Health & Management / Ruminants Pain Management / Techniques and protocols OVERVIEW:
< > Reasons for Pain Relief:
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Introduction and General Information

Pain and associated distress is a welfare problem. It is generally agreed that we have a duty to minimise the pain and suffering of animals that are under our care. (J4.221.w2) The "Five Freedoms" described by the Farm Animal Welfare Council in the UK include "Freedom from pain, injury or disease" and "Freedom from fear and distress."  (J35.161.w2, W550.Dec04.w1) The same Five Freedoms are accepted as principles providing a framework for the Secretary of State's Standards of Modern Zoo Practice (D15 - full text included in Wildpro) which zoos in the UK are expected to adhere to. It is therefore expected that pain will be prevented if possible and rapidly diagnosed and treated if it occurs. (J35.161.w2)
  • Veterinary surgeons in the UK (members of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons) have a responsibility to ensure the welfare of animals under their care, including a specific responsibility to their patients, set out in the RCVS Guide to Professional Conduct, not to cause any patient to suffer "by failure to maintain adequate pain control and relief of suffering."  (D155.1C.w3)

While physiological pain is essential to survival and protects the organism from damage, pain is also unpleasant and causes suffering, and humans have a moral and ethical obligation to protect animals from pain and suffering. (J4.221.w2)

  • Vertebrate animals appear to have similar nociceptive pathways which assimilate pain in similar ways; variations which exist in neurological anatomy do not appear to represent "differences in the sensation of pain." (J4.221.w4)
  • Based on comparative biology it is reasonable to assume that conditions which cause pain in humans also cause pain in animals. (J290.21.w2)
  • While it is not possible to be certain that animals are feeling pain, nevertheless it is generally accepted that any procedure or injury which causes damage to tissues may produce pain in animals, including wild animals. (P56.1.w22)

It is possible that there may be situations in which pain is "worse" for animals (and human infants) than for adult humans since the animal (like the infant) may not be able to conceive that the pain will end. (J4.221.w8, N12.34.w1)

Published Guidelines linked in Wildpro
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Disadvantages of pain to the animal

There are both psychological and physiological effects of pain which are disadvantageous:
  • Pain is unpleasant. (B322.1.w1, P53.24.w1)
  • Pain causes suffering. (J16.36.w1, P53.24.w1, B207.2.w2)
  • Pain stimulates a stress response which can result in delayed healing. (J16.36.w1, B207.2.w2, B322.1.w1)
  • "Pain may result in tissue ischemia, tissue hypoxia, shock, severe cardiac arrhythmias, atelectasis, renal failure, and a catabolic state." (J288.59.w2)
  • Pain can slow recovery from surgery and healing of wounds, with longer recumbency and a greater risk of post-operative complications. (J16.36.w1, J288.59.w2, B207.2.w2, B322.1.w1, P53.24.w1)
  • Pain increases catabolism. (J16.36.w1, B207.2.w2; B322.1.w1, P53.24.w1)
  • Pain can decrease intake of food and water. (J16.36.w1, B207.2.w2; B322.1.w1, J284.71.w1, P53.24.w1)
  • Immobility caused by pain may lead to a range of problems including muscle spasm, muscle atrophy, pressure sores, urine scalding, soiling with faeces. (B322.1.w1)
  • Pain can result in ineffective ventilation. (J16.36.w1, B322.1.w1, B207.2.w2)
    • This predisposes to the development of acidosis.(J16.36.w1, B207.2.w2)
  • Pain may lead to self-mutilation. (J16.36.w1, P53.24.w1, B207.2.w2)
  • Pain may lead to a general reduction in "self-maintenance" behaviours. (B322.1.w1)
  • Acute pain can lead to hyperalgesia. (P53.24.w1)
  • Acute pain can lead to chronic pain and debilitating changes in the central nervous system. (J16.36.w1; B207.2.w2)
  • Chronic pain may lead to endocrine and metabolic changes "which are generally detrimental to the animal." (B322.1.w1)
  • Pain may affect immune function and therefore susceptibility to infection. (J284.71.w1)
  • Pain initiates a stress response which alters metabolic and hormonal balance and often leads to a state of catabolism. (J4.221.w3)
    • Stress increases susceptibility to infection and reduces production efficiency, as well as being unacceptable in welfare terms. (B207.2.w2)
  • Unrelieved pain can cause loss of weight, muscle breakdown, impaired respiration, raised blood pressure and prolonged convalescence. Failure in pain management may lead to self mutilation and chronic pain. (J4.212.w2)
  • Prolonged or severe pain may result in depression, weight loss and reduced productivity. (P61.62.w3)
  • NOTE: Cardiovascular responses in response to pain, in association with other physiological disturbances such as dehydration, acid-base imbalance and/or toxic shock, may contribute to a fatal outcome of a condition. (B207.2.w2)

Lameness as an example: 

Lameness, which is generally due to pain, has been studied in both cattle and sheep and findings from such studies may be relevant for other painful conditions:

