Animals, like us, are sentient beings

Animal Sentience

Source: OneKind

otter sheep orangutans Sheep dog

Tool Use                 Emotions               Empathy                Personality

Whether it’s the caring maternal bond between a lioness and her cubs, the joyful play of a young lamb, or the sad grief of an elephant for a lost family member, the behaviour of animals shows that, like us, they can feel.

Common sense and experience have convinced most people that animals have a level of awareness and the ability to feel in ways that are comparable, if not identical, to ours.

Sentience in any animals is difficult to confirm. We only know that other humans are sentient because we can communicate to each other that we are. Because we do not have a shared language with other animals we cannot ask them how they are feeling or want they are thinking. However, we can study their physiology and their behaviour and look for signs that they, like us, are sentient beings. Scientific research is constantly revealing more and more new evidence of animals’ complex mental abilities, intelligence and emotions.

By closely observing the way animals behave scientists are revealing fascinating insights into animals’ minds. We are learning about the complexity of their mental learning, communications, interactions and social lives, use of tools, and better understanding their wide range of feelings and emotions including empathy and depression.

The more we study animals the more we learn. The more we learn the more we respect. The more we respect the more we want to protect.

Tool use

The use of tools was originally thought to be a skill only possessed by humans. It was in fact considered the defining characteristic that separated us from other animals. However, it is now known that many kinds of animals use tools.

Key to identifying tool use is defining what constitutes a tool. Researchers of animal behaviour have arrived at different definitions including: ‚ÄėAn object that has been modified to fit a purpose’ or ‘An inanimate object that one uses or modifies in some way to cause a change in the environment, thereby facilitating ones achievement of a target goal , ‚Äėthe use of physical objects other than the animal’s own body or appendages as a means to extend the physical influence realized by the animal‚Äô¬† and ‚Äėan object carried or maintained for future use‚Äô.¬† As with many other animal behaviours, the lack of a clear and agreed definition of tool use can make it difficult to identify.

Tools are used by some animals, particularly primates, to perform simple tasks such as getting food or grooming. Opposable thumbs are a benefit in tool use, though creatures without hands have managed to use other body parts to their advantage, notably the mouth.

Some animals, such as sea otters, have a favourite tool that they carry about with them. Others find nearby articles such as stones, twigs or thorns, which they use and then discard.

There is a link between tool use and large brains. Tool use requires some level of intelligence and implies an animal has knowledge of the relationship between objects and their effects. Advanced use comes about when tools are used in combination, as when chimps use both a hammer and an anvil to crack kernels.

The animals that make the widest use of tools are humans, who have developed mechanical, electric and electronic tools for multiple purposes. However tool use in other animals is much more common than previously thought. Tool use has now been observed in primates such as chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, capuchin monkeys and gibbons, dolphins, elephants, otters, numerous bird species such as New Caledonia Crows, rooks and parrots, and octopuses.


An emotion can be roughly defined as something that moves one’s body and mind.

‚Äėa strong feeling such as love or anger, or strong feelings in general‚Äô (Cambridge Dictionary definition)

Scientists try to study emotions by splitting them into three components: physiological (how the body responds), behavioural (what one shows to others) and psychological (what one feels) responses.

Emotions differ from sensations, which are only physical consequences (eg heat), and from feelings, which refer to only internal states with no reference to external reactions.

Emotions in animals were first described by Charles Darwin  in 1872, where he described emotions as stereotyped facial expressions and bodily postures in specific contexts. Darwin explored the expression of emotions not only by humans but also by cats, dogs, horses and many other animals. Darwin observed similarities between human and non-human animal expressions, in line with his theory of continuity between species.

Darwin’s work on animal emotions was criticised for approximately 100 years and until relatively recently, many scientists thought it was impossible to scientifically study animal emotion, and anyone who did so was thought to be wrongly attributing human thoughts and feelings to animals (anthropomorphism).

Today it is acknowledged that the latest scientific findings indicate that emotions play an essential role in rational decision-making, perception, learning and a variety of other cognitive emotions . If this is the case for humans, then, many argue, why not also for other animals.

A recent review  of animal emotion by scientists at Bristol University suggested that, as in humans, emotions may tell animals about how dangerous or opportunity-laden their world is, and guide the choices that they make.

It is generally agreed by scientists that animals have emotional responses, such as increased heart rate or release of hormones in the blood (physiological) and responses such as attempts to escape a situation (behavioural). However, the issue of whether animals actually feel emotions (the psychological component) remains controversial. This is largely due to the fact that it is impossible to actually get inside another animal’s mind (as it is to get inside another person’s head).

However, based on physiology, it’s reasonable to assume most animals feel emotions. Other mammals for example have brain structures similar to humans, and the way their brain works is similar to the way the human brain works.

We may be quicker to appreciate the intelligence and sentience of animals such as primates as they are so much more similar to us in their gestures and experiences, and therefore easier for us to read. We may have been slower to understand the complexity and richness of other creatures such as fish and whales simply because they appear to be so very different to us.

