in the same way. When a cat or dog is spayed or neutered they will be given anesthesia to ensure they experience as little discomfort as possible.
But in the United States and in many countries around the world, farm animals such as pigs, chickens, and cows are not treated with the same courtesy. For them, the lack of painkillers is practically universal, although painful procedures are common. Chickens have their beaks trimmed while turkeys have their toes trimmed. Piglets born in the pork industry have their tails docked, their needle teeth (milk teeth that pigs are born with) cut, their ears notched, and the males castrated.
Unfortunately, the pain doesn’t stop once the animal’s injury has healed. Research suggests that animals that have undergone amputation, such as tail docking in pigs and dogs, may suffer from chronic pain where the body part used to be. This is due to the formation of neuromas that occur when the severed nerves at the amputation site try but are unable to heal. These neuromas can cause pain for weeks, months, or until the end of the livestock’s short life.
Why are farm animals not given painkillers?
According to an AWI survey published in the summer, almost half of consumers are unaware that painful procedures on livestock are common. But 87 percent responded that animals should be given painkillers when scientific research shows they are in significant pain. This leads to the question: If people believe that animals raised to eat deserve pain relief, why does their pain continue to go unrecognized and untreated?
“At the federal level in the US there is virtually no protection and nothing that requires the use of painkillers while animals are on a farm,” says Reyes-Illg. Research shows that certain drugs are effective and could improve farm animal welfare. However, there are a number of obstacles standing in the way of government, industry, trade associations, veterinarians and farmers making this standard practice.
Any pain medication given to animals must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). To add another layer of complications, this drug can only be administered to treat its approved use. For example, the transdermal anti-inflammatory drug flunixin is approved to control fever and foot rot pain associated with respiratory disease in cattle, but it cannot be used to treat castration pain. Painkillers may only be administered under veterinary supervision.
“Many animals raised for food don’t have regular contact with a veterinarian, who may only be called if there’s a problem,” says Reyes-Illg. “Because there are no FDA-approved medications to treat pain caused by procedures such as spaying, dehorning and tail-docking, veterinary oversight is required by law when using pain medications. Prescribing these drugs to livestock increases veterinarian liability. If they administer a drug that is not FDA approved for a specific use, and drug residues are found in the meat when the animal is slaughtered, the veterinarian is the one held accountable.”
How can the industry do better?
From a vegan perspective, an ideal world would not view animals raised en masse as consumer goods. But there are ways to push for better welfare standards. The reason so many animals raised for food undergo painful procedures is because of the environment in which they are raised.
According to estimates by the nonprofit think tank Sentience Institute, about 99 percent of livestock in the United States live on factory farms — industrial-scale operations that raise large numbers of animals to maximize profit and minimize resources. These animals are kept in intensive confinement where their movements are strictly forbidden, which can lead to aggressive behavior towards other animals, including pecking, scratching and biting.
Changing the way factory farms work would improve the lives of these animals, explains Reyes-Illg. This includes giving animals an enrichment that allows them to exhibit natural behaviors. For chickens, this includes space for pecking, scratching, perching and dust bathing.
“It’s a similar situation with tail docking in piglets,” she says. “Pigs are very intelligent, inquisitive, inquisitive animals that have a strong urge to dig around and explore their surroundings. But if they are in a completely barren environment [like a factory farm], they have nothing to do for hours and hours. Sometimes there are outbreaks on these farms where one piglet starts biting and pretty soon it is so widespread that some of them die from infection.”
This can be counteracted to some extent by improving the living conditions of the animals and granting them better legal protection, which is what groups like the AWI are campaigning for at federal and state level.
For example, in January 2021, a consortium of researchers led by the American Association of Swine Veterinarians received a $650,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to validate and study the pain caused by castration of piglets measure to create a framework for treating pain. Project collaborators include the FDA, Smithfield Foods and the National Pork Board.
Another option would be to greatly reduce the number of animals confined to one farm. But for that to work, the industry would have to make major changes and society would have to greatly reduce its consumption of animal products.
If the industry’s overall disregard for animals has got you thinking about your personal eating habits, then you might consider eliminating animal products altogether. (See our vegan starter guides here.) Additionally, you can advocate for incremental changes that improve the lives of livestock by learning more about what types of animal welfare laws have been put in place in your state and asking your local legislators for support.
Read more about animal ethics:
Is honey vegan? Here’s why bees do it
15 vegan children’s books for kids who love animals
Legislators are requiring FDA-established guidelines for cruelty-free drug testing
Vote at the 2022 Best Vegan Ice Cream in America Awards.
Vote at the 2022 Best Vegan Ice Cream in America Awards.