The science of animal sentience

Proctor, H. (2012). Animal Sentience: Where Are We and Where Are We Heading? Animals, 2(4):628-639

This review, discusses what we currently understand about the emotional lives of animals. The author discusses the differences in our acceptance of animal sentience amongst different animal groups.

Animal sentience refers to the ability of non-human animals to experience positive emotions such as pleasure and negative emotions such as pain and fear. Understanding animal sentience underpins the entire animal welfare movement. Objectively measuring what animals are capable of is key to driving a positive change in attitudes and behaviour towards animals. The author of this paper reviews the history of animal sentience research and its acceptance. She discusses the difficulties scientists face in measuring animal emotions and where the future research should focus.

Past, present and future

Since the publication of Animal Machines in the 1960’s there has been a rise in scientific publications concerned with animal welfare and the recognition of sentience. However, today our knowledge of animal sentience is still limited for a variety of reasons. One of the key issues is the fact that sentience refers to one’s own thoughts, feelings and emotions, which cannot be fully understood by physiological processes or anatomical structures. Furthermore, animals cannot use speech to tell us how they are feeling. As a result, assumptions made regarding animal sentience are often criticised as being anthropomorphic.

Proctor, refers to the fact that most of our knowledge about animal sentience is of vertebrate species, and because of this vertebrates and invertebrates are currently treated very differently. The author concludes that in the future we need to gain further knowledge about the groups of animals which currently we do not know enough about. Proctor argues that we need to explore positive emotions in animals, and not just focus on negative ones. And that this research needs to be conducted in a non-invasive, humane way, as it is illogical to harm the very animals we are trying to protect in order gain knowledge.

World Animal Protection’s view

We believe that it is encouraging to see that research exploring the emotional lives of animals has grown in recent years; however, we feel that there is still a long way to go. Robust scientific evidence in regards to the emotional lives of animals is crucial for animal protection organisations such as World Animal Protection. This knowledge allows us to advocate for positive changes in the way humans treat animals. We believe the future is bright, for example recent research demonstrating that fish and crustaceans can feel pain would have been dismissed not so long ago.