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Did Descartes think that animals have feelings?

by Tim Harding

It is a common misconception that Descartes held the view that because animals cannot think, they have no feelings and do not suffer pain.  In 1952, this view was described by the Scottish philosopher and psychologist Norman Kemp Smith as a ‘monstrous thesis’ (Cottingham 1978: 554-556).  In this essay, I intend to examine two questions – firstly, whether Descartes actually held this view and secondly, whether this view is entailed by his other views about animal minds.  My answer is essentially that whilst the text references are somewhat unclear on this specific point, it is unlikely that Descartes held this view or that it was entailed by his other related views.


Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650CE)

Part of the problem in discussing these questions is a lack of clarity amongst Descartes’ objectors (and even Descartes himself) in the meanings of key terms such as ‘consciousness’, ‘self-consciousness’, ‘thought’, ‘awareness’, ‘feelings’ and ‘sensations’.  In an attempt to clarify the issues, Cottingham (1978: 551) helpfully suggests that the views attributed to Descartes be broken down in to a number of distinct propositions:

(1)  Animals are machines.

(2)  Animals are automata.

(3)  Animals do not think.

(4)  Animals have no language.

(5)  Animals have no self-consciousness.

(6)  Animals have no consciousness.

(7)  Animals are totally without feeling.

Cottingham (1978: 552) argues that whilst Descartes advocated propositions (1) to (6), there is no evidence that he supported Proposition (7).  Nor is Proposition (7) entailed by the earlier propositions (Cottingham 1978: 554-556).  I will return to Proposition (7) later, after I have discussed the definitions of some key terms and the earlier propositions.

Proposition (1) is not asserted by Descartes in this explicit form; but Cottingham (1978: 552) argues that this is what Descartes means in Part V of his Discourse on Method, where he says that the body may be regarded ‘like a machine..’.  It is important to note that for Descartes, the human body is a machine in the same sense as an animal body.  This view is part of Descartes’ general scientific ‘mechanism’ where all animal behaviour is explainable in terms of physiological laws (Cottingham 1978: 552).

The definition of ‘automaton’ in Proposition (2) is significant, as it has led to some confusion in the descriptions of Descartes’ views.  Cottingham (1978: 553) argues that the primary Webster dictionary definition of ‘automaton’ is ‘a machine that is relatively self-operating’ (which is the Ancient Greek meaning of the ‘auto’ prefix).  It does not entail the absence or incapability of feeling, as some of Descartes’ critics have alleged (Cottingham 1978: 553).  What Descartes is saying is that the complex sequence of movements of machines, such as the moving statues found at the time in some of the royal fountains, could all be explained in terms of internal mechanisms such as cogs, levers and the like.  Descartes’ point here is that the mere complexity of animal movements is no more a bar to explanation of their behaviour than is the case with the movements of these fountain statues (Cottingham 1978: 553).

Regarding Proposition (3), a crucial and central difference between animals and human beings for Descartes is that animals do not think.  In a letter to the English philosopher Henry More dated 5 February 1649, Descartes says that ‘there is no prejudice to which we are all more accustomed from our earliest years than the belief that the dumb animals think’.  He also says that they do not have a mind; they lack reason; and they do not have a rational soul (Cottingham 1978: 554).  Descartes defined ‘thought’ in his Second Replies to the Meditations as follows: ‘Thought is a word that covers everything that exists in us in such a way that we are immediately conscious of it. Thus all the operations of will, intellect, imagination, and of the senses are thoughts’ (Radner and Radner, 1989: 22).  Descartes’ inclusion of the senses in this definition is ambiguous, as I will discuss later.

For Descartes, Proposition (3) is entailed by Proposition (4) claiming the absence of language in animals.  In a letter to the Marquess of Newcastle dated 23 November 1646, Descartes makes the point that the utterances of animals are never what the modern linguist Chomsky calls ‘stimulus free’ – they are always geared to and elicited by external factors (Cottingham 1978: 555; Radner and Radner, 1989: 41).  Descartes explains in his letter that the words of parrots do not count as language because they are not ‘relevant’ to the particular situation.  By contrast, even the ravings of insane persons are ‘relevant to particular topics’ though they do not ‘follow reason’ (Radner and Radner, 1989: 45).  This brings us to what is known as Descartes’ ‘language test’ – the ability to put words together in different ways that are appropriate to a wide variety of situations (Radner and Radner, 1989: 41).

