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Do Animals Feel Pain?
There is little that separates humans from other sentient beings--we all feel pain, we all feel joy, we all deeply crave to be alive and live freely, and we all share this planet together.
Several years ago, Carol, a fifty-year-old single working mother, entered my office with her fourteen-year-old son Scott, and King, their German shepherd.
Carol was the only one of the trio in good physical shape. Tall and handsome, Scott had difficulty walking; he didn't shake my hand but limped over to a chair where he remained quiet and withdrawn throughout the visit.
Twelve-year-old King wasn't doing much better. Due to weakness in his hind legs, he had to drag himself into the office. It was hard to tell whose face looked more worried: Carol's or King's, with his heavy eyes and his tucked-back ears. Struggling to remain composed, Carol told me that King had been diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy (an atrophy of the spinal cord) and hip dysplasia (physical malformation of the hip joint).
Their veterinarian had treated the dog with conventional medicines, steroids, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories. Nothing had worked. The veterinarian now felt it was time to put King to sleep.
"Is there anything at all you can do?" Carol asked, despair permeating her voice. She told me about a friend whose ill cat had lived years longer than expected by taking a series of nutritional supplements that I had recommended.
Carol had brought along King's X-rays and medical records. Looking them over, I saw extensive arthritis in the back, a condition called spondylosis, as well as in the hips. After gently liftingKing on the table to conduct a physical examination, I noted that the dog's eyes were still bright, with no evidence of cataracts or other signs of aging; that his teeth were solid, showing little dental tartar; and that his lymph nodes and abdominal organs were normal-sized. His heart and lungs auscultated--or sounded--normal, too. His coat was in good condition, though a bit dry.
But when I conducted my neurologic and musculoskeletal examinations, I found that the dog had significant pain in his hips and back, which correlated with the findings on the X-ray. The nerve reflexes in his hind legs were greatly diminished, and the muscles were significantly atrophied, probably from disuse. When King placed both hind feet on the ground, they knuckled under, indicating that he had little sensation in the top of his paws, suggestive of decreased feeling from the nerves in that area. Fortunately, the reflexes in his knees were still good.
The nerve damage in the hind legs could have resulted from either degenerative myelopathy (a progressive debilitating disease more prominent in German shepherds) or from the spondylosis in the back impinging on the nerves to the leg. It is not uncommon to see both of these conditions simultaneously in German shepherds, which makes differentiating between the two quite challenging.
As gently as possible, I shared with Carol and Scott my sense that King's situation was indeed serious and then went over the treatment options available via conventional Western medicine.
Next I reviewed the possible approaches with alternative medicine and how they might work, especially if the nerve damage stemmed from arthritis.
I explained how--if the damage was not due to degenerative myelopathy--acupuncture could help by increasing the circulation to both the muscles and the joints (thereby increasing the blood and oxygen supply to them) and by stimulating the nerves to the hind legs. Acupuncture might also relieve some of the pain of the arthritis by stimulating the release of endorphins, the body's own painkilling hormones. It could also relieve inflammation (without the side effects of synthetic cortisone) by stimulating the body's own cortisone release mechanism. I also suggested we try supplements of vitamins E, C, and a B-complex to improve nerve functioning, as well as King's overall health.
Moments after I finished talking, Carol broke down in tears.
"You've just got to help," she sobbed. "King means everything to Scott." She told me that her son had suffered from Lyme disease for more than two years but that he had only recently received the correct diagnosis and proper treatment. He was now taking intravenous antibiotics because he had responded poorly to the medication orally. Scott's father, Carol's ex-husband, had only a distant relationship with the boy, and it was King who was taking round-the-clock care of him, lying by Scott's bedside during the months when he was most ill. The few times when Scott was able to move about, King limped along beside him, guarding him against falling.
"My son lives for King," Carol said, "and King lives for him. If King dies, it'll destroy him." As Carol talked, Scott glanced away, but I could see tears running down his cheeks.
