Review: Do Fish Feel Pain?

Do Fish Feel Pain?

“Do Fish Feel Pain?” by Victoria Braithwaite looks at the science, ethics and the future of fish welfare by proving that fish feel pain and what this information means for us.

Short and Sweet

Fish can feel pain, they have nervous systems that are affected by various stimuli and respond accordingly. Humans should consider improving our knowledge, interactions and thoughts towards fish and how we and they may benefit. There are grey areas surrounding the distinction between humans and animals and how rights are distributed. It is the aim of this book to encourage discussion because it we can make progress in finding solutions, instead of ignoring problems.


In this book, Braithwaite analyses the results of many scientific studies conducted to answer the titular topic and discusses what the implications this knowledge has for humans and fish. Readers are asked to consider some interesting questions throughout the text, some are answered while others require more research.

Do fish feel pain?

Braithwaite (a biologist) and her colleagues conducted experiments to determine if fish (trout) felt discomfort when areas of skin near their mouths were injected with vinegar or bee venom. The fishes’ behaviour after the injection was studied to determine if pain had any influence on it.

  • Fish are wired up with skin receptors and nerves that can react to pain
  • Fish brains developed differently because they have different needs from humans (and other animals)
  • This means that how they react to stimulus (like being hurt) is different to a human or a mouse
  • Being in pain means they are less likely to notice potential threats, have slower reaction/escape times and are not interested in food
  • Drugs (like morphine) can help them overcome pain and return their reactions to a near normal state

Why does it matter if fish feel pain?

  • Having the ability to feel pain, allows an animal to minimise the harm it could do to itself, take time to heal wounds and survive to breed and raise its young
  • Learning how a creature can be hurt and how it perceives and deals with pain is important
  • Humans can learn and adjust their behaviours to minimise the pain and stress animals can experience when we interact with them
  • How we harvest and farm fish can be detrimental to our current populations and future generations
  • We also need to consider how we treat creatures in our homes and in science laboratories
  • Are we providing the best quality of life for them?
  • We have to consider the three R’s (Replacement, Reduction and Refinement) when using animals for scientific purposes
  • The higher quality our information is, the better decisions we can make on how to act with ethical considerations towards animals

Where do we draw the line between vertebrates and other creatures like invertebrates?

  • Studies have shown that invertebrates and non-mammalian vertebrates do feel pain
  • Some invertebrates (like cephalopods and crustaceans) have sensory receptors even if they don’t have nervous systems
  • Some of these creatures can make decisions based on preferences and will endure pain if it means fulfilling a preference
  • E.g. A hermit crab might endure some mild electric shocks if it means hanging onto a shell that is an ideal home

Does having a high level of cognitive skill mean a creature is sentient?

  • Braithwaite argues that high level of cognitive skills doesn’t demonstrate a creature is sentient
  • They need to demonstrate a capacity for emotive responses
  • She uses honey bees and some cephalopods as examples of beings that are intelligent but they haven’t the same level as fish who are can make logical inferences about social and hierarchical relationships and appear to be capable of interacting with other species for co-operative purposes
  • Of course because we still don’t know much about cephalopods and bees, this may change based on further knowledge collected
  • This is still a grey area because we need to define sentience and consciousness
  • At the moment (of the book’s publishing), creatures like crabs and squids have something similar to sentience
  • The fact that they feel pain and react in ways that are beyond reflex actions does indicate there may be some interesting research in that area

How do we define sentience and consciousness?

And how do we determine if an animal has either or both of these qualities?

Can we accurately interpret what an animal is experiencing?

These isn’t answered in “Do Fish Feel Pain” but they are questions that hopefully humans will answer with discussion and research.

Where do fish fit in?

  • Fish can process different pieces of information to evaluate and react to situations
  • Some are social animals and will choose to bear small amounts of pain if it means being near another fish while others choose to stay away despite a fellow fish being around
  • Fish are intelligent and have more than a “3 second memory”
  • Fish can actually remember things for days, months and years
  • They can learn to get around a maze and find things (like food)
  • They are capable of learning rules (like turn left to find stuff) or use landmarks to recognise places
  • Fish can also recognise other fish based on behaviour (like who won or lost a fight)
  • If pitted against a loser and a winner, a fish that can identify others, is more likely to attack the perceived weaker fish
  • Some fish have developed inter-species relationships


Animals Australia. (n.d.). Fish & Crustaceans Fact Sheet. Retrieved from

Australian Government. (2013). Australian code for the care and use of animals for scientific purposes 8th edition (2013). National Health & Medical Research Council (NMHRC). Retrieved from

Braithwaite, V. (2006, October 8). Hooked on a myth. Retrieved from

Braithwaite, V. (2010). Do fish feel pain?. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Conger, C. (2008, October 19). Do fish feel pain?. Retrieved (n.d.). do fish feel pain?. Retrieved from

Holland, M. (2013, January 18). Fish feel no pain, scientists have concluded. Retrieved, from

Huffington Post Canada. (2013, July 2). Fish Feel Pain? Study Suggests They Do Not. Retrieved from

Kruszelnicki, K. S. (2006, September 15). Fish feel no pain. Retrieved from

Kruszelnicki, K. S. (2006, September 15). Fish feel no pain (Part II). Retrieved from

Neptune Studios. (2013, September 29). The One That Got Away (Size Matters) [YouTube video]. Video posted to

PETA. (n.d.). Fish Feel Pain. Retrieved October 2, 2013, from

ScienceDaily. (2013, August 8). Do Fish Feel Pain? Not as Humans Do, Study Suggests. Retrieved October 2, 2013, from

2 thoughts on “Review: Do Fish Feel Pain?

  1. What I would hope for from a book with that title is, by detailing how it was done with fish, a general method by which we could pick a subject and determine whether or not it feels pain. Do jellyfish feel pain? Do trees feel pain? Do insects feel pain? Do snails feel pain?
    So does the book suggest a test (or battery of tests) to answer such questions (even if it isn’t explicitly stated and you have to put the pieces together yourself)? If you had to design a series of tests to determine whether or not things feel pain, what would those tests be?

    • It’s not explicitly stated in the book so one does need to piece it together and it is implied that one would make modifications to the type of tests dependant on the subjects being studied.

      The tests conducted in the book by the author and in the studies she referenced, the most common elements to determine are:
      -Do the subjects have systems that can be identified as having nerves, receptors, etc?
      – Can responses to stimuli (painful or otherwise) be tracked through the nervous system and brain?
      – How do we identify that pain is more than a nervous response?
      – Does the subjects’ behaviour (significantly) change when they are in pain?
      – Does being in pain override the subjects’ preferences for things like companionship, food etc?
      – Do pain killers return their behaviour to “normal state”?

      One would need to conduct these tests in a humane manner and these do require a lot of observation. For some of the life forms you have suggested, our current body of knowledge (and equipment) may not have enough data to “translate” their behaviour in a way we can understand.

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