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Do Fish Feel Pain?

By Dr. James D. Rose

Do fish, like humans, experience pain and suffering? People hold very differing beliefs about this question. Some believe that if fish react to stimuli that would cause a person to feel pain that the fish must feel pain as well. Others assume that fish are too different from humans for the matter to be of concern. Many people don’t know quite what to think about the issue. Neuroscience research has clarified the neurological and psychological processes that cause the experience of pain, so we can address this question from a large base of factual information.

Pain is a psychological experience separate from behavioral reactions to insury

Pain is a psychological experience with both a perceptual aspect and an emotional aspect. The perceptual aspect tells us that we have been injured, like the first sensation when you hit your thumb with a hammer. The emotional aspect is separate, as in the suffering that follows after we are first aware of hitting our thumb. But injurious stimuli do not always lead to the experience of pain. Think of a trip to the dentist.  When a dentist injects a local anesthetic into your jaw to block nerve conduction, some of your teeth and a part of your mouth feel numb. When a tooth is then drilled, the sensory nerve cells in the tooth that would normally trigger pain are still excited, but the nerve block prevents activity in these receptors from being sent to the brain, so pain is not felt. In addition, a person’s behavioral reaction to pain is separate from pain experience. We see this separation when a person endures pain without showing any discomfort. On the other hand, people sometimes react behaviorally to injury without any feeling any experience of pain or suffering. Because the experience of pain is separate from the behavioral response to injury, the term nociception is used to refer to detection of injury by the nervous system (which may or may not lead to pain). Injurious stimuli that usually lead to pain experience are called nociceptive stimuli. The term pain should be used only to refer to the unpleasant psychological experience that can result from a nociceptive stimulus.

Reactions to injury are present in all forms of animal life, but do not mean that pain is experienced

In humans, reactions to nociceptive stimuli are usually associated with feelings of pain. Consequently, humans often assume that reactions by animals to nociceptive stimuli mean that these animals experience similar pain. In reality, these reactions are protective responses that are widespread in animal life, even occurring in forms of life that are incapable of perceiving pain. Single-celled creatures such as an ameba will move away from irritating chemical or mechanical stimuli. These reactions are automatic and because the ameba doesn’t have a nervous system, it has no ability to actually sense the stimulus that causes its reaction or to feel pain. There are many other invertebrate organisms (animals without backbones) that also react to nociceptive stimuli, but with somewhat more complex patterns of escape than an ameba. For example, starfish have a primitive nervous system that interconnects sensory receptors detecting injurious stimuli with muscle cells that cause movements, enabling the starfish to slowly move away from a nociceptive stimulus. The starfish’s nervous system has only a small number of nerve cells. It has no brain, so like the ameba, its reactions are not very precise or complex and it can’t experience, in the way of humans, the stimuli that trigger its reactions. Thus, protective reactions don’t require very complex nervous systems and can occur in animals incapable of perceiving, that is being aware of, the stimuli that cause such reactions.

Human existence is cerbrally-dominated; a fish’s existence is brainstem-dominated

Human existence is dominated by functions of the massively developed cerebral hemispheres. Fishes have only primitive cerebral hemispheres and their existence is dominated by brainstem functions. The brains of vertebrate animals differ greatly in structural and functional complexity. Cold-blooded animals, such as fish, frogs, salamanders, lizards and snakes, have simpler brains than warm-blooded vertebrates, the birds and mammals. Fish have the simplest types of brains of any vertebrates, while humans have the most complex brains of any species. Conscious awareness of sensations, emotions and pain in humans depend on our massively-developed neocortex and other specialized brain regions in the cerebral hemispheres. If the cerebral hemispheres of a human are destroyed, a comatose, vegetative state results. Fish, in contrast, have very small cerebral hemispheres that lack neocortex. If the cerebral hemispheres of a fish are destroyed, the fish’s behavior is quite normal, because the simple behaviors of which a fish is capable (including all of its reactions to nociceptive stimuli) depend mainly on the brainstem and spinal cord. Thus, a human’s existence is dominated by the cerebral hemispheres, but a fish is a brainstem-dominated organism.

The capacity to perceive and be aware of sensory stimuli, rather than just react to such stimuli, requires a complex brain. In humans, the cerebral hemispheres, especially the neocortex, is the functional system that allows us to be aware of sensory stimuli. If the cortex of the human brain is damaged or made dysfunctional, we lose our awareness of sensations. For example, damage of the visual part of the cortex causes blindness, even though vision-related sensory activity is still occurring in subcortical parts of the brain.  In a fish, “seeing” is performed by the brainstem and occurs automatically without awareness. Consequently, a fish’s visual behavior is quite normal if the small cerebral hemispheres are removed, but a human is blind if the visual cortex region of the cerebral hemispheres is destroyed. This is because our visual behavior depends greatly on conscious awareness of visual sensations.

