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Do Fish Feel Pain?

Do fish feel pain like humans? It’s an ongoing debate, but the latest research on fish brains and pain receptors might surprise you.

By Avery Hurt
Nov 7, 2023 2:30 PMMar 25, 2024 6:35 PM
Fishing. Catch and release trophy Northern Pike.


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People often assume that fish don’t feel pain. That’s odd because, like other animals we believe can feel pain — horses, dogs, cats, rats, humans — fish are vertebrates.

They have the same senses we have (vision, hearing, etc.) plus some. Their specialized senses help them navigate, hunt, and communicate in ways that are unimaginable for us land-dwellers.

Do Fish Feel Pain Like Humans?

The behavior of fish in response to painful events is complex and experts often question it since the structure of their brains is different from other species. Despite this, fish possess some brain regions that play a role in how they might feel pain. And because the fish world is so different from ours, our empathetic instincts might not automatically extend to them. We don’t hear fish distress signals underwater and they can’t vocalize pain.  Or, as Carl Safina, an ecologist said in The Guardian, “When you are a fish, no one can hear you scream.”

But do fish have anything to scream about? If you think fish do feel pain, or if you think they don’t, the answer probably seems pretty obvious to you. But scientists have been debating the issue for years.

Do Fish Have Pain Receptors?

Yes, fish have pain receptors. Scientists have established that fish possess nerve endings called nociceptors that detect potential harm.

Nociceptors are sensory receptors, often called pain receptors, that react to noxious stimuli, such as, say, a barbed hook piercing the lip. But while not having nociceptors means not being able to feel pain, having them is not enough to ensure the sensation of pain.

Read More: Yes, Fish Can Communicate Acoustically

Do Fish Have Brains?

Despite their small size, fish do indeed have brains, and they are complex enough to feel pain. They are fully capable of managing the necessary biological and cognitive functions for fish to interact and survive in their environment.

In the 2010 paper “Can Fish Really Feel Pain?,” a team of scientists argues that to experience the sensation of pain (or any form of consciousness), an animal must have a neocortex. The neocortex is the part of the brain that processes higher functions such as cognition and perception. Fish do not have a neocortex — only mammals do. Thus, according to this reasoning, fish do not feel pain.

This is reassuring to many people who eat fish or catch fish for sport.

But not all scientists are convinced this settles the issue. As Jonathan Balcombe points out in What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins, birds are widely considered to be conscious, but they, too, lack a neocortex. So a neocortex doesn’t seem to be necessary for an animal to be considered conscious and, therefore, capable of experiencing pain.

Though a fish does not have a neocortex, it does have a pallium. Balcombe, ethologist and former director of animal sentience with the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy writes that the pallium “serves the functions for fishes that the neocortex does for mammals.”

Read More: Catch and Release Fishing Might Hurt Fish More Than Thought

Do Fish Feel Pain When Hooked?

(Credit:Maximillian cabinet/Shutterstock)

Although debated, many scientists are in agreement that fish can feel pain when hooked. Much of the evidence that fish feel pain is derived not only from neuroanatomy but from behavior as well.  

Lynne Sneddon, a zoologist who studies fish pain at the University of Gothenburg, and one of the researchers who established that fish have nociceptors, has done some intriguing work on how fish respond to pain

In one study, Sneddon and colleagues injected the mouths of fish with acetic acid (vinegar). The fish showed signs of discomfort, such as rocking from side to side, rubbing their noses against the side of the tank, and a greatly increased rate of gill opening and closing. When the fish were given painkillers, these behaviors decreased.

Those who reject the idea that fish can feel pain say that the rocking and rubbing of fish and the thrashing of that big bass you just hooked is no more than an instinctive reaction, much like the way your hand jerks away from a hot stove — moments before you register the pain. 

According to this view, the fish’s reaction doesn’t necessarily mean it is experiencing anything like what we would call pain. However, the observed presence of pain receptors on the faces and heads of rainbow trout, supports the theory that fish are sensitive to a fisherman’s hook.

Read More: Rarest Fish on Earth: Devils Hole Pupfish

Do Fish Seek Pain Relief?


Yes, studies have indicated that fish not only respond to painful stimuli, but also will seek to relieve pain when it is possible to do so. 

In another convincing study, as described in What a Fish Knows, Sneddon injected zebrafish with acetic acid and gave them the option of two chambers within their tanks. One was what researchers call “enriched.” It was filled with vegetation, things to explore, and places to hide. The other contained just plain water.

Whether they’d been injected or not, the fish preferred the enriched chamber. But when Sneddon dissolved painkillers in the plain chamber, the fish that had been injected with acetic acid left the enriched tank for, presumably, the pain relief offered by the other chamber. Balcombe suggests that fish are willing to “pay a cost to get pain relief.”

Read More: Meet the Mudskipper: The Fish That Walks on Land

Can Fish Really Feel Pain?

Though the issue may not be completely settled, animal welfare experts are beginning to accept the idea that fish can likely feel pain. The U.K.’s animal welfare law now accords sentience to fish, along with all other vertebrate animals (as well as some invertebrates, including decapods and cephalopods).

The fact that scientists are increasingly coming around to the view that while we may not be absolutely sure that fish can feel pain (and given the fact that they can’t tell us, we may never be sure), it might be best to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Read MoreMeet the Sheepshead — The Fish with Human Teeth

This article was originally published on June 9, 2023 and has since been updated by the Discover staff.

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