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PLoS By Category | Recent PLoS Articles
Anesthesiology and Pain Management

Are We Looking in the Wrong Place? Implications for Behavioural-Based Pain Assessment in Rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculi) and Beyond?
Published: Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Author: Matthew C. Leach et al.

by Matthew C. Leach, Claire A. Coulter, Claire A. Richardson, Paul A. Flecknell


Successful observation of behaviour depends upon knowing both which behaviours to look for and focusing on the appropriate areas of the body to observe them. Behaviour based scoring systems have become increasingly widely used to assess animal pain and distress. Although studies are available demonstrating which behaviours need to be observed, there has been little attempt to assess how effectively observers apply such information when viewing an animal's behaviour.

Methodology/Principal Findings

This study used historical video recordings of New Zealand white rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculi) considered to be experiencing varying degrees of post-operative pain to assess the pattern of observation and the ability to assess pain exhibited by both experienced and inexperienced human participants (n?=?151). Eye tracking equipment was used to identify how quickly, how frequently, for how long different areas of the rabbit's body were attended to by the participants. Simple visual analgoue scoring was used to assess the pain experienced in each sequence. The results demonstrate that irrespective of their experience or gender, observers focus first, more frequently and for longer on the face, compared to the abdomen, ears, back and hindquarters of the rabbit and that participants were poor at identifying rabbits in pain. Observing the back and hindquarters was correlated with ‘correct’ assessments and observing the face was correlated with ‘incorrect’ assessments.


In conclusion, irrespective of experience and gender, observers focused on the face when using behaviour to assess pain and were unable to effectively identify rabbits in pain. Focusing on the face is unlikely to be effective when using behavioural indicators of pain since they involve other body areas. Alternatively, if animals exhibit pain-related facial expressions, then it could improve our ability to assess pain. In addition, these results have potential implications for the use of behaviour to assess how rabbits and potentially other species feel.