In an attempt to overcome certain objections and counter examples, Descartes later modifies his language test to claim that animals never communicate anything pertaining to ‘pure thought’, which he means unaccompanied by any corporeal process or functions of the body (Radner and Radner, 1989: 48).  This modification is what is known as Descartes’ ‘action test’, which has been stated by Radner and Radner (1989: 50) as:

‘In order to determine whether a creature of type A is acting through reason, you compare its performance with that of creatures that do act through reason.  If A’s performance falls short of B’s, where B is a creature that acts through reason, then A does not act through reason but only from the disposition of its organs.  The B always stands for human beings because they are the only beings known for sure to have reason.  Only in the human case do we have direct access to the reasoning process.’

As for Propositions (5) and (6), whilst Descartes provides an explicit definition of ‘thought’ he does not offer one of ‘consciousness’, let alone ‘self-consciousness’ (Radner and Radner, 1989: 22-25).  Yet he inextricably links thought to consciousness in the Fourth Replies when he says ‘we cannot have any thought of which we are not aware at the very moment when it is in us’.  This implies that for Descartes, consciousness is not the act of thinking, but our awareness of our acts of thinking (Radner and Radner, 1989: 22-25).  This raises some complex issues regarding an infinite regression of thoughts (Radner and Radner, 1989: 22-25); but I need not discuss those issues for my current purposes.   Radner and Radner (1989: 30) suggest that self-consciousness is not necessarily the same thing as consciousness. It is the awareness of self, that it is one’s self that is having conscious thoughts.

With respect to Proposition (7), Cottingham (1978: 556-557) argues that Descartes did not commit himself to the view that animals do not have feelings or sensations.  He quotes from Descartes 1649 letter to More, where he says that the sounds made by livestock and companion animals are not genuine language , but are ways of ‘communicating to us…their natural impulses of anger, fear, hunger and so on’.  In the same letter, Descartes writes: ‘I should like to stress that I am talking of thought, not of…sensation; for …I deny sensation to no animal, in so far as it depends on a bodily organ.  Cottingham also quotes from Descartes 1646 letter to Newcastle, where he wrote: ‘If you teach a magpie to say good-day to its mistress when it sees her coming, all you can possibly have done is to make the emitting of this word the expression of one of its feelings.’  In other words, Descartes denies in these letters that animals think, but not that they feel (Cottingham 1978: 557).

Notwithstanding the apparent vindication of Descartes in the text of these letters, Cottingham (1978: 557) next argues that Proposition (7) is consistent with Descartes dualism.  Since an animal has no mind or soul, it follows that that it must belong wholly in the extended divisible world of corporeal substances.  Cottingham (1978: 557) thinks that this must be the authentic Cartesian position, presumably because the central importance of dualism to Cartesian metaphysics.  On the other hand, I would argue that a lack of Cartesian thought does not entail a lack of feeling or sensation, as I discuss under Proposition (3) below.

The next question to consider is whether any of Propositions (1) to (6) are true; and if so, whether Proposition (7) is entailed by any of these earlier propositions that are true.

With respect to Proposition (1) I would argue that if the human body is a machine and humans have feelings, then it does not follow from this proposition alone that because animals are machines, they do not have feelings.  Similarly, even if Proposition (2) is true, it does not follow from the definition of automaton that animals do not have feelings either (Cottingham 1978: 553).

Proposition (3) is probably the area of greatest contention.  Radner and Radner (1989: 13) cite empirical evidence as far back as Aristotle indicating at least the possibility of thought by animals.  Aristotle cites the nest-building behaviour of swallows, where they mix mud and chaff.  If they run short of mud, they douse themselves with water and roll in the dust.  He also reports that a mother nightingale has been observed to give singing lessons to her young (Radner and Radner, 1989: 13).  More recently, there is a video on YouTube of a mother Labrador teaching her puppy how to go down stairs.[1]  There is another video of a crow solving a complex puzzle that most human children would have difficulty with.[2] Whilst nest building and singing teaching are arguably instinctive bird behaviours, dogs teaching puppies about stairs and crows solving complex puzzles are less likely to be instinctive.  They indicate the possibility of animals planning things in their minds.

