Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Animal Emotions, Animal Sentience, and Why They Matter

There's a lot of value in blending "science sense" with common sense.

"Evidence of animal sentience is everywhere: It's a matter of why sentience evolved, not if it evolved." —A Universal Declaration on Animal Sentience: No Pretending

Animal sentience is not science fiction

A recent interview with Pennsylvania State University distinguished historian Dr. Anne Rose titled "A Historical Perspective on Studies of Animal Emotions" generated a number of emails about some historical aspects of the study of nonhuman animal (animal) emotions. Some asked about an "old" essay of mine published in 2007 titled "Animal Emotions and Animal Sentience and Why They Matter: Blending ‘Science Sense’ With Common Sense, Compassion, and Heart," so I dug it out and read it again. In some ways it is a brief history of ideas about animal emotions and animal sentience.

As I reread the entire piece, I saw some valuable lessons for this trip backward. I argued for a paradigm shift in how we study animal emotions and animal sentience and what we do with the information we already have, "scientific" and otherwise.

I also argued that it was about time that the skeptics and naysayers had to "prove" their claims that animals don’t experience emotions or don’t really feel pain, but just act "as if" they do. They still haven't done this, and until such claims are proven, it's safe and scientifically sound to assume that numerous animals do in fact experience rich emotions and do suffer all sorts of pain. Available comparative data easily available then and now support this view.1

I began the piece with a quotation about misplaced human exceptionalism that still is relevant today: "There’s a certain tragic isolation in believing that humans stand apart in every way from the creatures that surround them, that the rest of creation was shaped exclusively for our use." (The New York Times, 2005)

Here's a dozen of some of the 24 issues I considered, all of which remain highly relevant today, along with a few comments in brackets.

1. Are we really the only animals who experience a wide variety of feelings? (Of course not!) The real question is why emotions have evolved, not if they have evolved in some animals. So, for example, it’s a waste of time to ask if dogs, chimpanzees, or other animals experience emotions such as joy, grief, anger, and jealousy. Animals’ emotions function as a "social glue" and as "social catalysts." What animals feel is more important than what they know when we consider what sorts of treatment are permissible. When in doubt, we should err on the side of the animals.

2. Some of the difficult questions in studies of animal emotions and animal sentience go "beyond" science, or what we think science is and what we think science can do. Is science the only show in town? (Not necessarily.)

3. Is what we call "science" really better than other ways of knowing (e.g. common sense or intuition) for explaining, understanding, and appreciating the nature of animal emotions and animal sentience and for predicting behaviour? This is an empirical question for which there are no comparative data, despite claims that science and objectivity are better. Until the data are in, we must be careful in claiming that one sort of explanation is always better than others. Let’s not forget that many explanations about evolution are stories with more or less authenticity or "truth." (In fact, there still are no studies of how well "science sense" compares with common sense about the emotional lives of other animals.)

4. Science really isn't value-free. We need to know about the background values that underpin how science is done and data are interpreted. Asking questions about science is not to be anti-science.

5. Are anecdotes really useless? Is anthropomorphism really all that bad? Is subjectivity heresy? Should we have to apologize for naming the animals we study? [No. Naming animals as individuals is extremely important and carries with it a host of responsibilities.]

6. Do individual animals have inherent value independent of the instrumental value that we impose on them? (They do.)

7. Does what we know about animal emotions and animal sentience translate into action on behalf of animal beings? (Not very well. See the discussion of the "knowledge translation gap.")

8. How do we remain hopeful? We’re engaged in a rapidly growing social justice movement and we must educate people and have them consider difficult questions that are easy to put aside. (This is being done more and more, but not enough.)

9. How do we humanely educate and open minds and hearts? How might we work together to make the world a better place for all beings? (The One Health approach recognizes that humans, other species, and the natural environment are all linked together and that caring for one means caring for all.)

10. Should sentience be the key factor, and if so, why? Isn’t just the fact that they are alive sufficient for us to leave animals alone? (Yes, every single individual matters because they're alive and have intrinsic value—not because of what they can do for us, called their instrumental value.)

11. Why do we do what we do? Harming and killing other beings—human animals, other animals, and yes, even other forms of life such as trees, plants, and those living in bodies of water—is a personal choice. It’s all too easy for someone to say something like, "I didn’t want to harm that animal, but I had to do it because someone made me do it." If we all own up to our personal choices, the world will become a more peaceful place. An important question to ask is, "Would we do what we did again?" and if so, why.

12. Often, what is called "good welfare" simply isn’t "good enough."2 Animals deserve more and we can always do better. It’s important to blend "science sense" with common sense. It’s nonsense to claim that we don’t know if dogs, pigs, cows, or chickens feel pain or have a point of view about whether they like or don’t like being exposed to certain treatments. Who are we kidding? Frankly, I think we’re kidding ourselves. (There have been major studies showing that so-called "food animals" and many others experience rich and deep emotions.)

What does this all mean?

As we change the paradigm and move forward, we should apply the precautionary principle, which maintains that a lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as an excuse to delay taking action on some issue. So, in the arena of animal emotions and animal sentience, we know enough and have known enough for a long time, to make informed decisions about why the life of every individual matters. None is disposable. And, when in doubt we should err on the side of the individual animal. There is absolutely no reason to remain skeptical or agnostic about animal consciousness or sentience. In fact, it's anti-science to do so.

