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Are Animals Really Sentient?

Updated: May 7, 2022

Whether or not animals are sentient is far reaching, from people arguing about whether cats are smarter than dogs to governments debating whether animals have feelings. The argument is an important one and it becomes even more important when it is linked to animal exploitation.

What Is Sentience?

“Sentient” is an adjective that describes the ability to have feelings. The word sentient derives from the Latin verb sentire, which means “to feel.” Dictionaries define sentience as “able to experience feelings,” “responsive to or conscious of sense impressions,” and “capable of feeling things through physical senses.” Sentient beings can experience positive emotions like happiness, joy, and gratitude, and negative emotions such as pain, suffering, loneliness, and grief.

Donald M. Broom, Emeritus Professor of Animal Welfare at Cambridge University, has said that a sentient being is able to “evaluate the actions of others in relation to itself and third parties, to remember some of its own actions and their consequences, to assess risks and benefits, to have some feelings, and to have some degree of awareness.” What does this mean? This means that when your cat sits by its plate and meows it knows that you'll understand that it is hungry and that you'll put food out. It means that when you pick up the pot of fish flakes the fish in the tank know what comes next and will move to the top of the water. It means that when clouds blow over, the skies get dark and the pressure changes birds know that it's going to rain and find shelter. It's lion cubs mewling with relief when they see their mother after getting lost, rubbing against her for comfort as she licks them. Each of these animals has feelings and interact with their environment or other animals, including humans, to get a result that pleases them. This also means avoiding things that don't please them.

Anyone who says that life matters less to animals than it does to us has not held in his hands an animal fighting for its life. The whole of the being of the animal is thrown into that fight, without reserve.” (Elisabeth Costello, in J. M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals)

Beings that do not have a central nervous system are not sentient, this includes bacteria, fungi, plants, and some animals. It is only animals that have a central nervous system that have the ability to have feelings and experiences.

Sentience And Animal Rights

Science has proved that farm animals, cows, sheep, pigs etc. are sentient. Sheep can recognise up to 50 other sheep’s faces and remember them for two years, cows show excitement when they discover how to open a gate leading to food and they enjoy playing football. Mother hens teach their chicks which food is good to eat and which foods to avoided, while chickens that are ill prefer food that contains painkillers; and sentience isn't just a tool for survival, it is a tool for better mental health. By being sentient animals are able to learn from experiences, distinguish and choose between different objects, animals and situations, such as working out who is helpful or who might cause them harm. Sentience also allows animals to understand the behaviour of other individuals and develop social relationships.

In the UK the Animal Welfare Act 2006 was put in place to make sure that humans that are responsible for an animal's needs ensure that those needs are met. This includes:

  • giving that animal a suitable place to live

  • giving them a suitable diet

  • making sure that the animal exhibits normal behaviour patterns

  • protecting the animal from pain, injury, suffering and disease

Anyone who is cruel to an animal, or does not provide for its welfare needs, may be banned from "owning" animals, fined up to £20,000 and/or sent to prison.

The European Convention for the Protection of Animals Kept for Farming Purposes sets out the conditions necessary to avoid any unnecessary suffering or injury and to take account of physiological and behavioural needs. This also covers care while transporting animals, the welfare of the animals is protected and animals must be transported in a way that is not likely to cause injury or undue suffering to them. The animals are to be checked during the journey, they must be fed and given water. The transport vehicle must be safe and suitable with enough space and ventilation and the animals must be treated in a way that does not involve violence or cause fear, injury or suffering.

This legislation implicitly, if not explicitly, recognises that animals are sentient. The problem is that you don't have to look very far to see that animals are in pain, they are scared, they are suffering. They are given the cheapest food possible and fed antibiotics and supplements to make up for the damage that this does. Animals are transported in cramped and dark conditions, ventilation is not adequate and no one stops to give them some water or food. When animals are transported for slaughter their lives no longer matter, regardless of what the law states. Animals taken to live markets only matter in that if they look good the seller gets more money. Pregnant pigs being kept in farrowing crates is cruel, banned in the UK, they are still okay to use until the 4th week of pregnancy in Europe. Then there are the animals that are not protected by these laws such as wild animals. As long as human interests are prioritised, particularly economic ones, over animals’ needs to avoid pain and suffering the cruelty will continue. If you refuse to spend money on the things that come from this, from buying a puppy from a puppy farm to buying eggs for your breakfast to buying leather shoes, you can help to remove the demand for the products that come from the suffering. But, we also need to take direct action against this. The PETA action page has information about what is going on in the world and tells you how you can take part in getting it to end. You don't have to protest in the streets, the petitions, the social media posts, they all work. If we work together we can get the public and the governments of the world to recognise that animals are sentient. We can get them to care about this and not use the abilities that humans have to exploit them.


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