Cottingham argues that even if Proposition (3) is true, it does not follow that Descartes is committed to a position that animals do not have feelings.  This is because Descartes separates feelings and sensations from thinking – for example a level of feeling or sensation that fall short of reflective awareness (Cottingham 1978: 555-556).  Radner and Radner suggest that the word ‘sensation’ is ambiguous for Descartes.  On the one hand, it could refer to the corporeal process of the transmission of nerve impulses to the brain; yet on the other hand it can also refer to the mental awareness that is associated with the corporeal process (Radner and Radner 1989: 22).

Another area of contention is in relation to Proposition (4).  Gassendi objected that Descartes was being unfair to animals in judging ‘language’ in only human terms.  He suggested that animals could have languages of their own that we do not understand (Radner and Radner 1989: 45).  I would add that human sign language illustrates that language need not be exclusively vocal.  Radner and Radner suggest that the natural cries and gestures of animals can be appropriate to the situation and can communicate useful information to other animals.  For example, a Thomson’s gazelle, seeing a predator lurking in the distance, assumes an alert posture and gives a short snort.  The other gazelles within hearing distance immediately stop grazing and look in the same direction.  The message is not just ‘I’m scared’ but it conveys a warning to look up and over in this direction (Radner and Radner 1989: 45).

Thomson's gazelles

Thomson’s gazelles

Radner and Radner (1989: 102-103) argue that neither the language test nor the action test lead to the conclusion that animals lack consciousness.  Either animals pass the language test or it is not a test of thought in the Cartesian sense.  The Radners argue that even if we were to grant that action test shows that animals fail to act through reason it still does not establish that they lack all modes of Cartesian thought (Radner and Radner 1989: 103).  I would also argue that Descartes modification of the language test to an ‘action test’ results in a proposition similar to Proposition (3) about thinking which I have already discussed.

In conclusion, I have tried to clarify the various propositions and key terms involved in the allegation that Descartes believed that animals do have feelings or sensations.  I have supported Cottingham’s view that the relevant texts by Descartes do not substantiate this allegation.  I have also supported Cottingham’s view that Propositions (1) to (6) do not entail Proposition (7), including by the use of some recent empirical evidence.  However, I do not support Cottingham’s view that Descartes’ dualism is inconsistent with his views about animal minds.


Cottingham, J., ‘A Brute to the Brutes?  Descartes’ Treatment of Animals’, Philosophy 53 (1978), pp. 551-59.

Radner, D., and Radner, M., (1989) Animal Consciousness. Buffalo, Prometheus Books.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ht5dFBMgOGs

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uNHPh8TEAXM

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Do animals feel pain like we do?

The Conversation

Andrea Nolan, Edinburgh Napier University

Pain is a complex experience involving sensory and emotional components: it is not just about how it feels, but also how it makes you feel. And it is these unpleasant feelings that cause the suffering we humans associate with pain.

The science of suffering is well documented in the book of the same name by Patrick Wall. We know that animals certainly feel physical pain, but what is less clear is whether this emotional suffering that we feel can be said to be true of animals. And if it is, how we go about measuring it.

As a subjective emotion, pain can be experienced even in the absence of physical tissue damage, and the level of feeling can be modified by other emotions including fear, memory and stress. Pain also has different dimensions – it is often described in terms of intensity but it also has “character”, for example the pain of a pin-prick is very different from that of a toothache, a slipped disc or labour pain. Nearly all of us have experienced pain in our lives, but for each person, the experience is uniquely individual.

To understand or appreciate others’ pain we mostly rely on what they report. But there are many who either cannot communicate their pain verbally, babies for example, or effectively, like those with dementia or learning disabilities. In these situations, others must use a range of factors to judge the presence of pain and its impact on the individual.

Pain is not all bad – it serves a protective function, to keep us away from further danger, to help us heal, for example by stopping us from putting weight on a sprained ankle. But if it isn’t managed effectively it can have a major negative impact on our lives inducing fear, anger, anxiety or depression – all emotions which may in turn exacerbate it. And chronic pain is a major concern to millions of individuals and to our societies around the world.

