Putting on a Brave Face – stoicism in animals

Most would think rabbit and bird would lose to Mastiff in the competition for bravest and strongest. Given comparable disease, the fragile bird or rabbit would be expected to be groaning miserably and cark-it well before the big, strong carnivore. From a vet’s perspective this doesn’t seem to be the case. Species, breeds and individuals vary in how much they display or hide their disease; the more stoic an animal, the harder it is for vets to localise and assess severity of disease.


putting on a brave face


Stoicism is the degree to which a person or animal will suffer pain or illness without displaying their feelings or complaint. Most people expect tough, big-breed dogs to be most stoic, but vets often see the most meek and fragile of animals behaving normally in the face of catastrophic disease.  The guinea pig, budgie or rabbit may be eating and normal one day, only to be found dead the following; meanwhile, the Ridgeback stops eating and looks miserable with the mildest of gastro bugs.

Unlike the dog or cat, which usually give a vet or pet owner plenty of notice of impending peril, and opportunity for treatment, the phenomenon of sudden death in birds and small mammals is something that can catch vets by surprise. After seeing sufficient caseload of sudden death in such species, most vets become very guarded about declaring boldly optimistic prognoses.  A bunny with a grave prognosis is described here.

Just the fear and stress induced by handling and treatment may tip injured wildlife into shock, quite apart from the underlaying medical problem that landed them in care in the first place. Similarly, many domestic pets presented to vets may believe they are going into mortal combat; pumped with adrenaline, in fight or flight mode, they focus more on survival than demonstrating their sore shoulder.  Pet owners often comment on  the miraculous resolution of lameness on arrival at the clinic, only to be disappointed by it’s return when the dog is calm and undistracted at home.

Without verbal input from the patient, vets rely partly on response to painful stimulus.  Stoicism in animals makes a vet’s job harder; a rabbit, deliberately concealing their abdominal pain, may narrow our chances of picking the bowel impaction.

Sure, there are some diseases that can unexpectedly kill a cat overnight, and some birds can be sick for weeks before death, but the fictional graph below tries to demonstrate the differences between how predators and prey species may behave in the clinic.


Theories to explain stoicism:

  • There is an evolutionary advantage for prey species to look strong, as those that appear sick are at risk of being eaten.

Predators at the top of the food chain, like tiger (cat) or wolf (dog), can worry less about being seen to be sick. There is little risk  of being picked-on when laying about, unwell with a tummy upset. Meanwhile, prey species will often stoically battle-on, trying not to appear vulnerable or get singled out as an easy target.

  • Animals with higher metabolic rates deteriorate faster.

Reflecting metabolic rate, body temperatures, heart rates and frequency of eating are usually higher in smaller mammals and birds.  When there’s a disruption to physiology, such as illness, especially if appetite is affected, the animals with higher metabolic rates will crash faster. Taken to extremes, the hummingbird, which must drink nectar 5 times an hour, will usually dine within hours or even minutes of death. If caring for such a creature, a vet would be ill-advised to view appetite as a reliable indicator of wellbeing.

  • Animals with a broad array of well-recognised behaviours, that demonstrate their health, are easier to pick  as unwell.

A dog or cat, with a full and expressive repertoire of interactive behaviours, will be easier for a pet owner to pick as mildly unwell than an incarcerated bird. The poor caged Budgie, that just perches all day, may be gasping for breath before an elderly owner notices anything is awry.

  • Personality type and genetic variation.

Animals, like man, have personality types determined by genes and life experiences; these may raise or lower our pain threshold.


Comments on stoicism in individuals:

Just like in man, individual animals vary in pain threshold.  While it’s ethically difficult to develop a standardised test for comparison, most pet owners recognise their companion as either stoic or sensitive.

Vets fully acknowledge it’s often harder to localise pain or lameness in stoic dog breedtypes, such as the Staffy, whilst a Teacup Poodle screams everywhere you touch it. Some pets seem more reactive to one type of pain, like an ear infection, than another, their arthritic knee.

Like children, puppies and kittens are often more expressive of pain than an adult.  It’s often hard to work out if the  puppy’s yelping is anything more serious than the grazed knee of screaming child.


Comments on signs of heart disease:

Many dogs are of a character which must compulsively respond to cues: bark at noise of visitor, prick-up to words like ‘beach’ and ‘walk’, or slavishly chase a stick or ball. A dog with heart failure will often parade around gasping,  coughing,  and demonstrating their disease during daily activity: visibly unwell, even to the most unobservant owners. Many continue performing bursts of puppy-like athleticism as a geriatric, only to find themselves crippled with arthritis the next day. See All in moderation – exercise in the aged.

In contrast, cats are more independently minded, and simply do as they please. The cat with heart failure, after bolting upstairs and experiencing the discomfort of breathlessness, hypotension or arrhythmia, may simply chose to refrain from such outbursts in future. The sleeping cat lays, and heart failure progresses until sufficiently advanced to affect appetite or respiratory pattern. Cat owners are sometimes surprised their contented, sleeping tabby was quietly dying for a year, under their very noses.


Key points

  • If your bird, rabbit, guinea pig, or rodent seems sick, it’s probably serious and you should see a vet.
  • If you find an injured wild animal, understand that it’s experience of your handling or care may be like the mortal terror of being held hostage. Keep it in a quiet, dark place and minimise handling.
  • Feline heart disease can become very advanced with minimal symptoms. If you ever notice your elderly cat mouth-breathing – panting like a dog –  think heart, see vet.
  • Don’t believe that the level of pain expressed (yelping, limping) is necessarily proportional to the severity of an injury; the screaming puppy with presumed broken leg may turn out the be a bee-sting.

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5 Responses to “Putting on a Brave Face – stoicism in animals”

  1. Ligia Febre says:

    ciao!, thanks for the information, this post was very very useful ! I just received a copy of a amazing Mastiff Book. Wow! I recommend it for anyone thinking of getting a mastiff !

  2. heather fenn says:

    very intresting and makes obvious sence. i have found this post very useful and all animal owners/lovers should read it.

  3. Getting Pregnant after Miscarriage says:

    I am so extremely happy reading this blog post as well as I concur with the last part of this post. However, I have read this elsewhere too. Do you have any other site too?

  4. matt says:


    Nope havent posted this elsewhere.

  5. Trish Kamolnick says:

    Great information that everyone working with animals should understand. Thank you for posting it.

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