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How can we assess pain in animals?

Although pain causes extensive changes to an animal’s body systems and behaviour, measuring these changes can be difficult and time consuming.

Early attempts at assessing post-operative pain in laboratory rodents looked at the effects of surgery on simple measures such as food and water consumption and body weight.

Animals who underwent surgery and did not receive analgesics lost more weight than those receiving pain relief (Ref #1). Most of the body weight loss was caused by a reduction in food and water consumption.

Measuring these effects is quick and easy, and allows those individuals who are not recovering as expected to be identified.

The problem with this approach is that it does not allow assessment of the animals as soon as they begin to experience pain. This means that additonal pain relief is only given long after it is needed.

The graph below shows the change in bodyweight in a group of rats that had a surgical procedure carried out on day 2. All of the animals received analgesia and the fall in weight after surgery was minimal.

One rat (Rat B) failed to gain weight over the following few days. Regular monitoring of bodyweight is a simple means of assessing recovery from many different types of procedure. The fall in weight may not be caused by pain, but indicates that the animal requires extra attention and more detailed assessment.

Ideally, we should be using a pain assessment method that allows rapid assessment, so more analgesics can be given at the time they are needed.

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