Pain in animals

The nature of pain is perhaps even more complex in animals. How pain is sensed and the physical processes behind this are remarkably similar and well conserved across mammals and humans. There are also many similarities in pain behaviours across the species, for example they may stop socialising with people and/or other animals, they may eat less, they may vocalise more and their heart rate may rise. The capacity of animals to suffer as sentient creatures is well established and enshrined in law in many countries, however we don’t understand well how they actually experience pain.

Some aspects of the experience and expression of pain are not likely to be the same as in humans. First, animals cannot verbally communicate their pain. Dogs may yelp and you may notice behaviour change but what about your pet rabbit, cat, tortoise or horse? Animals rely on human observers to recognise pain and to evaluate its severity and impact. Without the ability to understand soothing words that explain that following surgery to repair a bone fracture, their pain will be managed (hopefully) and will subside, animals may also suffer more when in pain than we do.

Loud and clear. William Heron, CC BY-SA

The debate around animals’ capacity to experience pain and suffer raged in the 20th century, but as we developed a greater understanding of pain, and studied its impact on the aspects of animal life that we could measure, we veterinary surgeons, along with many behavioural and animal scientists, recognised the significant impact of untreated pain, and we now believe this experience causes them to suffer.

For example, we know that animals and indeed birds with clinical signs of pain (limping) will choose to eat food containing pain-killing drugs (analgesics) over untreated food, and by measures of behaviour, they will improve.

Similarly many studies in a range of domestic animals have indicated that animals who have had surgery but not had adequate pain relief demonstrate behaviours reflective of pain which are alleviated when they are treated with analgesics such as morphine.

We also know that it is not just our dogs and cats that can suffer pain – there is an equally strong evidence base for the presence and negative impact of pain in sheep, cattle, pigs and horses among other species. But recognising pain in these different species is part of the complexity associated with animal pain. Managing it in animals that we rear for food and those that we keep as companions is equally challenging.

Behavioural disturbances have long been recognised as potential indicators of the presence of pain in animals. However it is important to recognise that each species manifests its own sometimes unique pain-related behaviours or behavioural disturbances in different ways, often rooted in the evolutionary process, so prey species, for example, are less likely to “advertise” an increased vulnerability to predators. Dogs may become aggressive, or quiet, or may stop socialising with “their” humans and other dogs. Sheep, on the other hand, may appear largely the same when casually observed.

Some expressions of pain however may be conserved. A recent paper suggested commonality in some features of facial expression during acute pain experiences in several animal species and humans.

These findings and much other work are being incorporated into tools to evaluate animal pain, because in the words of Lord Kelvin, the great Glaswegian scientist behind the Kelvin temperature scale, said: “When you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in number … you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be”.

So in order to treat and manage pain effectively we must measure it.

And there is a huge demand for these tools. The Glasgow Composite Pain Scale, a simple tool to measure acute pain in dogs and
first published in 2007, has been translated into six languages. It is used in veterinary practices to measure pain to treat it effectively. It has also been used to evaluate the effectiveness of new analgesic drugs that are being developed by animal health companies. Tools to measure the impact of chronic pain, such as osteoarthritis, on the quality of life of dogs are now available and are a significant advance in managing chronic conditions.

There is now a global effort to raise awareness of pain in animals. Recently the World Small Animal Veterinary Association launched the Global Pain Council and published a treatise for vets and animal keepers worldwide to promote pain recognition, measurement and treatment. Dogs may be man’s best friend, but for all those who work with, care for and enjoy the company of animals, understanding how their pain feels is essential to improving the quality of their lives.

The ConversationAndrea Nolan is Principal and Vice-Chancellor at Edinburgh Napier University .

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Ten Animal Welfare Myths

by Tim Harding, B.Sc.

(An edited version of this essay was published in The Skeptic magazine, June 2014, Vol 34 No 2, under the title ‘Creature Features’. The essay is based on a talk presented to the Mordi Skeptics in February 2012).