I listened, fully aware of just how closely the fates of the debilitated dog and his young companion were connected. To suggest that there was nothing I could do for King seemed tantamount to sealing Scott's fate.
After showing Carol and Scott some exercises they could do at home with King, I told Carol I'd do my best, but with no guarantees. I explained that we would have to work together as a team, combining our positive energy with the physical therapy, supplements, and acupuncture. When they left the office, mother and son seemed happier knowing that they would be doing their part to help King.
We started King on acupuncture treatments, as well as nutritional and herbal supplements, and over the next eight weeks his condition improved. He was stronger, happier, and walking more. Each time he and Scott entered my office I could see his progress.
We weren't out of the woods, though, and whenever the boy's health took a downturn, so did the dog's. The opposite was also true: If the dog's symptoms worsened, so did the boy's. Still, both showed enormous resilience and determination.
As King improved, Scott relaxed around me to the point where he started helping me hold King during his acupuncture sessions, reporting King's day-to-day movements, and letting me know the specific ways in which he was doing better.
Because Scott showed genuine interest in the acupuncture, I explained to him how it worked and why I was using certain acupuncture points, such as Gall Bladder 34, located just below the knee at the common peroneal nerve, one of the most important nerves to the hind leg, or Bladder 40, near the tibial nerve, right behind the knee joint, which is also essential in stimulating nerves to the hind legs.
Scott was fascinated to learn that acupuncture had a scientific basis, that it was more than, as he put it, "just that yin and yang stuff." He observed how I chose my acupuncture points and how I attached electrodes to the acupoints on the legs. He watched intently when King responded to the electric stimulation with various groans and mumbles, and he noted how King was able to use his hind legs a little more after each treatment.
King started wagging his tail and holding his head up high. He was now barking at other dogs in the clinic, clearly showing more interest in life around him than he had just a few months earlier. Scott was also showing more interest, talking to other people in the waiting room, walking with more confidence, acting happier.
Despite his improvement, King suffered a series of setbacks. He was weakened from an attack by another dog. And he too came down with Lyme disease, but we caught it early enough to treat it successfully with antibiotic therapy. He then developed a tumor on his shoulder, but we were able to keep that under control for an extended period, too. At one point Scott told me that King was beginning to remind him of a cat, because he seemed to have nine lives.
Meanwhile, Scott's own rally was dramatic. His overall health, as well as his leg strength, returned to normal. He was able to play his favorite sport--basketball--again, as well as concentrate on his studies. Over the next few months, his work was so excellent that he won a scholarship to a well-respected boarding school, and he and his mother decided he should accept it. While Scott was overjoyed at the opportunities the school offered, he felt sad leaving his dog behind.
Less than two weeks after Scott left home for school, King finally died.
I asked Scott about this the next time I saw him, and the boy surprised me with his insight. Scott said that his parting with King had been the toughest moment in his life.
"King knew I'd gotten better," he said, "so he felt his job was done. He was telling me that I was going to be okay but that he wasn't. He let go. I could see it in his eyes."
Do animals feel pain?
Do animals have emotions?
Do animals know compassion?
Ask anyone who shares his or her life with an animal companion, and the answer to these questions will be an unambivalent yes. For example, Scott and Carol would tell you that not only do animals have feelings, these feelings can also create a wonderful life-affirming connection between the animals and the humans who love them.
But that's not the traditional view held by science.
In fact, if you care to believe many of the ethologists, animal behaviorists, and other members of the scientific world, animals are basically nonthinking, nonfeeling, nonexpressive creatures.
These scientists have a great deal of history behind their convictions. As far back in time as Plato and Aristotle, philosophers and scientists believed in a clear and precise distinction between humankind and all the other living creatures on earth. For instance, Plato felt that both humans and nonhumans had a mortal soul, which was located in the chest and belly, but that only humans had a second, immortal soul. Located in the head, it bestowed the unique ability to reason and served as the connection to the everlasting divine.
