I am assuming that the question refers to the pain suffered while being killed by a predator. There is a lot of information on this website about cats’ hunting skills. An extension of this is to write about it from the point of view of prey animals and whether they feel pain at that end of life moment. As prey animals such as deer have nervous systems not dissimilar to those of humans and which are very similar to those of the predators that kill them there is no reason to believe that they do not feel pain.

Do prey animals feel pain? These are stuffed animals created by Animal Artistry. I am not sure that it is appropriate to refer to ‘art’ in the context of killing animals. Illustration by PoC.

Prey animals feel pain

To put it another way almost all prey animals do feel pain when attacked and killed by a cat such as a mountain lion or the domestic cat but to what extent? In fact I think you’ll find a consensus among experts that most prey animals also feel emotions. Even the lowly rat experiences complex emotions and feels pain which is why they are used in animal testing. Emotions and pain work together.

The answer must depend partly on the species of prey animal. Insects are considered to be animals. Domestic cats eat insects alive. It is hard to know if insects feel pain. They have a nervous system and have senses of smell, taste and hearing. They respond to sensations around them. Humans will almost automatically presume that insects don’t feel pain because of our inbuilt arrogance in respect of all other species. However we don’t know is the short answer and it would not surprise me if they did.

Pain suppressed by hormone response

Large animals like deer are sometimes killed slowly. During a death when they might be killed as the predator eats them, their hormones, endorphins and adrenalin, kick in and at least partly block the pain.

Throat bite – suffocation

However, many cat species including domestic cats kill large prey by suffocating them in using a throat bite. The bite itself will be painful subject to the effect of hormones mentioned above. There is also the intensity of the moment and fear which masks pain. I believe that it is fair and sound science to ask if people feel pain when suffocating and to apply the answer to the question at hand. My girlfriend almost drowned many years ago and she says she felt no pain.

Dying from a lack of oxygen is apparently painless (e.g. carbon monoxide poisoning). But suffocation is different. There will be intense fear and distress, emotions which are in themselves painful to experience (e.g water boarding in human torture). Filipino lawyer Ramon Navarro who experienced waterboarding during WW2 said this: ‘Not so painful, but one becomes unconscious — like drowning in the water’. So suffocation per se is not painful. It is the emotional factor which causes emotional pain.

Neck bite

Many kills by predators of small prey are executed by a neck bite severing the spine. This must be painful as the spinal cord is snaped. It would be momentary though (a split second). And once again masked by the emotions and hormones of the moment.

Conclusion

To recap in answering the question, ‘Do prey animals feel pain’, we can say with positivity that they do but, as in humans who die suddenly in a catastropic manner, the dramatic and sudden nature of death by attack from a predator masks pain because of the release of hormones and the emotional response. It’s nature’s way for an animal to live through the moment.

I’d appreciate the input of others in a comment as these are primary my thoughts. There is no hard science on this. It is more about applying common sense.

Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

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