The term ‘animal welfare’ is not easy to define, but it usually includes the mental and physical aspects of an animal’s well-being, as well as people’s subjective ethical preferences as to how animals should be treated.  These preferences can give rise to a range of opinions about animal welfare; but as we skeptics are fond of saying: ‘people are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts’.

I realise that this article may be controversial, even amongst my fellow skeptics.  Nevertheless, I would like to focus on some common factual misunderstandings about animal welfare; and try to dispel a few myths.

There appear to be two extreme polarised positions in the community regarding animal welfare.  An outdated view, often attributed to Rene Descartes (1596 –1650 CE), is that animals are not consciously aware, and are therefore unable to experience pain and suffering.  At the opposite pole are those who believe that animals have rights like humans do; and that hunting, farming and other uses of animals for human purposes are morally unacceptable.  Between these two extremes are various other views, including evidence-based or scientific approaches versus the so-called ‘organic’ or free-range farming industries.

Animal welfare science is a relatively new field of study; but some good research is now being done – including in Australia.  The two main experimental approaches are firstly, animal physiological and biochemical testing (e.g. blood tests) to objectively measure stress in animals under different conditions; and secondly, animal behavioural and preference studies (such as testing whether animals prefer more food or better surroundings).

Myth #1: Animals are best treated like humans

The attribution of human characteristics to non-human animals is known as anthropomorphism.  It is sometimes used to appeal to human emotions in campaign slogans about animal welfare (e.g. ‘Meat is murder!’ and ‘How would YOU like to be kept in a cage?’).

There are two main problems with an anthropomorphic approach to animal welfare. Firstly, it is emotional rather than evidence-based – and is therefore unscientific or lacking in objectivity.  Secondly, treating animals like humans is often a projection of human preferences rather than a consideration of the real needs of the animal.  Apart from the obvious differences in intelligence, anatomy and physiology, animals have different instincts to humans and they express a much more limited range of emotions than humans do.

Most of us love our pets and regard them as members of the family.  But treating them like little humans may not actually be in their best interests.  For instance, most of us are aware that chocolate is poisonous to dogs, but we may not be as aware that onions, garlic, grapes, avocados and macadamia nuts are also toxic to canine animals.[1]  Many dogs are also lactose intolerant, so dairy products are not a good idea for them either.[2]  So we should be careful about feeding human leftovers to dogs.

Myth #2: Dogs are tame wolves

Our treatment of dogs has been shaped by a historical view that they are basically wolves with nicer table manners. This is the concept behind much of traditional dog training – that dogs are pack animals competing with humans for dominance over the family.  This outdated view is now being challenged by modern canine science.[3]

All dogs are different varieties of one species descended from wolves.  Archaeological evidence now shows that dogs were first domesticated over 20,000 years ago – long before the first human settlements (around 9000BCE) and while we were still hunter-gatherers.  Dogs used to follow human hunters and scavenge from our leftovers.  We may have even used dogs to assist in our hunting.

Over this quite long period, dogs have been selected by humans for their mental temperaments as much as their physical characteristics.  As a result, modern pet dog breeds often bond more closely with humans than with other dogs.  It can therefore be bad welfare to deprive pet dogs (not farm dogs) of human contact for extended periods.

Myth #3: Some dog breeds bite humans more than others

Statistical research by the Victorian Bureau of Animal Welfare (BAW) has shown that the major contributing factor to dog attacks in urban public places is the inadequate confinement of dogs to their property, rather than the breed of dog.  Most incidents occur on the footpath or road bordering the dog owner’s property, as a result of dogs displaying territorial aggression toward people passing by or attempting to access the front door.  If owners ensured their dogs were adequately confined to the house or back yard, over 80% of dog attack incidents in public places could be prevented.[4]

The BAW studies have not shown that ‘restricted breed dogs’ (i.e. dogs bred for fighting) are excessively represented in the incidence of dog attacks on humans.  Any dog can bite if sufficiently provoked.  However, because of the relative strength of fighting dogs and their habit of tenaciously gripping their victims with their teeth and shaking them, anecdotal evidence suggests that the risks of injury and death may be greater from these types of dogs if and when they do attack humans.

