Sentience in Animals by World Animal Protection

Animals evolve to the environment in which they live, and as a result they develop a set of positive and negative behaviours out of motivation and possibly even enjoyment. Sentience in Animal welfare is a two-step process, the first is developing research that will allow us to effectively remove pain and suffering from an animal’s life, and then the second phase is encouraging positive behaviours and emotions in an animal.  Although fundraising within the charity sector can be focused around highlighting the plight of animals around the world through tragic case studies, promoting these positive behaviours can actually be a more useful tool at engaging with the public.


As humans we have a strong tendency to anthropomorphise animals by giving them human names and attributes, continually comparing them to ourselves in some way.  Unfortunately, a result of this can be that without an animal’s ability to converse to express pain or suffering many individuals can assume that they do not feel pain at all.  However, with the vast strides and development in animal behaviours we can learn to observe other methods of communication in different species to determine whether they are happy or suffering.  The legacy of the behavioural movement is focused on observing outputs, but sentience research wants to focus on scientific evidence and measurable outputs that can be proven evidence.  Misuse of anthropomorphic language in order to explain sentience in layman’s terms is also a risk so you end up with contradictory terminology across research papers i.e. cognitive bias vs. pessimism and affect vs. emotions.


Dawkins defined cognition as the mental action or processes which animals perceive, process and store information (2001).  Higher cognitive abilities have unfortunately been used as a basis for advocating protection e.g. great apes, to the detriment of many other species that are considered less advanced. 


A systematic review of all sentient research in the field by Proctor et al. (2013) highlighted that 99% of research has been conducted on vertebrates.  Research had been conducted for many different reasons, from human benefit to researching animal behaviour and focused primarily on mammals (92% of research).  Some interesting discoveries have been made such as:

  • Facial grimacing in rabbits, rates, mice and sheep (good because its non-invasive observation techniques)
  • Elephants console one another after distressing events, so do not need to go through the event themselves but recognised distress in others
  • Dogs show separation anxiety and some tend to be more pessimistic and depressed than others
  • Rats laugh when tickled – they actively seek/follow the hand of a scientist to receive tickling and appear to enjoy the experience as evidence by vocal activity perceived as “laughter”
  • Cows hold grudges and will dislike other cows in the group
  • Fish – research on trout and cod injected with bee venom or vinegar, revealed that they do respond to pain, and will change their behaviour drastically as a result of pain, including swaying, rubbing lips against tank, neophobia and reduced activity at the bottom of the tanks.The subsequent administering of analgesics then results in the fish returning to its normal behaviour
  • Fish can retain positive and negative memory and can develop preferences to certain environments depending on danger vs. reward.
  • Collaborative hunting in chimps and fish (e.g. moray eel and groupers) indicates a higher level of intelligence


Invertebrates are often forgotten when it comes to animal welfare and sentience research, and there is still so little legislation covering any species that inhuman acts such as boiling crustaceans alive or the ablation of prawns is still legal today all around the world. It has often been believed that invertebrates are incapable of feeling as their anatomy is so different to ours or other vertebrates, but some research has been done in the field to indicate otherwise such as on crustaceans, who have seen to perform limb rubbing and even lose limbs altogether in stressful/pain stimulating situations.  Cephalopods i.e. octopuses, are also becoming increasingly protected i.e. under the Scientific Protection Act. 


World Animal Protection’s science team recently conducted a study on measuring emotion in dairy cows.  By first allowing the cows to become habituated to them they were able to investigate the possibility of producing positive behaviours by stroking the cows in order to obtain scientific evidence that cows are able to feel positive emotions.  There are four types of measurable emotions; positive high arousal e.g. excitement, negative high arousal e.g. fear, positive low arousal e.g. relaxation and negative low arousal e.g. depression. This study was purely focusing on positive low arousal.  In order to measure their response to tactile stimulus such as stroking, their nasal temperature was taken, ear posture noted and %of eye white visible was recorded.  Overall, it was able to prove that cows enjoy this tactile treatment and it insights positive emotions in the animal, which in some studies has been shown to produce milk yield and quality.  As allogrooming is quite common in cows it has indicated the invention and installation of devices such as cow brushes are a successful measure to improve animal welfare in agriculture. Unfortunately, these devices can be quite costly, but the benefits are undeniable:  Sadly, it is also apparent that animal welfare takes the least priority when weighed against productivity and in Indian buffalo where they are reared to produce vast quantities of milk, they as a species are actually able to prevent milk from dropping when stressed, and farmers instead of trying to relieve stress, will instead inject oxytocin into the animal to force it to drop its milk. 


Overall, it is clear that most if not all animals have the ability to feel pain or suffering in some form or another, but because they are unable to present it as clearly as humans do, it has often been disregarded altogether.  Research in this field is extensively devoted to scientifically proving animals suffer pain, which in itself is acting against animal welfare by causing the pain in which they want to study.  So World Animal Protection have decided as a scientific organisation to focus on studying and researching positive behaviours only rather than replicating research of already saturated field of negative behaviour.  This is ambitious work in this fascinating field is essential to the development and recognition of sentience within animal welfare.  The implications of being able to provide positive and negative emotions in animals can be invaluable to improve animal welfare standards around the globe. 


About wilsoemi

A 1st Class Biological Sciences graduate, with a Masters degree in Conservation Biology. Dedicated to nature and conservation, with over three years voluntary experience in environmental and conservation charities and NGO's. Currently working for the World Society for the Protection of Animals and volunteering for London Wildlife Trust.
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