Reducing the pain animals experience – in medical procedures or prior to slaughter for human consumption – has been the major focus of Professor Craig Johnson’s career. The veterinary scientist was awarded a Doctor of Science degree from Massey University this month for his lifetime’s work.
His groundbreaking research in veterinary anaesthesia, particularly in advocating for compulsory stunning of cattle in both Western and halal slaughterhouses, has resulted in a more humane death for millions of beef cattle worldwide.
His Doctor of Science was awarded for his thesis titled The Minimal Anaesthesia Model: Development and Refinement of the Concept and Subsequent Practical Applications.
Professor Johnson, who qualified as a veterinary surgeon from Liverpool University and worked in a small animal practice before deciding to specialise in veterinary anaesthesia, says his passion as a veterinary surgeon “has always been to do all that I can to improve the welfare of animals wherever they are.”
His research into how we perceive and understand animal pain involves both domestic and farm animals. His main contribution has been the development of the Minimal Anaesthesia Model, and its application in a number of areas related to animal welfare. “It has enabled pain to be investigated for the first time without actually causing pain to the animals that are studied – a significant refinement.”
His studies using this model have resulted in the publication of more than 70 research papers and have contributed to changes to animal welfare regulations in New Zealand and other legislatures including Australia, the UK and the European Union. It has resulted in an increased use of stunning prior to slaughter – such as in the UK, where stunning before halal slaughter has increased from 0 to 80 per cent, an increase of 91 million animals in 2014 alone.
“In the UK, the change in practice came without a change in legislation. In Jordan, a FATWA (Islamic proclamation) was published indicating that animals should be stunned prior to slaughter. In some EU countries, slaughter without stunning has been banned – as it has been in New Zealand with some very small exceptions.”
Recently the European Food Safety Authority issued a scientific opinion that slaughter without stunning causes severe pain and distress, he says. “All these changes add up to many more animals being stunned prior to slaughter than was previously the case, but it’s pretty much impossible to put a definitive number on this.
“For the animals, my studies demonstrated that slaughter without stunning was perceived as painful in the period between the neck incision and loss of awareness. In cattle, this period usually lasts up to about 20 seconds, but in some instances can be as long as a minute or even more. Stunning prior to neck incision renders the animal immediately unconscious before the neck incision is made and so protects against this painful period.”
How we understand animal pain
“The signs of pain are about communication and they can be very different between different species and also between animals from the same species that have different cultures (working dogs and pet dogs, for example)."
“One of the key things we’ve come to understand in the last couple of decades is that the communication is intended to be communication within the group, not necessarily communication with humans,” Professor Johnson explains. “As humans, we find pain more noticeable in dogs than sheep, for example, because the signs of pain in the dog happen to be more like the signs of pain in people. Pain causes behavioural changes in sheep, but the signs are not what we (as people) might expect and so we can easily miss them.”
Pain relief research
With a clinical background in veterinary anaesthesia (he holds European and UK specialty board qualifications in this discipline), he was running the anaesthesia department of Bristol Vet School prior to coming to Massey.
“I came to Massey primarily to focus on research rather than spending most of my time managing clinical cases because it seemed to me that research related to pain relief had the potential to improve the welfare of many more animals than I could reach when in the clinics.”
Professor Johnson did his clinical specialty training at The Animal Health Trust in Newmarket, UK and obtained both Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and European College of Veterinary Anaesthetists Diplomas in Veterinary Anaesthesia.
After a stint as a locum lecturer in Pretoria, South Africa, he returned to the UK and gained a PhD from Cambridge University before taking up a faculty position in anaesthesia at Bristol University Veterinary School. He moved to Massey 20 years ago, and is now Professor of Veterinary Neurophysiology and Director of Research Ethics, as well as co-director of Massey’s Animal Welfare Science and Bioethics Centre, and a member of the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee.
We can do better in regard to animal welfare
Professor Johnson says we are “better than we were, say 30 years ago, at spotting and alleviating pain in mammals generally. We need to pay some more attention to farmed animals because they can often get worse treatment than companion animal species, and there is a potential conflict between using drugs to treat pain and producing food that is free of drug residues.
“At the moment we are beginning to look at pain in animals that are very different from ourselves and that often live in very different worlds. Birds as well as fish and other aquatic animals that we hunt/fish/farm fit into this category. There are some potentially very great causes of suffering in the ways that we interact with these animals.”
Paying attention to animal needs
It’s often small things that can make a big difference, he says. “You just have to try to be alert to the needs around you and make decisions that are based on the animals rather than what else is going on.”
“I remember when I was doing clinical work, that one day I was in the ward looking at some animals at feeding time and one dog was very upset because it wasn’t being fed with the others. When I asked the kennel staff about it I was told that it didn’t need feeding because it was going to be put to sleep that afternoon. The staff were waiting for the owners to arrive as they wanted to say goodbye. I told them to feed the dog and as a result it was immediately much happier.”