Cephalopods can suffer too! Justifying legal protection in research

Tonkins, B. (2016) Why are cephalopods protected in scientific research in Europe? Working paper.

As of 2013, for the first-time animal welfare legislation in the European Union offers protection for cephalopods (octopus, squid and cuttlefish) involved in scientific experimentation.  This paper explores the justification of legal protection for this group of animals, referring to research demonstrating sentience in cephalopods.

As research provides increasing evidence and understanding of cognition and sentience in cephalopods, it became important to review animal welfare legislation, so that legal protection for these invertebrates reflected their capacity to suffer.  Studies have revealed that cephalopods possess higher brain centres and do demonstrate behavioural responses to pain. It was also considered likely that opioid receptors and neural pathways connecting nociceptors to brain centres were present.  Therefore, research has shown that cephalopods demonstrate evidence of consciousness and sentience. For example, they display several forms of learning, play behaviour, problem solving, avoidance of aversive stimuli, and characteristics of individual temperament. Also, tool use has been observed in the veined octopus and squid have demonstrated that they can deceive others. These observations are highly indicative of the capacity for cephalopods to be conscious and sentient.

Scientific evidence can lead to protective legislation

Protective legislation has resulted in it being necessary for those using cephalopods in any form of research to consider the reduction, refinement and replacement principles (‘the 3Rs’) wherever possible. There is also a requirement for evaluation of the research project by the Home Office, and granting of a licence for any procedure likely to cause pain, suffering, or lasting harm to the animals involved. Use of analgesia and humane end points to restrict suffering are also required. Furthermore, necessity for minimum standards of care and husbandry, including environmental enrichment are necessary.

Due to this legislative advancement, all cephalopods used in research in the EU are now afforded legal protection from the time of hatching, and their use in experimentation is controlled to minimise suffering and promote positive welfare. Although further research is required to continue to enhance knowledge of cephalopod sentience and cognition, this important progression may encourage movement towards greater protection for cephalopods. In the future, cephalopods may also be protected beyond the realm of experimental research, and potentially other groups of invertebrates may receive legal protection too.

World Animal Protection’s view

We welcome all developments in legislation intended to protect animal welfare and to minimise suffering to any individuals used in research.  This paper highlights the intrinsic role of robust scientific evidence to advocate for and objectively justify such legislation.  Further research is required to fully understand consciousness and sentience in cephalopod species, and other invertebrates too.