Is My Rottweiler Tougher Than Your Chihuahua?
Do you cringe or turn away when you see video of physical violence between people? The screams and sounds of hard objects against flesh can be unbearable. People vary in how they respond to pain in other people. This ability to understand and share another’s feelings is known as empathy. However, characteristics such as ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and physical appearance affect this empathetic response to pain in other people. Deep-seated prejudices or in-group conformity may drive beliefs about others being “not like us.” Even our health care system is not immune to such biases. Medical providers, despite their training, treat pain differently across patients with similar symptoms based on race or gender. So how does this tendency to assume different levels of pain sensitivity play out with other species?
This study examines whether humans extend assumptions about differences in pain response to dogs. Breeds vary greatly in size, shape, coat type, and color. People stereotype dog behavior based on popular beliefs. Pit bulls are vicious. Labs love water. Poodles are smart. But do these stereotypes also affect perceptions of how different breeds respond to pain? And how do physical traits, such as size, play into those beliefs?
To answer these questions, researchers conducted two online surveys, one of the general public and one of veterinarians. Respondents rated pain sensitivity in 28 different dog breeds. The breeds were identified only through pictures. The scale ranged from “not at all sensitive” to “most sensitive imaginable”. Questions also assessed how the respondent felt about various groups of dog breeds. A total of 1,053 public and 1,078 veterinarian surveys were included in the analysis.
Both veterinarians and the public rated smaller dogs as being more pain-sensitive than larger dogs. Breed mattered, too as both veterinarians and the public said various breeds felt pain differently. Breeds commonly found in breed-specific legislation such as pit bulls, rottweilers, and Doberman pinschers were rated as feeling less pain. Interestingly, German shepherds and huskies were both rated as significantly less sensitive to pain by the public than by veterinarians. Conversely, the veterinarians rated pit bulls as markedly less pain-sensitive than did the public. But overall, the veterinarians rated all dog breeds as less pain-sensitive than did the general public. And perhaps unsurprisingly, the warmer a respondent felt toward a particular breed or breed group, the more pain sensitivity the public (but not the veterinarians) ascribed to that breed or group.
All of this is worrisome. There is no known physiological reason for a difference in pain sensitivity across breeds. Pain sensitivity is at least partially heritable in humans, but this has not been studied in dogs. And yet, over 90% of participants in both groups believed that pain sensitivity varies among different dog breeds. This belief is particularly concerning in veterinarians. It has the potential to affect pain management based on a dog’s breed rather than the pain symptoms a dog exhibits. Also, while veterinarians probably do have first-hand experience with all 28 breeds used in the survey, is it likely that most members of the public do? And yet, they still answered survey questions related to most of the breeds. This implies that their responses were derived from breed reputations instead of direct knowledge.
We all know Descartes was wrong: dogs do feel pain. But it seems more likely that, just like in humans, the experience of pain varies by individual and there is no reason for their breed to be a factor. This study gives animals advocates insight into how people think about dogs and pain and with this knowledge, they can challenge those who seek to treat dog breeds based on misconceptions or preconceived notions about how dogs experience pain.