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On a cold-blooded crusade

By Alex Jimenez

Researchers work to conquer pain in exotic animals

For centuries philosophers and scientists have debated the question, “Can animals feel pain?” Until about three decades ago, the answer to that question was thought to be “no.”

Scientists now know that answer was wrong. And fortunately for those, like you, who love animals, the management of pain and suffering is now viewed as a critical part of animal health and care. Still, we are often guilty of
playing favorites. In the case of veterinary medicine, the bounty given to advancing the health of domestic animals greatly exceeds what is allotted to their exotic counterparts. Nowhere is this more evident than in pain management research for exotic animals.

Fortunately, new research funded by Morris Animal Foundation is addressing pain management in several exotic species, and scientists are now poised to answer questions about pain more thoroughly than ever before.

Study breaks through the pain barrier

When it comes to understanding pain, reptiles are among the most elusive animals to treat. In fact, reptile pain has been so understudied that most veterinarians traditionally have to use methods applied in mammalian species. Sadly, this can lead to less successful and even fatal treatments.

With the help of Morris Animal Foundation funding, University of Wisconsin researcher Dr. Kurt Sladky is changing things for reptiles. In 2006, Dr. Sladky took on what is now considered to be the first-ever study to examine effective analgesic treatments in reptiles. He focused on red-eared slider turtles, the most popular pet turtle in the United States, and proved that butorphanol tartrate, the commonly used analgesic in reptiles, is not an adequate pain reliever in this species. Not only is it ineffective, but his research also showed that the drug can cause mild respiratory depression.

“This is not something you really want happening in an animal that lives in water,” Dr. Sladky notes.

Fast forward to 2012, and Dr. Sladky is giving even more relief to our cold-blooded companions by learning more about what pain medication does work. In studies funded by Morris Animal Foundation, Dr. Sladky first demonstrated that the drug tramadol is a low risk and effective analgesic in red-eared slider turtles. Then, he took these data into the field, where he tested the efficacy of tramadol on loggerhead sea turtles—a highly endangered turtle found in oceans throughout the world. His study yielded strong results.

To accomplish his research on loggerheads, Dr. Sladky teamed up with Dr. Terry Norton, director and veterinarian of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center.

“This work on pain management is important when these turtles have issues,” Dr. Norton explains. “We have not had effective pain management in these species until now, and it can really increase their survival and rehabilitation rates.”

Sadly, sea turtles experience a lot of painful issues. Propeller blade injuries are notorious for killing or disfiguring them. In addition, complications due to dredging, fishing lines and pneumonia are among the many issues that can debilitate a sea turtle.

Measuring suffering in voiceless creatures

Measuring pain in any animal can be difficult, but in species that can’t bark, whimper or cry, it can be an especially slippery task. For Dr. Sladky, this question is paramount to his research.

“The question of ‘How do I measure pain?’ must come before the question ‘What drugs do I use?’” Dr. Sladky says. And Dr. Sladky believes any measurement of pain needs to take emotional suffering into account. He cites a chilling example from human medicine that reinforces his belief in giving the benefit of the doubt when dealing with pain.

“Even just 40 years ago, human medicine adhered to the idea that the brains of newborn babies were too immature to experience pain,” he recounts. “In turn, they never received any pain medications, even after very invasive surgeries.”

In another one of Dr. Sladky’s studies funded by Morris Animal Foundation, he and his laboratory colleague, Dr. Tracie Baker, measured the efficacy of several analgesic drugs in koi (the large Japanese fish) by monitoring attributes that dictated how well the fish could eat, swim and react to other stimuli after surgery.

Understanding drug dosing in reptiles

Although this research is opening doors for managing pain in cold-blooded species beyond turtles and fish, there is more to be done.

In other Morris Animal Foundation–funded studies at the University of Tennessee, principal investigator Dr. Cheryl Greenacre’s research into the pain management of bearded dragons is making strides for lizards. She and a team of researchers developed a valid test for monitoring pain in reptiles and then used that test to evaluate the effectiveness of various pain-relieving medications in bearded dragons.

They determined dosages for a number of medications that can provide some pain relief in bearded dragons, including butorphanol, morphine, tramadol, carprofen, ketoprofen and meloxicam.

Looking forward, Dr. Sladky hopes to use his research to learn more about managing pain in snakes.

“These animals have incredible abilities,” Dr. Sladky emphasizes. “Their level of understanding and how they experience the world might be more complicated than we will ever know.”

We’re happy that crusaders for cold-blooded creatures, like Drs. Sladky and Greenacre, keep pushing for answers.


Posted by MAFon May 18, 2012.

Categories: Animal health, Animal studies, Animal welfare

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