Myth #4: Feeding stray cats is being kind

A survey by Monash University in 2005 found that 22 per cent of people said they sometimes fed a cat that did not belong to them.[5]  People may feel they are being kind because they know that stray cats suffer from starvation, disease and injuries from fights with other cats. But because they are ‘unowned’, stray cats are deprived of the regular meals, shelter, grooming and veterinary care that owned cats receive.  Feeding stray cats provides people with a short-term ‘feel good factor’ that acts against the long-term welfare of the cats.  It is a form of preference failure. Being a stray cat is not a sustainable lifestyle, with an average life-expectancy of only 3 years.  So feeding them actually perpetuates the misery of these poor animals (and their kittens), which on a rational basis should either be adopted as pets or euthanased.

An adverse side-effect is that stray cats are also more likely to kill birds, possums and other native animals than owned cats, at least some of which are kept indoors overnight.  The kindest thing to do for a stray cat would be to ‘adopt’ it (but have it checked for a microchip by a vet first).  If this is not possible, contact an animal welfare organisation such as the RSPCA or the Cat Protection Society.

Myth #5: Livestock are slaughtered inhumanely in Australia

Slaughter standards in Australian abattoirs are dictated by the Australian Standard for the Hygienic Production of Meat and Meat Products for Human Consumption (AS 4696 — 2007), which requires that:

1. Animals are slaughtered in a way that prevents unnecessary injury, pain and suffering to them and causes them the least practicable disturbance; and.

2. Before killing commences, animals are stunned in a way that ensures that the animals are unconscious and insensible to pain beforehand, and do not regain consciousness or sensibility before dying.[6]

There is provision for a religious exemption under an approved arrangement that allows ritual slaughter involving the commencement of killing without prior stunning.  However, such animals must then be stunned without delay to ensure that they are rendered unconscious whilst dying.  Personally, I am opposed to such religious exemptions, on the grounds of cruelty.

Myth #6: Meat chickens are kept in cages

Many people are surprised to learn that no meat chickens (also known as broilers) are kept in cages, at least in Australia.  They are farmed in large ventilated barns or sheds where they are free to roam large distances, albeit under crowded conditions, as shown in the photograph below.  Traditionally, this has not been done for welfare reasons but to allow faster and easier collection for processing, which is usually done at night.

An RSPCA approved Australian meat chicken shed

An RSPCA approved Australian meat chicken shed

In Australia, feed lines and pans run the length of the shed and are supplied automatically by silos from outside. Water lines run the length of the shed, with drinkers at regular intervals. Water and feed are placed so that chickens are never more than about 2 metres from food and water.

Myth #7: Free range chooks live mainly outdoors

Chickens naturally prefer to live under cover from predators and bad weather. In the wild, they forage for insects and other food beneath shrubs and undergrowth, only venturing out into the open for short periods of time.

Free range chickens preferring shade (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Free range chickens preferring shade (source: Wikimedia Commons)

There are no government regulations about free-range farming practices – this is left to industry self-regulation.  Australian industry standards specify that free-range chickens only need free access to the outdoors – they don’t actually need to spend any time outside a shed to qualify as free-range.  As a result, free-range chickens don’t usually spend the bulk of their time in the open, as illustrated by the photograph above. Some free-range farms have sheds on wheels or other movable housing structures.

Myth #8: Pigs are permanently kept in sow stalls

This claim is often made by animal rights activists but is untrue.  The reason for confinement in sow stalls (gestation stalls) is to minimise early abortions as a result of stress from aggressive behaviour between adult female pigs (sows).[7]

The endorsed Australian national standards for pig farming specify a maximum confinement period of 6 weeks during the initial stages of pregnancy.  Parts of the pork industry are voluntarily introducing shorter periods, but these will require more supervision (and thus higher labour costs) to separate sows that fight.

There is also some public confusion between gestation stalls and farrowing crates, especially when photographs of the latter (see below) are described as the former.

Sow farrowing crate (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Sow farrowing crate (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Sows are moved in groups to farrowing sheds approximately one week prior to giving birth.  In Australia, a farrowing crate is only used for piglet feeding purposes.  It allows the sow less movement than a gestation stall, but provides creep areas along either side for the piglets. Adjustable rails alongside the sow slow her movement when she is lying down, thus protecting piglets from being crushed.  As soon as the piglets are weaned, the sow is moved to either a much larger pen or outdoors.

