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What is Pain to a Fish?

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What is Pain to a Fish?


“…the way humans readily project their emotions and intentions into some animals and not others is itself a cause for concern. Few people have much fellow feeling for fish even though many fish are long-lived, have complicated nervous systems and are capable of learning complicated tasks.”

—Professor Patrick Bateson

Professor of Ethology
University of Cambridge

From salmon making the long journey from river to ocean and back, to goldfish swimming circles around a small pond, the inner lives of fishes are a mystery that scientists are only beginning to unravel. One of the key elements they are searching for is the extent to which each fish is sentient or, more specifically, how they process what we would call a “painful” sensation (such as a hook cutting into their lip.)

On this journey, scientists have discovered that fish have nerve structures that are anatomically very similar to those of humans and many other species of animals. Among these common structures are receptor cells called nociceptors, which are found throughout animals’ bodies and are activated by stimuli expected to cause damage to bodily tissues. Tellingly, some species of fish have upwards of 58 different nociceptors located in their lips alone*.

As in human anatomy, these nociceptors are wired by nerve fibers to the central nervous system (the spinal cord and brain.) When the pain centers in the brain are activated by signals from the nociceptors, they trigger the body to respond to the potentially harmful or life threatening events that may be happening.

Fish anatomy is so complex that they have even evolved the same “pain-blocking” substances (endorphins) as humans.** It is theorized that endorphins help animals to tolerate pain from severe injuries in order to help them escape from a predator. This leaves us with the question: Why would fish have endorphins in their bodies if they couldn’t feel pain? And why is there still a debate over their sentience?


* Physiologist Lynne Sneddon discovered 58 different nociceptor sites in rainbow trout lips.
** Endorphins are akin to naturally occurring morphine, although their role in the body is more complex. It is also worth mentioning that some analgesic drugs used by humans also appear to reduce pain in fish.

Next: Do fish feel pain in the same way we do?

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Alisa Rutherford-Fortunati

Gentle World is a vegan intentional community and non-profit organization, whose core purpose is to help build a more peaceful society, by educating the public about the reasons for being vegan, the benefits of vegan living, and how to go about making such a transition. For more information about vegan food and other aspects of a vegan lifestyle, visit the Gentle World website and subscribe to our monthly newsletter.


+ add your own
3:53PM PDT on Sep 11, 2014

Thank you for the info.

8:54AM PST on Jan 6, 2014

Hint: all animals feel pain, all animals are sentient beings. So leave them in peace.

8:53AM PST on Jan 6, 2014

This is where science goes completely stupid, worthless, useless and evil. Testing on animals is already cruel and very wrong and unfair, but when you do that just to answer such a stupid question, you're going way too far. OF COURSE FISH FEEL PAIN. Why wouldn't they? And insects too, by the way.

Here's how you can determine whether an animal feels pain or not without being a cruel assh0le testing your sh*t out: sentient beings will always try to run/hide and defend themselves when you try to catch them. Done. Simple. No need to experiment any further.

2:21AM PDT on Oct 13, 2013

Thanks for the article.

4:45PM PDT on Aug 28, 2013

Mankind is just plain stupid. That's all. Why would they have to ask a stupid like that. If it lives and breathes it is capable of pain. Of course Fish feel pain. They need to try putting a hook in their mouths and pull on it and let them see how much pain THEY would feel. And all of those experiments they found it necessary to do on the poor Fish, injecting morphine into a fish to see what it will do. This almost makes you ashamed to be a human.
And Dent H., I agree with you and also I applaud you for what you wrote. God DID intend for mankind to feed on His animals. And that is what you did. I appreciate the fact that you also went to the grocery store when you were able to. You are right, you don't have to apologize for what you had to do for your family. If all hunters were like you it would be a lot better. You had a heart when you had to do something to support your family. You were in the ordinances of what God wanted for us to do. You didn't do it for the sport.

If Mankind developed a heart there wouldn't be so much exploitation and greed for the poor animals. Including the poor goldfish that have to swim around in circles until they get tired and die.

12:48PM PDT on Aug 25, 2013

As an avid hunter and fisher for a good part of my life I always felt sorrow for the animal I took from the face of the earth. Our family used the fish and game to supplement our food. I never felt good about killing anything, however the family had to eat. This was how it was and I will not apologize for something passed on from my father and grandfathers. When I was able to buy our food I stopped hunting. Now I use a camera, but I still love to shoot targets. This question about do fish feel pain is just about as moronic as they come. Of course they do! I can see no useful reason for asking a question like other than to get people to argue about a subject 99 percent of us learned in high school biology as a freshman. Oh, we are such horrible monsters, Maybe we should teach animals how to use a gun so they can shoot at us. That would even up the odds and that way everyone could go home feeling politically correct. How about doing something about tort reform or getting our kids home from the middle east or getting rid of some of the elected idiots screwing up the country. There are so many things to do other than ponder such a pointless subject. Do fish feel pain? DUH! Which way did he go George, which way did he go?

9:04AM PDT on Aug 25, 2013

Will human-kind ever become a compassionate species? No one is safe from us.

7:48AM PDT on Aug 24, 2013

I agree with Betsy. Throwing a wounded fish back into the water and calling it 'humane' is hypocrisy!

7:33AM PDT on Aug 23, 2013

Thank you for sharing

7:14PM PDT on Jul 29, 2012

To anyone who doubts that fish have intelligence, I encourage you to research Cichlids. These are some of the most intelligent, interesting species of fish. When my son was younger, we kept a 75 gallon aquarium. His last fish died recently, a little over ten years old!

He became fascinated with Cichlids after reading about them, and seeing how they build a nest for their young; defend their territory -- the male and the female take turns taking care of their young, guarding the entrance to the nest, and even giving a signal & calling the babies into the nest at night or at any sign of danger.

One fish he had, would swim up to the glass and beg for food .... he would watch my son, then slowly rise to the surface & wait for his treats! He would take it from his hand! No kidding.

For more on this species, the link below is quite informative.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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