  • Lameness in cattle and sheep is recognised as causing hyperalgesia, as indicated by lowered nociceptive thresholds. (J15.24.w1, J297.39.w1, J3.137.w6)
  • Lameness in sheep, a common painful condition, is known to result in decreased time spent eating and consequently decreased fertility, decreased conception rates, increased susceptibility to metabolic diseases such as pregnancy toxaemia, increased mortality of lambs (due to low birthweight, poor colostrum and reduced milk production by the mother) and reduced growth rates of lambs from lame mothers. (J15.26.w1)

Effects of pain on the immune system:

Emotional states [including pain] are able to strongly influence body processes, including immune modulation. (J4.214.w1)

  • While brief or mild pain may enhance elements of the immune system "the overwhelming bulk of the evidence indicates that severe or chronic pain is associated with reductions in immune system competence." (P61.62.w3)
  • For example:
    • Surgery in rats in the absence of analgesia increased the likelihood of tumour metastasis in rats; the effect was mediated via inhibition of natural killer cells in the immune system and was blocked by administration of morphine as an analgesic. (J297.54.w1)
    • Use of spinal block (epidural bupivacaine plus morphine) during halothane anaesthesia for surgery in rats decreased by 70% an increase in lung tumour retention over the level seen in rats undergoing the same surgery under halothane anaesthesia alone. (J302.94.w1)
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Possible advantages of pain, and caveats

  • Pain is a useful diagnostic sign. (J16.36.w1)
    • However, once the cause of the pain has been identified and treated, continuing pain is not useful in this respect. (J16.36.w1)
  • Pain is a protective mechanism designed to ensure that the animal removes itself from a noxious stimulus and subsequently encouraging immobility to promote healing. (J16.36.w1)
    • However, the aversive element is not relevant for man-made trauma such as surgical trauma, while any immobility and protection of the wound required may be obtained through the use of appropriate dressings and nursing. (J16.36.w1)

Further discussion is available in: Failure to Provide Pain Relief - Concern about removing protective effects of pain

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Practical and economic advantages of pain relief 

"Clearly, management practices that induce pain are both counterproductive and counterintuitive to farm production." (J4.221.w4)

Ease of carrying out a procedure:

  • Use of local anaesthetics when carrying out treatment that may be painful may make the procedure easier as it reduces the chance that the animal will move in response to pain during the procedure. (J15.24.w1)

Increasing productivity:

  • Pain is likely to produce stress and result in loss of productivity (e.g. reduced milk yield, reduced fertility. (B207.2.w2, P61.62.w1)
    • Losses associated with lameness in dairy cattle have been estimated to be about 27% of the total cost associated with health problems in dairy cattle. Much of this cost is associated with reduced milk yield, increased culling, a longer calving interval and extra services. (J35.154.w1)
    • Lameness in sheep can result in significant production losses including reductions in fertility, increased risk of metabolic diseases in ewes, increased mortality of lambs and decreased growth rates in lambs. (B343.w4, J15.26.w1)
    • Controlling pain may reduce development of hyperalgesia; this may improve recovery and production. (J15.24.w1)

Reducing morbidity and mortality: 

  • Cardiovascular responses such as tachycardia, polypnoea and hyperthermia in response to pain, in association with other physiological disturbances such as dehydration, acid-base imbalance and/or toxic shock, may contribute to a fatal outcome of a condition. (B207.2.w2)
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Advantages of pain relief to the animal

Advantages of pain relief to the animal are reversal of the negative effects of pain detailed above in the section Disadvantages of pain to the animal. In summary these include:
  • Improved comfort. (J16.28.w1)
  • Faster recovery from surgery or trauma. (J16.28.w1, J16.36.w1, J288.59.w2, B207.2.w2, B322.1.w1, P53.24.w1)
  • Faster return to normal intake of food and water. (J16.28.w1)
  • Reduced susceptibility to disease. (J284.71.w1)
  • Avoidance of development of hyperalgesia and chronic pain. (J16.36.w1; B207.2.w2, P53.24.w1)
  • Reduced stress. (J4.221.w3, B207.2.w2)
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When should pain be relieved?

There is still debate concerning the nature of pain in animals and the subjective experience of pain in animals. However it is most humane to presume that animals experience pain and that this pain should be alleviated. (J16.28.w1)

Examples of circumstances in which pain is likely to occur and should be treated include (but are not limited to): (J16.28.w1, J303.12.w1)

  • Traumatic injury;
  • Mastitis;
  • Acute severe conjunctivitis;
  • Respiratory disease;
  • Periparturient inflammatory disease;
  • Musculoskeletal injuries and inflammatory limb and foot lesions;
  • Other inflammatory lesions;
  • During and following surgical procedures, including laparotomy, foot surgery, castration, disbudding, dehorning;
  • Acute abdominal pain;
    • Analgesics generally should not be used prior to diagnosis of acute abdominal pain (except where signs of severe pain are hindering clinical examination) but may be used once the cause of the pain has been diagnosed. (J16.28.w1)

(J16.28.w1, J303.12.w1)

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Authors & Referees

Authors Dr Debra Bourne MA VetMB PhD MRCVS (V.w5)
Referee A.B.Forbes BVM&S.,CBiol.,MIBiol.,DipEVPC.,MRCVS (V.w66)

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