what is animal sentience
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What Is Animal Sentience

What is Animal Sentience And Why Is It Important?

People do have slightly different ideas of what sentience means but there are some basics that we can all agree on.

At its most fundamental level, it describes the capacity for a living being to experience feelings and sensations. Sentience isn’t a binary attribute that you either have or don’t have.

Science currently points towards the idea that there are different extents to which a being might feel or sense things.

To make the question even more difficult, it’s hard for us to know how other beings experience things.

There may be animal senses that we’re not even aware of, or ways of interacting with the world that are not apparent to humans.

Trying to understand animal sentience means measuring their ability to experience and sense things we recognise whilst also realising there may be other interpretations of the physical world that humans themselves may not be able to experience.

Has animal sentience been proven?

As time goes on, science finds more and more different types of animals that have sentience. Within the scientific community at least, the fact that the vast majority of animals have sentience is beyond debate.

There is now a huge wealth of data and facts that point to this fact. Luckily it seems that the public is mainly getting on board with the idea too – even if that alone isn’t enough to convince everyone from changing their eating habits.

A defining moment on the matter in the scientific community came in 2012. Cambridge University released its Declaration On Consciousness.

It stated “Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours.

Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

What is animal sentience and which animals have It?

Cambridge University’s declaration is now the norm in the scientific community. Most people who’ve spent time with pets certainly didn’t need a science degree to know that dogs, cats or whatever other fluffy and furry friends are at home, are sentient beings too.

So, we know that mammals and birds are sentient. Many national animal protection laws seek protection for all vertebrates, indicating the consensus on their sentience.

Some laws even protect invertebrates too. Cephalopods (squid, octopus etc.) are some of the most intelligent animals on earth and it’s seriously hard to argue that these don’t have sentience either.

Do Fish Feel Pain? – The Scientific View

The current public discourse tends to focus on the ability of fish to feel pain. The scientific community often argued they didn’t until not long ago. The tides are turning in regards to our aquatic friends.

Ground-breaking research during the 2010s found that fish do indeed feel pain, greatly supporting the idea that they are sentient.

It looks like it’ll only be a matter of time until fish are widely accepted as sentient and then the discussion will probably move on to crustaceans and certain insects.

Those who care about animal rights have had to be patient in how things have progressed but it seems as time goes on we see more recognition for the different types of sentient life on planet earth.

Is a dog a sentient being?

The consensus was reached long ago that dogs are definitely sentient beings. The question has now evolved to “just how sentient are dogs”?

One study using MRI scans by neuroeconomics professor and author Gregory Berns concluded that canines can experience a similar level of emotions and consciousness as humans.

This isn’t to say they’re the same as a fully developed adult but in some regards do experience things to the same extent a small child does.

The fact that dogs can’t pass the mirror test (being able to recognise themselves in a mirror, which chimps, magpies, dolphins etc can do), has been used to argue they lack self-awareness.

This argument has some flaws though, as dogs rely heavily on smell and sound, meaning visual tests don’t give us the full picture.

Is every animal sentient?

We are still some way off from every animal being proven sentient. They almost certainly are but for many types of living beings, it will still probably be a long time before we have any way of scientifically proving it.

It’s possible that some animals experience the world so differently from us that we’re never able to tell at all.

That shouldn’t make us just assume that they’re not sentient though! Surely the safe thing to do when we’re not sure is at least not hurt them, if not nurture and care for them.

The worst thing to do would be for us to act carelessly, only to realise down the line, just how sentient they are.

Just as two humans can see the world differently, different species may experience reality in completely different ways. Just because we’re not able to comprehend other species’ experiences doesn’t mean we should assume they’re stupid, emotionless or without sentience.

Animal Sentience impact factor

The impact factor of an academic journal is a means of measuring its importance within its field. If one journal has a very high impact factor then it is generally regarded as being more important or having more prestige.

A lower impact factor means a journal is less relevant within its field. This score is often used by funding bodies and universities as a means of deciding whether to support or get involved with a journal.

