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Do Dogs Really Feel Pain and Are They Really Conscious?

Yes and yes

The answers to the questions "Do dogs really feel pain and are they really conscious?" - yes and yes - are so obvious it seems ridiculous even to ask them given what we know about animal cognition and sentience. Nonetheless, they do arise and not only in philosophical circles where wide-ranging discussions often take place but also among a very few skeptical researchers. New York University philosopher Dale Jamieson and I wrote about the idea of nonconscious pain 20 years ago and refuted Peter Carruthers' assumption that "in the case of brutes: since their pains are nonconscious (as are all their mental states), they ought not to be allowed to get in the way of any morally-serious objective." Just a few weeks ago I was told that these sorts of discussions are still going on.

Empirical researchers also get into the fray. Following up on what I call Dawkins' Dangerous Idea (see also), Marian Dawkins wrote, " ... from a scientific view, we understand so little about animal consciousness (and indeed our own consciousness) that to make the claim that we do understand it, and that we now know which animals experience emotions, may not be the best way to make the case for animal welfare." Indeed, it's a small leap to claim that we also should question whether human animals experience emotions.

That dogs and other animals (including fish, see also) really do feel pain and really are conscious beings is assumed in veterinary medicine, human-oriented biomedical research, the establishment of guidelines for such research, research on animal cognition, emotions, and moral sentiments, and animal training. It's not a matter of if these traits have evolved and are shared by other animals, but why.

Two quotations from a recent essay about personhood in dolphins support what I just wrote above and what the majority of researchers believe based on available empirical:

Despite not being able to locate the seat of consciousness in the animal brain—something true for humans as well—most scientists no longer ask whether animals have inner experiences. Some degree of sentience is considered self-evident. For neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, one of the world’s leading experts on the neural origins of mind and emotion, “the denial of consciousness in animals is as improbable as the pre-scientific anthropocentric view that the sun revolves around the Earth.”

In a sense the human-to-animal mind question may simply be an exaggerated version of the human-to-human mind question: We can never entirely know another person’s experience—all the more so if that person was raised in a different culture—but there are vast areas of overlap that can, with science and empathy and imagination, be expanded.

At a few recent meetings after I spoke about animal consciousness, self-awareness, and emotions we had wide-ranging discussions about whether animals know who they are and is their level of self-awareness the same as ours. I've discussed these topics elsewhere (see also) and suggested that it really doesn't matter if their consciousness is like ours and that while other animals may or may not know who they are and may or may not have a sense of what I call I-ness, they do have a sense of body-ness and mine-ness. Much more research on the question of I-ness is needed because we really don't know much especially for wild animals. It's time to get out of the armchair and into the field. Speculation doesn't substitute for careful studies of behavior.

I concluded my earlier article as such: In my book, Minding animals: Awareness, Emotions, and Heart and elsewhere I argued that a sense of body-ness is necessary and sufficient for most animals to engage in social activities that are needed in the social milieus in which they live. But, while a sense of body-ness is necessary for humans to get along in many of the situations they encounter, it's often not sufficient for them to function as they need to. A human typically knows who he or she is, say by name, and knows that "this body" is his, Marc's, or him, Marc. There's a sense of "I-ness" that's an extension of "body-ness" or "mine-ness." So, my take on animal selves means that David Graybeard [a chimpanzee who Jane Goodall studied for years and was the first chimpanzee observed using a tool] and Jethro [my companion dog with whom I shared my home for years] knew they weren't one of their buddies. Many animals know such facts as "this is my tail," "this is my territory," "this is my bone or my piece of elk," "this is my mate," and "this is my urine." Their sense of "mine-ness" or "body-ness" is their sense of "self."

At many gatherings discussions of animal pain and animal emotions often follow talk about animal consciousness. And, when I ask if people believe that dogs, for example, feel pain, as far as I can see every head goes up. But then someone often asks, "Do they know they are in pain?"

Once again, I'm happy to have my philosopher colleagues debate the notion of nonconscious pain (and other experiences) and whether an animal knows that she/he is in pain, but from a practical point of view that underlies so much of what we do to make sure animals don't suffer we all assume that they do feel pain. So, while there are "academic" questions about animal self-awareness, there also are some very important practical reasons to learn about animal selves. Achieving reliable answers to questions about animal selves is very important because they're often used to defend the sorts of treatment to which individuals can be ethically subjected. However, even if an animal doesn't know "who" she is, this doesn't mean she can't feel that something painful is happening to her body. Self-awareness may not be a reliable test for an objective assessment of well-being.

So, when, for example, my companion dog Jethro limped over to me after tripping on a rock, squealing and holding his left front leg in the air and asking for me to take care of him, it really didn't matter if he had a deep sense of self. He really felt the pain, I'd venture to say his pain, and when I took him to the veterinarian she confirmed that he had a badly torn muscle and was indeed in pain. Some pain-killers and rest really did the trick, the same as they would for a human animal.

Whether or not nonhuman pain or consciousness is just like ours isn't the important issue. Speciesists often use taxonomic or behavioral (cognitive, emotional) closeness to humans, similar appearance, or the possession of various cognitive capacities displayed by normal adult humans to draw a line that separates humans from other animals. The Oxford English Dictionary defines speciesism as "discrimination against or exploitation of certain animal species by human beings, based on an assumption of mankind’s superiority."

In his review of the recent documentary called "Speciesism: The Movie" by Mark Devries, Bruce Friedrich, who works for Farm Sanctuary, offers two powerful quotations that are worth noting, each coming from a woman who has had vastly different experiences with other animals. In the first, renowned primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall notes, "farm animals feel pleasure and sadness, excitement and resentment, depression, fear, and pain. They are far more aware and intelligent than we ever imagined . . . they are individuals in their own right."

The second quotation comes from Temple Grandin's book Animals in Translation. Grandin, who works to improve animal welfare at slaughterhouses writes, "When it comes to the basics of life . . . [other] animals feel the same way we do." Friedrich notes that Grandin goes on to explain that both humans and other animals share both the exact same core emotions ("rage, prey chase drive, fear, and curiosity/interest/anticipation") and the same "four basic social emotions: sexual attraction and lust, separation distress, social attachment, and the happy emotions of play and roughhousing." While Dr. Grandin and I do have our differences, I'm so pleased to see these words from her and of course she does what she does because of what we know about animal pain, consciousness, and emotions from solid scientific research.

Continued discussions about whether nonhuman animals really feel pain or really are conscious may be interesting to pursue in the ivory tower but we know enough right now to claim they do indeed really feel pain and really are conscious and really do experience a wide range of emotions. From a practical point of view these questions are central to some of my own interests including ways to rewild our hearts and to stop the process of dehumanization (see also). It's also bad biology and goes against the basic tenets of Darwinian ideas about evolutionary continuity to rob animals of these traits and to claim human exceptionalism. As I wrote above, it's not a matter of if these traits have evolved and are shared by other animals, but why.

Clearly, there's a lot at stake for other animals and we should never let them suffer because of our failure to appreciate who they are based on solid scientific evidence. It's really a no-brainer.

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