Suffering ≠ Pain for Sentient Beings

Published: January 24, 2013
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This summer, the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) adopted a "Sentient Beings Position Statement." It reads:

The American Animal Hospital Association supports the concept of animals as sentient beings. Sentiency is the ability to feel, perceive or be conscious, or to have subjective experiences. Biological science, as well as common sense, supports the fact that the animals that share our lives are feeling, sensing beings that deserve thoughtful, high-quality care. The care that is offered should provide for the animal’s physical and behavioral welfare and strive to minimize pain, distress, and suffering for the animal.

For those of you who take time out of your day to read a veterinary blog, this statement probably seems self-evident. But let me tell you, I still run across many owners who would look at this as whole lot of mumbo-jumbo. Thankfully, there aren’t too many adherents to the "animals don’t feel pain" camp left, but appreciation of animal suffering is still pretty low.

What really gets me going is when people equate pain and suffering. Yes of course, pain can induce suffering, but suffering can also be intense in the absence of pain. All too often, I have conversations with owners about whether or not it’s time to euthanize, institute hospice care, or ramp up a pet’s treatment protocol. It goes something like this:

Owner: "Do you think he’s suffering, doc?"

Me: "Yeah, I do. He hasn’t eaten in a week, can’t get out of his bed without assistance, and seems very depressed."

Owner: "Well, sure, but is he in pain?"

Me: "No, I don’t think so, but he’s still suffering."

Owner: Blank stare.

Arrg! In a case like this, I almost don’t care about pain. Pain I can treat. It’s the big picture that I’m most concerned about. If animals are sentient beings (as I believe they are), they have the ability to "perceive or be conscious" as well as to "feel." Therefore, if you take away the pain and the animal is still inappetent, weak, and depressed, you haven’t fully dealt with the "distress and suffering" they are experiencing.

Put yourself in the animal’s shoes, so to speak. Imagine that you couldn’t eat or get up to go to the bathroom; you took no joy from your interactions with people, animals, or your surroundings; and you had a wicked headache. Are you suffering? Yes. Now take away the headache. Are you still suffering? Maybe marginally less so, but the answer is still yes.

I know, I’m preaching to the choir here, but maybe someone who isn’t a regular reader of this blog will stumble upon this post when researching a sick pet’s condition. If that’s your situation, remember, suffering is not limited to pain. An animal’s ability to perceive goes far beyond pain, and any distress that results from a declining quality of life also needs to be addressed.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Morning Spike by Andrew Butitta / via Flickr