Animal sentience, pain and emotion

Are animals sentient, emotional beings? The research says a resounding “Yes!” They are sensate, feel pain, and have a rich emotional life.

I am sure that most of us are, by now, aware that the British government voted to reject a request for the inclusion of animal sentience and pain protection in the Brexit Withdrawal bill. There was some debate that this area was already covered in UK law, a claim that has since been confirmed as untrue by the RSPCA.

Animal sentience

So, what is sentience and why is this important in relation to the UK’s treatment of pets, farm animals, laboratory animals and those in the wild? defines sentience as the capacity for sensation or feeling. The earliest use of the word that I could unearth, was in 1796 (from Latin), when it was used by scientists to separate out the faculty of sense, feeling and consciousness – from rationality.

sentient animals
The philosophy that surrounds sentience is that of consciousness, which is probably best described as an ‘umbrella term’ that has many facets and meanings, about which there is much discussion and large volumes have been written. Under that umbrella we can find “awareness”, which refers to the physical act of perceiving something, and “sentience”, which is more the subjective experience of the world through sense.

One definition from Philosophy Stack Exchange is helpful:

“Sentience is the ability to feel, perceive, or be conscious, or to have subjective experiences… Sentience is a minimalistic way of defining “consciousness”, which is otherwise commonly used to collectively describe sentience plus other characteristics of the mind.”

In July 2012, at Cambridge University, The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness published this:

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

This is really just science speak for saying that animals have the same brain apparatus and chemistry when it comes to experiencing consciousness (including sentience and awareness).

That animals sense their world in all the ways that we do to a greater or lesser degree is certain, and having studied rat sensing for the past few months, I have to say they are superior to us in their development of almost every sense.

animal sentience

Their capacity for pain is also certain, and I doubt there is a researcher alive who would still throw doubt on that.

Animal emotions

There’s another word, which I think has done a great deal to bolster the thinking of humans whose interests are served by rejecting the hefty weight of evidence for animal sentience, awareness, emotion and pain. That word is anthropomorphic – a word which essentially means ascribing human characteristics to non-human things

This word is often used, to deny non-human animals traits and emotions that are not – and have NEVER been – the sole domain of humanity. For centuries many people, from the religious to the scientists, believed that animals were ‘soul-less’ – the soul comprising the mind/will and emotions of humans, at least in Christian dogma.


The progression of neurobiology reveals the evolutionary truth; that all mammals (and some other animals studied) share the anatomy and physiology that creates emotion which is felt in the body in response to environmental circumstance (stimuli).

Most researchers recognise at least 6 basic (or primary) emotions as outlined by Darwin; fear, anger, disgust, surprise, sadness and joy. These emotions are automatic responses (cascades of neurotransmitters, hormones etc), and often occur without thought. They are experienced by all mammals and many other animals.

Secondary emotions are more sophisticated, occurring after some processing in the cortex of the brain. They involve thought. Thinking about an emotion increases the flexibility of an animal to response to the nuances of the circumstance. Many mammals have now been shown to demonstrate sophisticated secondary emotions such as a sense of unfairness, empathy and compassion.

Animal love

Since Darwin, other researchers have added to the core group of emotions by including jealousy, contempt, shame, sympathy, guilt, pride, envy, embarrassment, indignation and admiration. It intrigues me that no one dared to include love!

Only very recently, studies using dogs demonstrated that a joyful dog, greeting his human companion, is experiencing exactly the same activity in the emotion generating systems in the brain, as a human greeting another human whom she loves.


Why should love be some mystical domain where only human animals get to play? Love is simply physiology and bonding (informed by thought and action). A woman immediately loves (bonds with?) her baby on the back of the same hormonal rush as a cow bonds with (loves?) hers. The only difference is the word we choose to use. Why should a cow feel any less pain when her calf is removed?

And isn’t this why it serves humanity to keep on believing that an animal’s experience of the world is somehow less intense than ours? Isn’t it because we want to continue to dominate, control, farm, hunt, research on and exploit them.

Yes, non-human animals probably do not have the same degree of cognition, but there is no reason to believe that they feel less pain, fear, depth of bond/love, grief at loss, empathy and so on. Indeed, there are researchers who have spent a lifetime working alongside individual species, who ask us to consider that some animals may feel more empathy or grief than humans, and – get this – possibly experience some nuances of emotion that we do not!

So, I can’t see any logic other than to say that animal sentience and pain should be protected in law and should be explored and considered in depth by all those of us who share our lives with animals, or influence their well-being in any way.

Questions matter – like, how can we give our animal friends real choice (so essential for well-being)? Can we promote a full and healthy emotional life for them? Respect their bonds? Encourage experiences that they will find genuinely meaningful and so on? Let’s keep the discussions open and honest and see if we can progress.

Alison Campbell

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