It will be obvious to anyone who has experience of animals that almost all are capable of feeling pain. Whether you are thinking of domestic pets like cats and dogs, or farm animals, veterinarians spend a lot of their time giving pain relief. This requires everyone to strike a balance. No-one wants to think of animals suffering unnecessarily, but there’s less sympathy for the animals we eat. It’s convenient to talk about humane farming systems, but the realities of factory farming produce high density environments with no attention paid to notions of comfort and safety. The only time a veterinary will be called is when the farmer’s profit is threatened by injuries or disease among the flock or herd. The rest of the time the animals are left to fend for themselves. For the majority of meat eaters, it’s out of sight, out of mind. Pets are different. They live in our homes and usually become one of the family. This means we see them and treat them as if they were more human.
One of the reasons why animals are so consistently used to test the products we propose to use on ourselves, is that they react in the same ways as we do. It’s a fact that, if you force a dog to smoke tobacco, it will get lung cancer. Similarly, if you put different household chemicals and some make-up into the eyes of rabbits, they will weep. Because of this, almost all major drug testing procedures start off by testing on animals and only when the test drug has proved reasonably safe, can the researchers move on to humans. This means there’s a mass of scientific information about the effect of different substances and drugs on animals. That’s why, for example, most of the food animals we eat come heavily dosed with antibiotics. One of the ways in which farmers prevent disease from spreading rapidly within the factory is by using broad-spectrum antibiotics. This is actually quite dangerous because it’s helping to breed bacteria that are resistant to the standard drugs we use. But despite the dangers, veterinarians routinely use drugs approved for humans in the treatment of animals.
When it comes to painkillers, there’s a range to choose from starting with the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin and working up to opiates. Following the research intended for humans, there’s clear evidence that the NSAIDs are unsuitable for use in many animals like cats. This leave tramadol as the analgesic of choice. It can be used in most animals with little risk of injury and, so long as the dosage is small, little risk of dependence. This leaves us with a somewhat curious irony — that because we use animals so extensively for testing the drugs intended for our use, we know more about how animals react to many substances than we do about humans. That said, if we have the will, we can keep animals very healthy.