Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

Pain and Analgesia in Herps

©2000 Melissa Kaplan


The realization that animals experience pain has been a long one coming in scientific, veterinary and animal care circles. For some reason, it has been supposed that just because an organism does not respond to pain the way that humans typically do, they must not be feeling pain. This ignores the fact that organisms are wired differently, if you will: evolution and survival favor those organisms who act and react in ways to ensure their longevity in order to reproduce themselves as much as can. Those who respond appropriately to stimuli endangering their survival - within the environments in which they evolved - will survive. Those who survive are more likely to pass on to their offspring whatever it is in their genes that enabled them to survive.

  • A turtle who walks off the edge of a table isn't stupid: turtles did not evolve living on tables. Those individual species who did evolve in places where the ground was uneven and so learned to walk more carefully so as not to suffer an injurious or fatal fall are less likely to walk off the edge of a table.

  • Green iguanas and ball pythons who glue themselves to a heat source, trying to get warmed up while their belly is burning down through the skin into their dermis aren't stupid. They did not evolve in areas where the only way to get warm enough to keep their metabolism functioning appropriately was to plaster themselves to a superheated rock, basking light, or heating pad. Unlike humans, who developed reflexes to move themselves rapidly away from superheated heat sources, this rapid withdraw reflex wasn't needed by wild reptiles. There are humans who, for a variety of reasons, have reduced pain perception, so they have to learn to be more aware of where their body is, what their insensate body parts are touching, and be more aware of sounds and smells...that crackling sound may be their hand burning, not the pan of bacon frying on the stove. Humans, with their more complex brain structures, are able to learn to do this. While many species of reptiles show signs of learning things in captivity, it is clear from the thousands of reptiles presented each year to vets with life-threatening thermal burns that reptiles can't learn this. This does not mean that they are not in pain.

Humans can and do mask pain. Some may be so used to a certain level of pain that they adapt to it in the sense that their body appears to continue to function as usual, or with some accommodation, but this ignores the metabolic and hormonal processes going on inside the body which continue to exact a high price for the body continuing to have pain. Athletes may mask pain in order to keep from being benched or getting a lower bid on their contracts. Parents and teachers may mask pain to prevent their children or students from worrying about them. People with invisible disabilities, which may include severe muscle and joint pain, are often hassled when they park in disabled parking spaces, despite the fact that they have the proper permit, obtained by their physician completing the necessary forms to get the permit.

Humans - most humans - can verbalize their pain. They may groan, or grunt, or use spoken or written words to describe where and how much it hurts. Not all humans can speak, however, including preverbal children. Do we assume they aren't in pain just because they can't tell us about it? Does a human have to cry and fuss in order to be thought in pain? Then why do we assume that just because animals aren't telling us they are in pain, that they are not?

Just because many animals, including herps, cannot vocalize to indicate they are in pain, does not mean that we cannot detect clues to their comfort/discomfort status, nor that we should assume that they are not in pain despite their being subjected to an event we can reasonably assume is painful: toes or tails or bodies being subjected to blunt force trauma, bites, burns; abscesses and lacerations; and surgical procedures.

There is a growing body of literature on the pain in animals, and the use of anesthesia and analgesia to control pain. There is a smaller, yet growing, body of work relating specifically to reptiles and amphibians in these areas. What follows are links to articles, or sites, and to a bibliography of other works.


Signs of Pain and Discomfort in Herps
An observant keeper should already be well aware of the postures, movement, and preferences of their captive herps as the herps progress through their daily routine of sleeping, basking, soaking, eating, exploring, thermoregulating, etc. When an attuned keeper sees behaviors out of the ordinary, that cannot be accounted for by routine seasonal or cyclic changes (such as pre-shed crankiness, breeding season restlessness and appetite changes) or stress related to changed environmental or household conditions, pain and discomfort - and the reasons for them - should be investigated.

For reference, see Signs of Illness and Stress, Picking A Healthy Reptile or Picking A Healthy Iguana. While the latter article is written in this instance for green iguana owners, most of the points covered apply to all or most other reptiles, and to many amphibians.


Books & Proceedings

Pain Management in Animals
Paul Fleckwell and Avril Waterman-Pearson, W.B. Saunders, 2000

Recent Advances in Veterinary Anesthesia and Analgesia: Companion Animals
Gleed R.D. and Ludders J.W. (Eds.), Cornell University, Ithaca NY

Zoological Restraint & Anesthesia

D. Heard (Ed.), University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, USA.

Proceedings of the Mayday Conference: A Cross-Species Approach to Pain and Analgesia - 2002



Amphibian Pain and Analgesia
Karen Machin, DVM

Assessing Anesthesia in Reptiles
R. Avery Bennett, DVM

Perception of pain in reptiles
Roger Klingenberg, DVM


Anesthesia and Analgesia

Analgesics & Anesthetic Drugs and Dosages: Amphibians, Reptiles

Pain Management and Humane Endpoints

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories drugs (NSAIDS)

Alternative and Complementary Therapies

Journal Abstracts: Reptile and Amphibian Pain and Analgesia


Articles on Pain Physiology
Not necessarily related to animals, but may be enlightening. More information on pain and pain treatment in humans may be found in the Chronic Pain section of my Chronic Neuroimmune Diseases site.

Detecting and Alleviating Pain in Non-human Animals

Why is pain management necessary in critical patients?


Drug and Formulary Information
This section is not meant for pet keepers to start treating their own pets. Rather, it will be of use for vets who are new to herp medicine, especially those residing in countries where herps are not widely kept as pets and there are few resources. Some of these sites contain information on what the drugs do and potential side effects, information which may be for pet owners in monitoring their herps who are being given the drugs. It should also prove useful in facilitating improved communication between pet owners and their veterinarians. There has been very little in the way of research into doses specific to reptiles, or various types of reptiles, so the manufacturer's recommended doses for dogs and cats are the basis on which herp doses are calculated, with modifications based on metabolic size and anecdotal differences in formularies reported in the herp vet literature. Vets looking for more information on herp medicine are encouraged to join the Association for Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians (ARAV) and to get better acquainted with herp medicine through such works as Reptile Medicine & Surgery (Douglas R. Mader, DVM, editor; W.B. Saunders, 1996; ISBN 0-7216-5208-5).

Common Drugs and Nutriceuticals for Cats and Dogs

MedlinePLUS Drug Information

Internet Vets Online Reference

Research Animal Resources, University of Minnesota

Veterinary Formulary, University of Kentucky

Exotic Animal Formulary, 2nd Edition, Carpenter, Mashima, and Rupiper, W.B. Saunders, 2000


Related Sites

Herp Pain Bibliography

Signs of Pain and Discomfort in Reptiles

National Agricultural Library's Animal Welfare Information Center (AWIC)

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