In spite of our unawareness of brainstem functions, the brainstem and spinal cord contain programs that control our more automatic behavioral functions. Smiling and laughter, vocalizations, keeping our balance, breathing, swallowing and sleeping are all processes that are generated by these lower, brainstem and spinal cord programs.

Fish do not have the brain development that is necessary to experience pain or any other type of awareness

The experience of pain depends on functions of our complex, enlarged cerebral hemispheres. The unpleasant emotional aspect of pain is generated by specific regions of the human cerebral hemispheres, especially the frontal lobes. The functional activity of these frontal lobe regions is closely tied to the emotional aspect of pain in humans and damage of these brain regions in people eliminates the unpleasantness of pain. These regions do not exist in a fish brain. Therefore, a fish doesn’t appear to have the neurological capacity to experience the unpleasant psychological aspect of pain.

It might be argued that fish have the capacity to generate the psychological experience of pain by a different process than that occurring in the frontal lobes of the human brain, but such an argument is insupportable. The capacity to experience pain, as we know it, has required the massive expansion of our cerebral hemispheres, thus allocating large numbers of brain cells to the task of conscious experience, including the emotional reaction of pain. The small, relatively simple fish brain is fully devoted to regulating just the functions of which a fish is capable. A fish brain is simple and efficient, and capable of only a limited number of operations, much like a 1949 Volkswagen automobile. By comparison, the human brain is built on the same basic plan as that of a fish, but with massive expansions and additional capacities. The human brain is more like a modern luxury car with all-wheel drive, climate control, emission controls, electronic fuel injection, anti-theft devices and computerized systems monitoring. These refinements and additional functions couldn’t exist without massive additional hardware. The massive additional neurological hardware of the human cerebral hemispheres makes possible the psychological dimension of our existence, including pain experience.

The reactions of fish to nociceptive stimuli are similar to their reactions to predators and other stimuli

When a fish is hooked by an angler, it typically responds with rapid swimming behavior that appears to be a flight response. Human observers sometimes interpret this flight response to be a reaction to pain, as if the fish was capable of the same kind of pain experience as a human. This behavior in fish results from brainstem and spinal patterns of activity that are automatically elicited by the stimulation of being hooked, but fish don’t have the brain systems necessary to experience pain. It is important to note that the flight responses of a hooked fish are essentially no different from responses of a fish being pursued by a visible predator or a fish that has been startled by a vibration in the water. These visual and vibratory stimuli do not activate nociceptive types of sensory neurons, so the flight responses can’t be due to activation of pain-triggering neural systems. Instead, these flight responses of fish are a general reaction to many types of potentially threatening stimuli and can’t be taken to represent a response to pain. Also, these flight responses are unlikely to reflect fear because the brain regions known to be responsible for the experience of fear, which include some of the same regions necessary for the emotional aspect of pain, are not present in a fish brain. Instead, these responses are simply protective reactions to a wide range of stimuli associated with predators or other threats, to which a fish automatically and rapidly responds.

Although fish don’t have the capacity to experience human-like pain or suffering, their reactions to nociceptive stimuli or capture are still important because these reactions include the secretion of stress hormones. These stress hormones can have undesirable health effects on fish if they are secreted in large amounts over a long period of time. So, it’s important when practicing catch-and-release fishing to observe the usually recommended procedures of landing a fish before it is exhausted and returning it to the water quickly.

The facts about the neurological processes that generate pain make it highly unlikely that fish experience the emotional distress and suffering of pain. Thus, the struggles of a fish don’t signify suffering when the fish is seized in the talons of an osprey, when it is devoured while still alive by a Kodiak bear, or when it is caught by an angler.

Dr. James D. Rose is a professor at the University of Wyoming in the Department of Zoology and Physiology. A version of this article was previously published in the January 2000 edition of In-Fisherman magazine.

Update

Dr. Rose was also one of six contributors to a New York Times feature titled, “Catching, but Not Releasing,” published on August 8, 2010.

  1. Feeling Little Pain. Dr. James D. Rose, zoologist, University of Wyoming
  2. Purity and Predation. James R. Babb, editor, Gray’s Sporting Journal
  3. Drive a Prius, Eat a Fish. Chris Hunt, Trout Unlimited Sportsmen’s Conservation Project
  4. An Invasive Species or a Steelhead Run? Cathy Beck, guide and author, Frontiers Travel International
  5. The Shifting Moral Highground. Dylan Tomine, fisherman and writer, Patagonia
  6. Causing Pain for Our Pleasure. Lynne Sneddon, National Environment Council Fellow, University of Liverpool