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Principles Of Pain Management

20 December 2017

Pain in both animals and humans  is defined as ‘an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage.  Few animal keepers would deny that the animals they care for are capable of feeling pain.  It is recognised that ruminants have a high degree of pain tolerance and this is related to their position in the food chain, where showing obvious signs of pain could result in them being chosen as the next meal for a hungry predator.  This tolerance to pain could be misinterpreted as insensitivity to pain, although all evidence suggests that ruminants feel pain in a similar way as other mammals including humans.  While it may not be possible to be certain that an animal is feeling pain it would be reasonable to assume that any procedure which causes injury or damage to tissue may produce pain.

 Not only is the sensation of pain unpleasant for the animal and causes suffering but pain causes stress on the body which can result in delayed healing.  Pain can cause a reduction in food and water intake, increase susceptibility to infections and reduced production efficiency.

Conversely, the advantages of providing pain relief to animals included increased comfort, faster healing, improved feed intake and improvement in production efficiency.

Assessing The Animal

Assessing whether an animal is in pain and what degree of pain an animal is suffering is an important skill for a stockperson to possess.  Ruminants show a great degree of variation in their response to pain depending on factors such as age, breed, whether they are isolated from other members of the herd, whether there are potential predators (including humans) present, their environmental surroundings (animals may act differently in unfamiliar surroundings) and whether they are capable of displaying pain behaviours due to physical or chemical restraint (e.g sedatives).

In response to pain, farm animals undergo changes in heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature.  The activity level may change with the animal being either being lethargic or be restless.  Food intake may decrease resulting in weight loss and in lactating animals there will be a drop in milk yield.  Animals can appear dull and depressed and stand or lie in an abnormal posture.  Stockmen working regularly with cattle and sheep can also recognise changes in facial expressions when animals are in pain.  Although these facial expressions are often difficult to describe a dullness or staring appearance to the eyes and low carriage of the ears are commonly mentioned.  Vocalisation such as grunting, tooth grinding and bellowing in cattle or bleating in sheep may also occur.

Examples of injuries and disease which could cause tissue damage and result in pain include common conditions such as:

  • lameness
  • mastitis
  • pneumonia
  • difficult lambing or calving

Dealing quickly with injury or disease using pain relief will aid healing and increase the chance of return to full health.

Examples of procedures which are performed on animals which are likely to cause a degree of pain include:

  • castration
  • disbudding and dehorning procedures
  • tail docking
  • caesarean section

Animals undergoing the above procedures should be given appropriate pain relief. This will not only make the procedure easier to carry out as the animal is less likely to struggle during the procedure but will allow faster recovery and help to ensure future productivity is maximised.

Katy Hewitson, SAC Consulting Veterinary Services

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