Do Dog Breeds Differ in Their Sensitivity to Pain?

New data shows that some dog breeds are much more sensitive to pain than others.

Posted Apr 06, 2020

Bobby Mikul, Needpix CC0
Source: Bobby Mikul, Needpix CC0

When it comes to sensitivity to pain there is a lot of variability among individual humans. I remember one day when I was six or seven years of age I was looking at my grandfather, Abe, working at his forge. He was a blacksmith, and had placed a piece of hot metal on his anvil and was pounding it into the shape of a very large door hinge. As his hammer hit the metal, sparks in the form of tiny hot shards of metal, flew off. Sometimes they would hit his bare arms, but he paid no notice to them. I drew closer to watch more closely. At that moment, one of those shards hit my arm and I remember howling in pain. He looked at me and said quietly, "You would never make a good smith. You are just too sensitive to pain to do the job. It's that way with some people."

Many dog professionals feel that certain breeds of dogs also require reduced sensitivity to pain to do their jobs. The most commonly cited examples are guard dogs and dogs bred for fighting. However, the same is also the case for retrievers who must crash through the underbrush that may contain brambles and who often must swim through freezing cold water to retrieve birds that have been shot down. If retrievers were too sensitive to pain they would probably refuse to do their jobs. Thus it is likely that over many years, consciously or unconsciously, breeders have been selecting dogs in these breed groups to have reduced pain sensitivity.

Herding dogs do not come across similar difficulties involving painful stimuli, and of course, companion dogs seldom encounter pain in their everyday life (except perhaps from toddlers pulling at their fur or ears).

If researchers wanted to test the pain sensitivity of different dog breeds directly the most natural experimental design would involve bringing representative groups of canines into a laboratory and exposing them to various gradations of painful stimuli to see how they react. However few research ethics boards would be comfortable giving permission for such a study, and few scientists would feel that it is proper to be engaged in a research project where dogs are deliberately being hurt.

Does that mean that we can never gather scientific data on the pain sensitivity of the various breeds of dogs? There is a way around the research design problems, and this involves consulting experts whose professional activities frequently bring them into contact with dogs that might be suffering various degrees of pain. The most available group who might have direct knowledge of pain and suffering of various breeds of dogs are veterinarians. Based on this kind of reasoning Margaret E. Gruen at the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine in Raleigh, North Carolina, and a team of researchers decided to survey veterinarians to see if they had observed how various breeds differ in pain sensitivity.

In this current study, 1078 responses from veterinarians were gathered using an online survey. The researchers asked respondents to rate the pain sensitivity of 28 breeds of dogs on a scale that ran from zero ("Not Sensitive at All") to 100 ("Most Sensitive Imaginable"). A picture of each dog breed was shown along with a scale indicating the dog's height. (The group of breeds usually referred to as Pitbulls was represented by an American Staffordshire Terrier.)

The researchers also gathered 1053 survey responses from the general public using the same survey instrument. This data from the general public can be considered to be iffy at best because few people outside of the veterinary profession will have had the opportunity to observe many dogs of different breeds who were suffering in a painful situation; I will not discuss those results in detail. However, such data does at least provide an idea as to what the average person's notions and stereotypes are about pain sensitivity in dogs.

All of the veterinarians tested (that is 100 percent) felt that dog breeds differ in their response to pain. The veterinarians felt that the major factors in breed differences in the sensitivity to pain were genetic in nature and involved the specific temperament of the breed.

Members of the general public attributed breed differences in pain sensitivity mostly to the dogs' size, with big dogs being seen as less sensitive and smaller dogs seen as more sensitive. Also they felt that dog breeds that were most likely to appear on lists of dogs affected by breed-specific legislation (Pitbulls, German shepherds, and Rottweilers) would have the least sensitivity to feeling pain, while familiar family dogs (like Golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers) would have an average or mid-range sensitivity. Veterinarians disagreed with the public's view, indicating that size was only a modest predictor of pain sensitivity, and noting that some big dogs, which may also be the targets of some breed-specific legislation (like German shepherds) actually are quite sensitive to pain.

In the list below I give you the veterinarians' rankings of the 28 breeds tested, ranked from the most sensitive to pain to the least sensitive. The most sensitive breeds are at the top and the breeds that are rated as being least reactive to pain are at the bottom. Notice that just as many dog professionals have suggested, many of the guarding breeds (Rottweilers, Boxers, Mastiffs, and Doberman pinchers), as well as the representative of the fighting breeds (Pitbull), and the two representative of retrievers (the Labrador retriever and Golden retriever) all do show lower sensitivity to pain then do the herding and companion breeds.

Most Sensitive to Pain

  • Chihuahua
  • Maltese
  • Husky
  • Pomeranian
  • Dachshund
  • German Shepherd
  • Whippet

Above Average Sensitivity to Pain

  • Schnauzer
  • Samoyed
  • Pug
  • Weimaraner
  • Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
  • Boston Terrier
  • Greyhound

Below Average Sensitivity to Pain

  • Jack Russell Terrier
  • Chow Chow
  • Gordon Setter
  • Border Collie
  • Rhodesian Ridgeback
  • Great Dane
  • Doberman Pincher

Lowest Sensitivity to Pain

  • Rottweiler
  • Boxer
  • Bulldog
  • Golden Retriever
  • Mastiff
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Pitbull (American Staffordshire Terrier)

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

Facebook image: Pressmaster/Shutterstock

References

Gruen ME, White P, Hare B (2020) Do dog breeds differ in pain sensitivity? Veterinarians and the public believe they do. PLoS ONE 15(3): e0230315. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0230315

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