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Recognizing Pain in Animals

Research animals can experience pain during and after many types of experimental procedures. In order to effectively treat pain in animals, research personnel must be able to recognize signs of pain in the species they are working with.

Recognizing Pain

  • Mechanisms of pain perception are similar in all mammals, but the ability to tolerate and cope with pain varies between species. For example, prey species such as rodents may not show obvious signs of pain to avoid signaling to predators that they are ill and would be an easy meal.

  • An animal experiencing mild to moderate pain may display only subtle behavioral signs associated with its discomfort.

  • Moderate to severe pain will usually lead to more obvious changes in normal physiology and behavior.

  • Research personnel must have a basic knowledge of normal behavior and physiology for the species they are using in order to recognize abnormalities resulting from pain or distress.
  • This online tutorial produced by AHWLA provides an introduction to the recognition of postoperative pain in animals.

Specific signs associated with pain in rodents

  • Decreased activity or a reluctance to move
  • Hunched or other abnormal posture or gait (e.g., lameness)
  • Rough, greasy-looking coat (due to lack of normal grooming)
  • Dark, red material around the eyes and nose in rats
  • Excessive licking or chewing of a body part or area
  • Decreased appetite and/or weight loss
  • Unusual aggressiveness when handled
  • Following abdominal surgery:
    • Stretching and back arching
    • Abdominal pressing onto the cage floor
    • Frequent sudden short movements

Physiologic changes that may be observed in animals experiencing pain include:

  • Fluctuations in body temperature, heart and breathing rates and blood pressure
  • Weight loss
  • Dehydration