Do fish feel pain?

By: Cristen Conger
Can lobsters feel the pain of that boiling water?
Seiya Kawamoto/Getty Images

In the August 2004 issue of Gourmet magazine, David Foster Wallace asked readers to "Co­nsider the Lobster." What started out as a routine assignment to Maine's annual lobster festival spiraled into a quest to understand the lobster's point of view from entrapment to the dinner table. After all, lobsters look rather pathetic in grocery store tanks, clobbering each other with banded pincers. Their reward for enduring uncomfortable quarters is death by being boiled alive. And to top it off, the sound of steam whistling through the dying lobsters' shells mimics that of a final farewell scream.

Setting aside any anthropomorphic sentiment, what's the truth? Are people who cook lobsters merciless murderers who inflict cruel and unusual punishment on their crusty captives? (Spoiler alert: Wallace doesn't give us a concrete answer.) Pain is a complex experience to measure -- especially when the subject can't self-report. Mammals, such as your dog or cat, display more obvious pain signals by breathing heavily, guarding the wounded area of their bodies and vocalizing distress. Fish, on the other hand, thrash about on the end of the line, but that's about it.


About a year before Wallace's lobster piece hit the stands, physiologist Lynne Sneddon hooked some major public attention. Sneddon published a study proposing that fish -- specifically rainbow trout -- can detect and feel pain. Previous research on whether fish feel pain focused solely on cartilaginous species like sharks. For the first time, Sneddon's work documented potential pain sensations in teleostic (bony) fish.

­More precisely, Sneddon discovered the presen­ce of 58 pain receptors called nociceptors along the trout's lips. She did so by testing the effects of bee venom and acetic acid injections into the mouth area. The affected fish exhibited "anomalous behavior," such as rubbing their noses into gravel and shaking their bodies [source: Sneddon]. Since morphine appeared to ease the discomfort, Sneddon concluded that the trout's reactions weren't simply reflexive but genuine displays of pain response.

The study's reception among the fishing industry and other scientists wasn't entirely smooth sailing. One critique dismissed the findings, arguing that fish lack the brain complexity to feel pain. Others chalked it up to a natural physiological response to a threatening situation. Animal rights advocates, on the other hand, saw it as proof positive of the inhumanity of recreational and industrial fishing.

In a way, all parties were correct.


Fish Pain

That trout's nociceptors are probably firing like crazy.
Guy Crittenden/Getty Images

We know that pain is uncomfortable, but what exactly is going on in our bodies that causes us to wince and tear up? According to the International Association for the Study of Pain, pain is a twofold experience. First, you have the neurobio­logical process of our nerves communicating with the brain. Second, there's the emotional response to pain that varies from person to person. (For more details, you can read about humans' pain response in How Pain Works.)

Despite its bad reputation, pain can be a handy survival tool. Think about the sensory reaction of putting your hand on a hot stove, registering the burn and retracting your arm. In this way, pain protects us. It tells your body that you're in danger of tissue damage and need to get to safety. Nociceptor nerve cells in our bodies deliver that initial pain-related communiqué along a route through the central nervous system to the brain. Research has shown that other mammals, birds and fish also have nociceptors. The presence of those nerve cells implies that fish have the sensory capability to recognize when something is harming their bodies. Hence, fish can experience the neurological pain process.


One of the primary arguments against fish having a sense of pain is that their brains lack the structural elements, namely the neocortex, necessary for it. Although fish's brains are certainly less complex than ours, they aren't mindlessly floating around in the water. Akin to the fight-or-flight response, fish have chemicals in their bodies that are released when they're in danger [source: Chandroo, Duncan and Moccia]. Fish also possess pain nerve fiber tracts in their bodies that are similar to those that tetrapods (vertebrates with four limbs) have [source: Chandroo, Duncan and Moccia]. Overall, the scientific consensus is that fish have the anatomical requirements to demonstrate neurophysiologic and behavioral reactions to pain as a means of survival [source: Braithwaite and Huntingford].

However, little evidence exists to suggest that the fish also react emotionally to pain like humans. As another way of safeguarding our bodies, our pain response comes with a negative emotional reaction that excites the amygdala in our brains and forms a memory of the unpleasant effect of a particular stimulus. For that reason, most children will touch a hot stove only once. Fish brains do contain an amygdaloid complex, but it produces aggression rather than fear [source: Chandroo, Duncan and Moccia]. Nevertheless, fish are able to form sensory memories. For instance, trout can remember how to avoid getting caught in fishing nets months after the initial experience [source: Donkin]. So while it remains unclear whether fish genuinely suffer from pain, memories of it stick in their brains.

If fish can sense pain but don't necessarily feel it emotionally like humans, where does that leave us? The fishing industry has already instituted catch-and-release policies to reduce the number of purposeless fish deaths. Some fishermen use barbless hooks and necks that cut down a fish's struggle time before being reeled in. As for the lobster, chefs may kill them by striking them swiftly through the eyes rather than dropping them into the boiling water alive [source: Wallace].

Ether way, it's morally debatable. For some people, no amount of concrete proof of a fish's agony could tear them away from hooking a fresh bass or trout. To others, people who fish are detestable because they inflict pain onto another living being. Whichever side of the line you stand on, there's one thing easily agreed on: Whether fish, fowl or mammal, neurological pain happens to us all. It's the capacity for suffering that remains up for dispute.


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More Great Links

  • Braithwaite, V.A. and Huntingford, F.A. "Fish and welfare: do fish have the capacity for pain perception and suffering?" Animal Welfare. Vol. 13. Supplement 1. February 2004. (Nov. 12, 2008)
  • Chandroo, K.P.; Duncan, I.J.H.; Moccia, R.D. "Can fish suffer?: perspectives on sentience, pain, fear and stress." Applied Animal Behavior Science. Vol. 86. 2004. (Nov. 12, 2008)
  • Donkin, Richard. "Do fish feel pain?" Financial Times. Aug. 5, 2006.
  • Holden, Constance. "Fish Consciousness.javascript:void(0)" Science. Vol. 306. Issue 5703. Dec. 10, 2004. (Nov. 12, 2008)
  • Parfit, Michael. "Ouch!" Smithsonian Magazine. November 2003. (Nov. 12, 2008)
  • Sneddon, Lynne U. "The evidence for pain in fish: the use of morphine as an analgesic." Applied Animal Behavior Science. Vol. 83. Issue 2. September 2003. (Nov. 12, 2008)
  • Wallace, David Foster. "Consider the Lobster." Gourmet. August 2004. (Nov. 12, 2008)