10 Important Facts for the “Do Lobsters Feel Pain” Debate

Written by on October 2, 2013 in Invertebrates, Other News
Lobsters waiting to be selected at a restaurant.

Lobsters waiting to be selected at a restaurant. Photo credit: Frank Reese via photopin cc.

After PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) released a slightly disturbing video of lobster butchering, Seafood.com published a piece about the most comprehensive report on whether or not invertebrates such as lobsters can feel pain. The report, Sentience and Pain in Invertebrates, was written at the request of the Norwegian Food Safety Authority and highlighted situations in which “humans influence animals.”

“The purpose of the present report is to discuss what is known about the occurrence of sentience and pain in invertebrates.” Here are the 10 most important facts from the report:

  1. Invertebrates are animals without a backbone and include many groups that are caught and handled for human consumption, including crayfish, lobster, crabs, shrimp and cephalopods (octopuses).
  2. Animal Welfare legislation in most countries treats invertebrates as if they cannot feel pain.
  3. A reflex or reaction to negative stimuli (such as extreme heat or cold or an electric shock) should not be mistaken for a response to the feeling of pain. There are other factors that lead to reactions when exposed to negative stimuli.
  4. Nociception: the capacity of animals to react to harmful stimuli. Nociception is not the same thing as pain; it is the unconscious response to harmful stimuli.
  5. Sentience: the capacity of feeling and the basis for stress and pain. It is assumed that all four legged vertebrates (from gerbils to elephants) are sentient, but it is unclear if the same is true for fishes and invertebrates.
  6. An animal’s ability to avoid dangers or harmful stimuli (like heat, cold or chemicals) is part of their adaptation to the environment. Many of the reactions are inherited and are vital to survival. These reactions don’t necessarily indicate pain, but an activation of the central nervous system to produce avoidance or escape reactions.
  7. The “violent reactions” of lobsters and crabs when put in boiling water are most likely reflexes to harmful stimuli, not a reaction to pain. (There are different kinds of pretreatment that can lessen the possible feeling of stress.)
  8. Their simplistic nervous system makes it unlikely that earthworms and other annelids can feel pain. When putting an earthworm on a hook as bait, the wriggling is simply a reflex.
  9. In molluscs like snails and clams, the brains are poorly developed, indicating that they are not sentient and therefore do not feel pain.
  10. Cephalopods (particularly octopuses) have the ability to learn, which suggests that they could be more likely to feel pain than other invertebrates, but it is not known for sure.

In conclusion, the report states that most invertebrates probably are unable to feel pain, but caution should be exercised when dealing with more advanced species of invertebrates (like octopuses) during handling and captivity.

To learn more about the animal/pain debate, check out these links:

Copyright © 2013 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of MarineScienceToday.com. She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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