The fish welfare debate is intensifying. Consequently, more research is carried out to further our knowledge on fish welfare in aquaculture. We define here a series of key parameters to substantiate an acute response to a supposedly painful stimulus: a standardized tailfin clip. Ultrastructural analysis of common carp (Cyprinus carpio) tailfin indicates the presence of A-d and C-type axons, which are typical for transmitting nociceptive signals in (higher) vertebrates. In Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus), responses to a tailfin clip were studied and the unavoidable acute stress associated with the handling required for this procedure. A series of key parameters for further studies was defined. The responses seen in ‘classical’ stress parameters (e.g., changes in plasma cortisol, glucose and lactate levels) did not allow discrimination between the clipping procedure and the handling stress. However, three parameters indicated a differential, stronger response to the clip stimulus itself: first, swimming activity increased more and clipped fish spent more time in the light (in a tank where half the volume is covered by dark material); second, the gill's mucus cells released their content as observed 1 h after the clip, and this response is transient (no longer observed at 6 h post clipping). Third, branchial Na+/K+-ATPase activity assayed in vitro was not affected by the procedures, but a remarkable migration of Na+/K+-ATPase immunoreactive (chloride) cells into the lamellar epithelium was observed as of 6 h post clipping. We conclude that the differential response to clipping supports that this is a painful procedure that evokes a transient specific physiological status.
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