Can an Electrically Stunned Animal Feel Pain?


There is evidence from human beings that electrical stimulation is painful. Electrical current is widely used to torture people in South America/ the Middle East and China; cattle prods or electric batons are used. Victims of torture attest that the larger the voltage or current, the more painful it is; they do not go unconscious immediately. The power used to torture people is of the same order as that used to stun animals. Greater energy used in the electric chair kills the victim after some minutes, or spoils the taste of meat. Of course, the voltages and currents experienced by the human beings or animals are much lower than those coming out of the devices they use, because the electrodes can not be applied accurately and firmly, and there are alternative pathways across the skin, through the skin and into the tissues. In the case of prisoners in the electric chair, the electrodes are moistened and bound firmly to the head and foot to ensure good contact.  Burns occur at the sites of contact with the electrodes. Those due to torture of human beings may be very small. They have been detected histologically in biopsies taken from victims at the Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims in Copenhagen. Massive burns and charring are seen at the sites where the electrodes are attached when the electric chair is used. Patients who are given electroshock for manic depression, are anaesthetised because of the stress and pain which would be caused. Other patients, whose hearts require defibrillation with large amounts of energy, are now anaesthetised, because those who recovered complained of the pain. Powerful muscle contraction causes painful cramps in athletes. Perhaps the most obvious evidence is that it is painful to touch the electric mains. Why, then, is it so widely believed that electrical stunning is humane?

deer icon Why Electrical Stunning is not Believed to be Painful

Firstly, the public, the slaughterers, the farmers and the butchers, have not understood the division of the nervous system into sensory and motor systems. Secondly, animals and people subjected to large currents, being paralysed, can not exhibit the obvious sign of pain - evasive and violent movements. Thirdly, people believe that unconsciousness in animal slaughter (as in the electric chair) is instantaneous. Fourth, N Gregory and S Wotton of the Department of Meat Animal Science of the University of Bristol in 1985 applied the electric current to the heads of sheep for too short a period to stun or kill them; when the current was turned off, the sheep walked away, apparently without distress. They also saw no burns beneath the electrodes. Nevertheless the same research group was of the opinion that "electrical stunning does not cause de-afferentation of the visual cortex in a consistent and prolonged manner." Fifthly, no one wants to know that animals might have suffered severe pain every time they eat a ham sandwich, hold a barbecue or put on their sheepskin liberty bodices.


Few people who eat meat or fish, or products made from them are aware how the animals are killed. Penetrating captive bolts kill the animals most quickly, and percussion is also effective, if they are stuck before they come round. Electric stunning is probably very painful, because the animals are fully conscious when they are electrocuted. It would be impractical to anaesthetise the animals before exsanguinating them, and the procedure of slaughter with carbon dioxide is too slow, although the animals die quite quickly. The challenge to the meat and fish industry is to devise methods of killing animals and fish in more humane ways, but this may not be possible on an industrial scale. It is likely that kinder and less stressful methods would make meat and fish more expensive.
Animals Slaughtered in Britain and Methods Used  

 Dr Harold Hillman is the Director of the Unity Laboratory of Applied Neurobiology
in Guildford, and was formerly Reader in Physiology at the University of Surrey.
He can be contacted at 76 Epsom Road, Guildford, Surrey, GU1  2BX, UK
Tel: [+44] 01483 568332
Fax: [+44] 01483 531110

Also by Dr Hillman
The Vegetarian Conscience