Aristotle separated humans from animals more severely. In his hierarchy of being, male humans occupied a place just next to the top, below angels but above female humans, slaves, and children. Animals, whose existence was solely predicated on the service of humans, could feel pleasure and pain, but lacked emotion and reason. They had little or no ability to make anything but instinctual choices or adapt their behavior to new situations.
Attitudes toward animals barely changed in the centuries that followed the classical era. Judeo-Christian tradition supported the prevailing view of humankind's fundamental superiority over other living beings through various biblical teachings. In Genesis, for instance, human beings are given dominion over the earth and all living things. (There is, however, some controversy over the translation of the word "dominion." Several modern scholars feel that the more accurate word is "custodian," which puts a refreshing slant on the relationship--and one worthy of new debate.) Church leaders developed this hierarchy further by describing biblical man as a unique animal created in the image of God.
During the Renaissance, science and philosophy began to establish themselves as disciplines independent of religion, but the gulf between man and nonhuman animals was not rethought. French philosopher Rene Descartes's famous dictum, "I think, therefore I am," proposed that only the thinking mind has the ability to confer conscious existence. Descartes felt that animals, mindless and nonthinking, were no better than machines, and he limited the possibility of consciousness solely to humans. An animal's range of action was restricted to species-specific behavior, its response to stimuli strictly physiological reflex, devoid of feeling, thought, or choice.
Followers of Descartes are said to have carried out torturous physical experiments on animals with the confident conviction that the animals' cries of agony were comparable to noises from machinery, no more, no less.
In their book on animal emotions, When Elephants Weep, Susan McCarthy and Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson quote a contemporary of Descartes: "The [Cartesian] scientists administered beatings to dogs with perfect indifference and made fun of those who pitied the creatures as if they felt pain. They said the animals were clocks, that the cries they emitted when struck were only the noise of a little spring that had been touched, but that the whole body was without feeling. They nailed the poor animals up on boards by their four paws to vivisect them to see the circulation of blood. . . ."
Descartes's belief dominated the scientific world for centuries, although some great thinkers, such as Voltaire, spoke out against cruelty to animals. He was, for the most part, ignored.
In my mind, the seminal work that signaled the beginning of the erosion of the classic distinction between human and nonhuman animals was Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), which posited a developmental continuum of physical, mental, and emotional traits among all living beings, including humans.
In his 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin traced the continuity of emotions such as fear, grief, and loyalty across many species; he theorized that nonhuman animals did indeed possess the ability to reason, to use tools, to imitate behaviors, and to remember events.
Even as Darwin was still writing, England's antivivisection movement was organized to oppose the use of animals in biomedical research, eventually resulting in Britain's 1876 Cruelty to Animals Act, which imposed a system of licensing and inspection on Britain's medical scientists. On the whole, however, Darwin's hypothesis about animal thought processes was controversial and was hardly popular with those who wished to retain the age-old sense of difference between humans and lowly animals.
Darwin's writings were so powerful that they took not just many years but many decades to be understood and assimilated--and are still debated today. Even now a large number of Americans doubt Darwin's theories, as evidenced by the recent (1999) decision by the Kansas State Board of Education to equate evolution with creationism in school textbooks.
Nor has the concept of emotions in animals been resolved. When I was in graduate school, we read volumes of work by ethologists, psychologists, philosophers, and scientists, each offering different definitions and perspectives on the debate--but all basically sharing a bias against any discussion proposing that animals had feelings. The behaviorists, who dominated the scientific pecking order, felt that all animal behavior could be reduced to fixed behavior patterns based on genetic programming. Those who thought otherwise were unlikely to see their opinions published. As a result, most animal scientists studying animal behavior during that time completely avoided the subject of animal emotions.
All this perpetuated a vicious cycle: There was no interest in studying subjective behavior patterns such as emotions, because if they existed at all, they were private to the organism experiencing them and therefore inaccessible to scientific investigation. In other words, they were not relevant because there was no documentation, and there was no effort to find documentation because they were not relevant.