Animal Sentience

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What is animal sentience?

Sentient animals are aware of their feelings and emotions. These could be negative feelings such as pain, frustration and fear. It is logical to suppose that sentient animals also enjoy feelings of comfort, enjoyment, contentment, and perhaps even great delight and joy.

Science shows us some interesting abilities in farm animals:

  • Sheep can recognise up to 50 other sheep’s faces and remember them for two years
  • Cows show excitement when they discover how to open a gate leading to a food reward
  • Mother hens teach their chicks which foods are good to eat
  • Lame meat chickens choose to eat food which contains a painkiller

Scientists believe that sentience is necessary because it helps animals to survive by:

  • learning more effectively from experience in order to cope with the world
  • distinguishing and choosing between different objects, animals and situations such as working out who is helpful or who might cause them harm
  • understanding social relationships and the behaviour of other individuals.

The growing scientific interest in animal sentience is showing what many people have long thought to be the case – that a wide range of animals are thinking, feeling beings. What happens to them matters to them.

A sentient animal is one for whom feelings matter

John Webster, Professor Emeritus, University of Bristol

Why animal sentience matters

Animals have evolved to cope as successfully as possible with life in the wild. Thousands of years of domestication of farm animals have changed their basic motivations and behaviour patterns very little.

Industrial-type farming often fails to appreciate animals’ needs and their capacity to suffer. This can mean that very large numbers of sentient animals are routinely subjected to pain and deprivation.

Globally each year we farm 70 billion farm animals for meat, milk or eggs. The majority of commercially-farmed animals are confined in cages, narrow stalls or in over-crowded sheds. In such confinement, there is little or no opportunity to carry out the natural behaviours which are so important to them.

It is urgent that farming systems and practices adopt methods which recognise animal sentience and pay full regard to the animals’ needs.

Read more in our summary report: Stop, Look, Listen – recognising the sentience of farm animals.

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