Myth #9: Sheep mulesing is cruel and unnecessary

Mulesing is the removal of wrinkled skin from the breech or breech and tail of a sheep using mulesing shears.  Until accepted alternatives are developed and the current practice can be phased out, mulesing of lambs remains an important husbandry practice in Australia for animal health, welfare and management reasons.  The principal reason is to reduce urine and faecal soiling or dag formation in the breech and tail wool; and thus minimise susceptibility to even more painful breech and tail flystrike.

Currently, cost effective chemical, management and breeding solutions are not available for all types of production systems in Australia and mulesing is a valuable tool for the prevention of breech flystrike for certain production environments and sheep types.  Although potentially painful, mulesing can be a net welfare benefit.

Available scientific research suggests that it is possible to achieve pain relief in conjunction with mulesing. Pain relief is most effectively achieved through a combination of approaches such as the pre-mulesing administration of a systemic pain relief drug, followed by a post-mulesing application of topical anaesthetic to deal with the ensuing period of pain associated with the inflammatory phase.  That is to say, a combination of short and long-acting pain relief drugs may be needed to provide more complete pain relief.[8]

Myth #10: Fish can’t feel pain

The International Association for the Study of Pain’s widely used definition states: ‘Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage’.[9]  Unlike in humans, pain is difficult to observe and measure in fish, especially in the absence of tissue damage.

Even when pain avoidance is observed experimentally in fish, a possible explanation is that it is a conditioned response to stimuli without the adverse emotional experience necessary for suffering.  Because of these observational difficulties, the conclusion that fish experience pain is often inferred on the basis of comparative neural anatomy and physiology. Some scientists are currently of the view that all higher vertebrates feel pain; and that certain invertebrates, like the lobster and octopus, might too.

The current approach in Australian animal welfare regulation is to give the fish the benefit of the doubt, and to presume until further research that fish can feel pain.  Whilst painless fishing may be almost impossible to achieve, banning fishing would also be politically impossible in a democracy.  The current regulatory approach is to minimise pain by requiring fish to be either killed or released as soon as possible after capture.


It may come as no surprise that I support the current scientific approach to animal welfare rather than an anthropomorphic or animal rights approach.  My main reasons for this view are:

  • Evidence-based animal welfare standards are being progressively adopted by Australian governments.
  • Such standards are more likely to be enforced and complied with than other approaches.
  • As a result, animal welfare is steadily improving in Australia.
  • This approach maintains the competitiveness of Australian agriculture.

Tim Harding B.Sc. has worked for the last 13 years as a regulatory consultant, amongst other things evaluating state and national animal welfare regulations for both domestic animals and livestock.  


[1] Warren, Katrina.  DrKatrina.com web site.

[2] Pet MD web site. Dietary Reactions in Dogs.

[3] Bradshaw, John (2011) In Defence of Dogs. Penguin Books, London.

[4] Harding, Tim (2005)  Proposed Domestic (Feral And Nuisance) Animals Regulations 2005 – Regulatory Impact Statement. Department of Primary Industries, Attwood.

[5]  http://www.theage.com.au/environment/animals/citys-stray-cat-problem-has-melbourne-throwing-a-hissy-fit-20130610-2o07j.html

[6] Browne, Gavin  (2007)  Australian Standard for the Hygienic Production of Meat and Meat Products for Human Consumption (AS 4696 — 2007). Food Regulation Standing Committee Technical Report Series 3.  CSIRO PUBLISHING / Food Regulation Standing Committee, Collingwood.

[7] Harding, Tim and Rivers, George (2006) Proposed Model Code Of Practice For The Welfare Of Animals – Pigs: Regulatory Impact Statement. CSIRO PUBLISHING, Collingwood.

[8] Harding, Tim and Rivers, George (2013) Proposed Australian Animal Welfare Standards And Guidelines – Sheep: Consultation Regulation Impact Statement. Animal Health Australia, Canberra.

[9] Bonica, John (1979) The need of a taxonomy. Pain. 1979; 6(3): 247–8.

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