Do FIsh Feel Pain

Do Fish Feel Pain?

Have you ever thought about the welfare of fish? As humans we have multiple applications for fish; as pets, in recreational sports, fisheries, aquaculture and even use in experimentation. However it seems very few people actually take into account the welfare of fish, it is even popular belief by many that fish do not feel pain.

A recent study has shown that fish are capable of perceiving and experiencing pain. Some of the ways in which fish are treated would not be acceptable in mammals, the legislation of fish welfare would probably benefit from being revised as it is an important issue that we treat fish as humanely as possible – especially if they are capable of feeling mammal-like pain.

Defining Pain

Because fish are so evolutionarily distant from humans, it is hard to imagine how they perceive pain. Whilst we can empathise with mammals that are in apparent pain, most people would struggle to empathise with a fish that was experiencing pain.

For humans there of two definitions of pain (according to the International Association of the Study of Pain):

  1. A sensation conveyed by nerves from the affected area to the brain via the spinal cord
  2. An emotional response that equates to a feeling of discomfort or suffering

However for animals, the emotional response to pain is often not considered or overlooked.

Do Fish Know They are in Pain?

Some people believe that unless we can prove an animal feels exactly the same as we do during pain then it is not pain they are feeling and simply a response to unfavourable conditions.

In an attempt to show that fish do feel mental discomfort when it comes to pain, an experiment was devised:

  • Zebrafish were placed in a maze that opened in to a choice of two chambers – one the equivalent of a cheap motel room, the other the fish equivalent of the Ritz
  • On all occasions the fish chose the better chamber
  • In a second run, some fish were exposed to mild pain
  • The choice was the same as before, however the low-quality chamber was now enriched with pain killers
  • Fish in pain were much more likely to now choose the low-quality chamber over the high-quality chamber

This showed that fish were willing to endure unfavourable conditions in order to ease the sensation of pain with painkillers. It was concluded that fish must therefore feel the mental discomfort associated with pain – part 2 of the definition of human pain.

Current Concerns for the Use of Fish

Use of Fish Welfare Concerns Suggested Improvement
Pet / Ornamental Wild caught fish may be damaged during capture or transport

Disease risks and poor water quality

Training of pet fish owners

Only captive breed species should be available for sale

Aquaculture High volumes of fish are packed in one space

Rapid spread of disease and large amounts of injuries

Reduce number of fish per square metre

Improve living conditions of cultured fish

Fishing Injuries during hooking and hook removal

Suffocation in air

Use barbless hooks which cause less damage

Minimise capture time

Consider euthanasia when mortality is likely

Fisheries Large volumes of fish caught and damaged

Live fish bait sometimes used

Fish gutted/filleted whilst still alive

Improve capture techniques

Ban use of live bait

Caught fish should be killed quickly and humanely

Experimentation Exposure to pain by invasive procedures or toxic substances Use pain killers where possible and develop humane alternatives


From the evidence gathered from this study and studies before it, it has been shown that fish meet both criteria for the human definition of pain:

  1. A sensation conveyed by nerves from the affected area to the brain via the spinal cord
  2. An emotional response that equates to a feeling of discomfort or suffering

We must realise that we offer particularly poor welfare for our fish when compared to other food animals such as cattle. Whilst we can’t rule out the use of fish completely as a food source, nor can we police every angling spot in the UK, people should be made aware of the consequences our actions have on the mental comfort of fish. Personally, I think that we should gradually introduce slight changes to the welfare legislation that concerns the well being of fish as it is clear that they are subject to pain.

Your Thoughts

Some people might think ”They’re just fish?” others might be for minor changes in legislation whilst some of you may even be for a total overhaul concerning fish welfare.

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below, it’s a very interesting topic concerning all animals really – how can we ever know whether animals feel pain exactly the same as humans do? How can we even be sure whether pain is the same feeling within different humans?

Adapted from L. Sneddon (2011).`Pain Perception in Fish’. Journal of Consciousness Studies pp. 209-229. 

About James Watts

BSc Bioveterinary Science. Editor of PetSci. When I'm not writing, learning, discussing, or reading about animals, you know it's the weekend! Currently developing PetSci HealthTrak, the fast and easy way to monitor your pet's weight and calorie intake. HealthTrak offers a simple way to track your pet's progress, helping them achieve a healthy weight and a long, happy life.

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  1. If we were to treat mammals or birds in the same way that we treat fish for recreation (angling) we’d be prosecuted. Given that, as far as we can tell, fish feel pain like other vertebrates, fishing – especially catch and release where there is not even the pretence of ‘catching a feed’ should be banned.

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