Animal Sentience

Animal sentience means that animals are sentient beings with thoughts, feelings, and individual personalities. Our scientific research and evidence irrefutably prove this.

At World Animal Protection sentience is at the heart of everything we do.

Animals have their own preferences, desires, and needs; we humans may not always know what they are. But if we can use our knowledge of animal sentience to monitor and measure their emotional states, then we can seek to ensure that we avoid causing them pain and distress.

What is sentience?

Sentience is the ability to feel a range of emotions and feelings, such as pleasure, pain, joy, and fear. Some animals even experience complex emotions, such as grief and empathy. Animals are sentient beings, and this means that their feelings matter.

The more we learn about the minds of animals, the harder it is to justify the practices we use that cause them to suffer. It is also harder to neglect that animals can and want to feel positive emotions and states too. They, like us, want to feel good.

They want to do things they enjoy; they want to exert control over their own lives, have choices, play, feel satiated and comfortable, solve problems, get excited, and seek the comfort of companions.

These things matter to animals, and they matter to us.

What makes an animal a sentient being?

Our understanding of animal sentience still varies depending on the species, as some groups of animals, such as mammals, have received far more attention than others.

Vertebrate species

We know that all vertebrate species are sentient and that although some groups, such as birds, have evolved different brain structures to ours, they still have what they need to process experiences and feel emotions. In fact, chickens demonstrate empathy, and magpies appear to feel grief.

Reptiles and amphibians

Other groups of animals, such as reptiles, amphibians, and fish, are often dismissed as cold-blooded and incapable of feeling. This is simply not true. As vertebrates, they possess the physiological and neurological requirements for conscious experiences, and their behaviour indicates that not only can they feel, but that their feelings matter.

Invertebrates

Beyond vertebrates, scientists are also uncovering more about the subjective lives of invertebrates too.

Research shows considerable evidence for a wide range of cognitive abilities in insects, as well as evidence for important sentience traits, including stress, pessimism and emotion.

Numerous studies have explored whether cephalopods, like octopuses and squids, and decapod crustaceans, like crabs and lobsters, can feel important states like pain and fear. The evidence is clear, these invertebrates may not have the same anatomy and brain structures as we mammals do, but they are sentient, and they can feel a range of emotions and experiences.

snake

Why is animal sentience important? It's about perspective.

Pigs crowded in UK factory farm

Our work elevates animal welfare to a priority issue of global importance. Though to truly understand animals' perspectives and ensure people hear their voices, raising the public’s understanding of animal sentience is crucial to success.

Animals have needs and emotions surrounding comfort, companionship, and freedom; they can experience both physical and psychological pain.

Whether we are working to end factory farming, or to stop the cruel wildlife trade and entertainment industries, measuring and understanding sentience is vital in compelling people to change their behaviour.

Uncovering complex lives through animal sentience research

People often disregard the importance of an animal’s feelings or dismiss them as being subjective and too hard to understand or measure. This is simply not the case. Scientific knowledge of animal sentience has grown considerably in the past 20 years.

Never has there been such enthusiasm and drive to learn about what animals think and feel.

Scientists now have a whole range of tools to measure and understand the emotional lives of animals, and these can be used to ensure that animals have the lives they deserve. For example, we can tell a lot about how animals feel from their body postures and behaviour. Neuroscience shows us how some species have developed different brain structures for processing emotions like pain, fear, and joy.

The science of animal sentience is also uncovering the remarkable abilities of different species. Scientists keep learning just how complex the emotional lives of animals are.

Feeling beings: the power of animal sentience law

Understanding how animals can suffer and what emotions they experience is instrumental in improving their welfare and the legislation and practices affecting them. Policies and laws must consider animals as individuals, whose needs and welfare need to be protected.

Recognising animals as sentient in legislation demonstrates that a country values the intrinsic value and wellbeing of animals. It defines animals as feeling beings, who are capable of pain and suffering, but also of positive states such as pleasure and joy.

This sets an important standard for how animals should be treated, shapes attitudes and behaviours and sends a clear message to citizens. Enshrining sentience in legislation takes a country one step closer to ensuring that animals have the lives they deserve.

The future for sentience science and animal welfare

The future of animal sentience science is exciting and brilliant. Never has there been such enthusiasm and drive to learn about what animals think and feel. World Animal Protection will continue to promote this area of science and showcase the growing body of research that demonstrates the diverse nature of the emotional lives of animals.

In our work to end factory farming, we will keep using the growing body of research on animal sentience to show the world that intensive systems cannot meet the needs of these complex, sentient beings who we farm in their trillions.

As we continue to campaign and work for wild animals, stakeholders will recognise the importance of protecting sentient beings from the inhumane practices commonly seen in the wildlife trade and entertainment industries.