One paradigm shift entails replacing the science of animal welfare with the science of animal well-being. Animal welfare fails countless animals because it allows for horrific abuse as long as we're trying as hard as possible to reduce their pains and suffering. On the other hand, animal well-being stresses that the life of every single individual matters and some of the ways in which we abuse other animals are unacceptable and should no longer continue.2

Reflecting on these and other issues made me realize that while we've made some progress in animal protection in the past 13 years, there's still a lot of work that needs to be done to offer nonhumans the protection they truly deserve. Consider, for example, The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness put forth in July 2012. (See "Scientists Conclude Nonhuman Animals Are Conscious Beings.") This declaration was long overdue, and I'm frankly surprised at how little has actually morphed into compassionate practices in which the animals come first.

I know it takes time to change hearts and minds, but the changes haven't been fast, broad, or deep enough. Indeed, fully sentient rats and mice still are not considered to be "animals" in the U. S. Federal Animal Welfare Act. And, just today I saw a most disturbing headline, "Millions of US farm animals to be culled by suffocation, drowning and shooting." "Culled" really means killed or murdered, and deaths by suffocation, drowning, and shooting are hardly humane. These methods surely aren't euthanasia or a "good death."

It's going to take a lot of work to bridge the "knowledge translation gap" and use what we know to really help other animals. The "knowledge translation gap" refers to the practice of not using tons of science showing that other animals are sentient beings and going ahead and causing intentional harm in human-oriented arenas.

I hope the above material stimulates all people, researchers and non-researchers alike, to reflect on how they choose to interact with other animals and to change their ways if causing intentional harm, and often death, are business as usual.

Science clearly tells us that other animals are conscious and sentient—we know this and it's undebatable. The time is long overdue for us to do better and up the ante to protect countless nonhumans who needlessly suffer at the hands of countless humans.

Animal emotions and sentience truly matter, and I look forward to further discussions on these topics.



1) Numerous essays on the cognitive and emotional lives of other animals can be found here and in the references below.

2) The early roots underlying the importance of focusing on the well-being of individuals in ethological and other types of research on animal behavior, rather than on the more permissive guidelines of animal welfare, were developed by Dale Jamieson and me in an essay published in 1991 called "Reflective Ethology, Applied Philosophy, and the Moral Status of Animals." For many years, this view predominated in my own writing and research and became one of the basic guiding principles of compassionate conservation. It was formalized in a book by Jessica Pierce and me called The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (also see The Animals' Agenda: An interview About Animal Well-Being).

Bekoff M. Animal Emotions and Animal Sentience and Why They Matter: Blending “Science Sense” with Common Sense, Compassion and Heart. In: Turner J. and D’Silva J. editors. Animals, Ethics and Trade: The Challenge of Animal Sentience. Earthscan; London, UK, pp. 27–40, 2007.

_____. The Emotional Lives of Animals. New World Library, Novato, California, 2007.

_____. Animals Matter: A Biologist Explains Why We Should Treat Animals with Compassion and Respect. Shambhala, Boston, 2007.

_____. Animal Sentience is Not Science Fiction: Recent Literature.

_____. A Universal Declaration on Animal Sentience: No Pretending.

_____. The Animals' Agenda: An interview About Animal Well-Being.

_____. Animal Minds and the Foible of Human Exceptionalism.

_____. Dog, Cats, and Humans: Shared Emotions Act As "Social Glue."

_____. The Animal Welfare Act Claims Rats and Mice Are Not Animals.

_____. Rats Like Tickling: Why Is the Animal Welfare Act So Lame?

_____. Anthropomorphic Double-Talk: Can Animals Be Happy But Not Unhappy? No!

_____. Cows: Science Shows They're Bright and Emotional Individuals.

_____. Pigs Are Intelligent, Emotional, and Cognitively Complex.

_____. Sentient Rats: Their Cognitive, Emotional, and Moral Lives.

_____. Why Sheep Matter: They're Intelligent, Emotional, and Unique.

_____. Assuming Chickens Suffer Less Than Pigs Is Idle Speciesism.

_____. A Tribute to Dr. Victoria Braithwaite and Sentient Fishes.

_____. Why Dogs Matter.

_____. Animal Suffering Isn't An Enigma So Let's Get Over It.

_____. Murder, She Didn't Write: Why Can Only Humans be Murdered?

_____. Animal Consciousness Matters: Dawkins' Dangerous Idea Redux. (In this essay i note that Professor Dawkins tries to argue "... it is much, much better for animals if we remain skeptical and agnostic [about consciousness]." I couldn't disagree more.)

_____. Animal Consciousness and Science Matter.

_____. Sentience and Conservation: Lessons from Southern Africa.

_____. Why People Should Care About Animal and Human Suffering.

_____. Is an Unnamed Cow Less Sentient Than a Named Cow?

_____ and Jessica Pierce. The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age. Boston, Beacon Press, 2017.

New York Times. My little chickadee, March 3, 2005.

Ramp, Daniel and Marc Bekoff. Compassion as a Practical and Evolved Ethic for Conservation. BioScience, 65, 323-327, 2015.

Sentient Media.

Wallach, Arian, Chelsea Batavia, Marc Bekoff, et al. Recognizing animal personhood in compassionate conservation. Conservation Biology, 2020.

_____, Marc Bekoff, Michael Paul Nelson, and Chelsea Batavia. Promoting predators and compassionate conservation. Conservation Biology 29(5), 1481-1484, 2015.

_____, Marc Bekoff, Chelsea Batavia, Michael P. Nelson, and Daniel Ramp. Summoning compassion to address the challenges of conservation. Conservation Biology 32 (6), 2018.

More from Marc Bekoff Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Marc Bekoff Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today