Animal Sentience is an interdisciplinary journal on animal feeling that actually scores very well by this measurement. Its impact factor of 0.9 makes it one of the highest-rated in its field and it is on its way up.

If you’re interested in looking at the research on this topic for yourself then the Animal Sentience Journal is definitely a good place to dive in.

Animal sentience bill 2022

On average, countries seem to be improving every day in regards to what legal rights are afforded to animals.

This doesn’t mean that animal welfare is improving every day though, unfortunately. Whilst bills can be passed by governments, the meat and dairy industry is always looking to increase profits and so pushes back in all sorts of ways.

The UK introduced a breakthrough bill on animal welfare, which has been celebrated by campaigners around the world. The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill was pushed for by more than 50 of Britain’s leading animal organisations.

Out of all the EU legislation that transposed when the UK formally left the EU, we believe that animal sentience was the only piece left out.

However, the reinstatement of protection for animals has been widely celebrated. It was formally introduced on the 200th anniversary of the UK’s first animal welfare law.

The legislation means that a committee is now able to scrutinise British government policies and determine whether they take necessary account of animal welfare.

With the scale of the British meat market and the reluctance of UK governments to stand up to them, the new committees have quite a task on their hands. There’s no doubt it’s a step in the right direction, though.

Animal sentience bill RSPCA

The RSPCA (Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) was very enthusiastic in its celebration of the UK law.

In a statement on their website, they said “Legal recognition of sentience is crucial in order to give animals the vital protection they need.”

The RSPCA’s support for a bill on animal sentience is in line with the public view. The organisation claims that 86% of the British public is in support of such a law.

Whilst the committees that the law enables won’t be able to change policy themselves, it will make sure that for the first time policy is compelled to weigh up the implication for animals as a factor. Hopefully, this will at least see some restrictions imposed on factory farming and the like.

Animal sentience committee

With any luck, the Animal Sentience Committee that the bill sets up, will take the meat and dairy industries to the task.

It is bizarre that even whilst we recognise so many animals as being sentient, almost nothing is done to prevent their suffering through intensive farming and profit-first practices.

The RSPCA’s chief executive Chris Sherwood said;
“The Sentience Bill becoming law is an important milestone in ensuring animals have strong legal protections and are recognised as sentient beings who have emotions and feelings. We are pleased that the new Animal Sentience Committee will be able to influence public policy to improve the lives of animals and create a kinder and more compassionate society.”

Veganism, vegetarianism and other plant-based lifestyles are all seeing rises in popularity in countries like the UK. Hopefully, the combination of legal pressure and public support will mean an improvement in the lives of animals stuck in the meat and dairy industry.

Animal sentience journal

This journal is relatively new, having only come out in 2016.

Its title, unsurprisingly, is its focus matter and it is likely to become more and more relevant as animal welfare becomes a more widespread concern.

Hungarian-born cognitive scientist Stevan Robert Harnad is its editor. All articles accepted by the publication are open to open peer commentary.


I’m no scientist but here’s my ‘conclusive proof’ of animal sentience, (well for me anyway!)

Step 1
Find a randomised plant.
Approach it suddenly and shout ‘Boo’ to it. Does it move without delay? If yes, it’s sentient. If no, it’s not sentient.

Step 2
Find a randomised animal.
Approach it suddenly and shout ‘Boo’ to it. Does it move without delay? If yes, it’s sentient. If no, it’s not sentient.

It’s an exciting time for animal rights and many more people now want to find out how to help animals. It’s become more widely recognised just how many creatures are sentient and other intelligent creatures are proving to be even more sentient than we recently thought.

Science keeps pushing forward the case to fight for animal welfare and hopefully, this will start being reflected in public policy soon too.

Even if policy takes a while to catch on, which is often the case, there are some great journals out there if you want to keep up with the academic consensus as it comes out.

Many people have long known just how far-reaching animal sentience is, and its about time things got up to speed!

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