Animals have their own preferences, desires, and needs; we humans may not always know what they are. But if we can use our knowledge of animal sentience to monitor and measure their emotional states, then we can seek to ensure that we avoid causing them pain and distress.
What is sentience?
Sentience is the ability to feel a range of emotions and feelings, such as pleasure, pain, joy, and fear. Some animals even experience complex emotions, such as grief and empathy. Animals are sentient beings, and this means that their feelings matter.
What makes an animal a sentient being?
The more we learn about the minds of animals, the harder it is to justify the practices we use that cause them to suffer. It is also harder to neglect that animals can and want to feel positive emotions and states too. They, like us, want to feel good.
They want to do things they enjoy; they want to exert control over their own lives, have choices, play, feel satiated and comfortable, solve problems, get excited, and seek the comfort of companions.
These things matter to animals, and they should matter to us too. Our understanding of animal sentience still varies depending on the species, as some groups of animals, such as mammals, have received far more attention than others.
We know that all vertebrate species are sentient and that although some groups, such as birds, have evolved different brain structures to ours, they still have what they need to process experiences and feel emotions. In fact, chickens demonstrate empathy, and magpies appear to feel grief.
Reptiles and amphibians
Other groups of animals, such as reptiles, amphibians, and fish, are often dismissed as cold-blooded and incapable of feeling. This is simply not true. As vertebrates, they possess the physiological and neurological requirements for conscious experiences, and their behaviour indicates that not only can they feel, but that their feelings matter.
Beyond vertebrates, scientists are also uncovering more about the subjective lives of invertebrates too.
Research shows considerable evidence for a wide range of cognitive abilities in insects, as well as evidence for important sentience traits, including stress, pessimism, and emotion.
Numerous studies have explored whether cephalopods, like octopuses and squids and decapod crustaceans, like crabs and lobsters, can feel important states like pain and fear. The evidence is clear, these invertebrates may not have the same anatomy and brain structures as we mammals do, but they are sentient, and they can feel a range of emotions and experiences.
Understanding how animals can suffer and what emotions they experience is instrumental in improving their welfare and the legislation and practices affecting them. Policies and laws must consider animals as individuals, whose needs and welfare need to be protected.
Recognizing animals as sentient in legislation demonstrates that a country values the intrinsic value and well-being of animals. It defines animals as feeling beings, who are capable of pain and suffering, but also of positive states such as pleasure and joy.