Scientist and author Marc Bekoff believes that it is obvious that animals feel emotions: ‚ÄúAre we really the only animals who experience a wide variety of feelings? In my view the real question is why emotions have evolved not if they have evolved in some animals. So, for example, it‚Äôs a waste of time to ask if dogs or chimpanzees experience emotions such as joy, grief, anger and jealousy. Animals‚Äô emotions function as a ‚Äėsocial glue‚Äô and as ‚Äėsocial catalysts‚Äô. Their emotions and mood swings grab us. It is highly likely that many animals exclaim ‚ÄėWow!‚Äô or ‚ÄėMy goodness, what is happening?‚ÄĚ as they go through their days, enjoying some activities and also experiencing enduring pain and suffering at the hands of humans. What animals feel is more important than what they know when we consider what sorts of treatment are permissible. When in doubt, err on the side of the animals.‚ÄĚ

Modern animal welfare concerns stem from the recognition that animals are sentient beings able to experience emotions such as fear, pain, joy and contentment. Animal emotions thus form the core of many scientific definitions of animal welfare. However, there has previously been a lack of scientific research in this area.

Leading animal welfare scientist Marian Stamp Dawkins from Oxford University points out that the possibility of conscious experiences of emotions in non-human animals has been much less explored than that of conscious experiences associated with carrying out complex cognitive tasks . She says: ‚ÄúHowever, no great cognitive powers are needed to feel hunger or pain and it may be that the capacity to feel emotions is widespread in the animal kingdom.‚ÄĚ

In recent years there has been a surge in interest in studying emotions in other animals and our knowledge is growing all the time. Every day scientists across the world are producing increasing evidence that, like humans, other animals feel emotions.

A range of emotions have been investigated in a number of animals including dogs, sheep, cows and whales.

Click here to watch some informative and inspiring films about animal emotions.


Empathy is feeling what others feel. Empathy is the ability to not only detect what others feel but also to experience that emotion yourself.

We humans can empathise with each other and other animals. When we empathise, we ‘feel into’ others and understand how they feel.

We do this with people all the time. We also do it with non-human animals.

Anyone who has cared for a companion animal such as a dog will likely empathise with them too ‚Äď for example feeling their excitement at dinner time, boredom after a long day indoors, pain when they stand on a thorn.

We can also empathise with other animals such as when we feel the pleasure of new born lambs frolicking in the sun or the sadness of a gorilla trapped in a zoo.

But can other animals also empathise? Many people may think it obvious that non-human animals will empathise with each other. This conclusion may be drawn from personal experiences of simply observing animals’ behaviour or from the fact that we are so physically similar in many ways. Many people ascribe empathy to their dogs.

It is thought that empathy is more likely to be present in social species. James Harris at Johns Hopkins University in the US believes that empathy is “an evolutionary mechanism to maintain social cohesion. If you’re evolving and you’re in a group, you’re more sensitive to the pain of other members in a group.”

Once believed by many to be only a human trait, scientists are now finding evidence of empathy in non-human animals, mainly in other primates such as chimpanzees, orangutans, but also in dogs, mice, and recently in chickens. Empathetic behaviour has also been reported in elephants.


Human personality is something with which we are all familiar, in that we ‚Äėknow it when we see it‚Äô. In fact, personality is what distinguishes one individual from another.

Defining personality scientifically, however, is not easy. Psychologists have worked on this problem for a long time and a lot has been written on how to define, classify, and measure human personality traits.

Just like us, other animals differ strikingly in character and temperament. Increasingly it is becoming accepted that personalities are widespread in the animal kingdom and the concept of personality is now being applied to nonhuman animals.

Like people, animals can be described as having personalities because individuals consistently differ from one another in behaviour in such a way that these behaviours can be described as individual traits. These differences should be consistent across time, contexts (when the behaviours occur e.g. feeding, aggression, courtship), situations (the environmental or social condition at a particular time e.g. the high and low predation risk experienced with movement through a habitat) and measures (ways of measuring personality e.g. by behavioural tests, ratings by knowledgeable judges, or observations of naturally occurring behaviour).

Until recently it was thought that there was no particular reason for animals, including humans, to have personalities. However, it is now thought that having consistent individual differences in behaviour could be adaptive   and so personality could have an important effect on evolution, and vice-versa. Interestingly, there is increasing evidence for a strong genetic contribution to personality.

However, personality is not constant and changes throughout an animals‚Äô lifetime. Therefore an area of interest for animal personality researchers is one that mirrors the longstanding ‚Äėnature verses nurture debate‚Äô in studies of human personality. Individuals may also show ‚Äėbehavioural plasticity‚Äô which is variation in behaviour between different situations.

One of many models for describing human personality measures differences in five independent dimensions : generally speaking, differences in sociability and assertiveness are called Extraversion; variation in trust and cooperation are grouped as Agreeableness; Conscientious describes differences in discipline, planning, and self-control; variation in curiosity and creativity is captured by Openness; and a dimension called Neuroticism differentiates individuals in terms of anxiety, emotional stability, and stress response. This is referred to as the Five-Factor Model (FFM).

This model has been used as the starting point for several investigations into personality in nonhuman primates and other animals, with some success in 12 different species .

However, approaches to studying personality in different species have to differ according to the species‚Äô behaviour and environment in which it is living. For example, as in humans, one can obtain reliable ratings of chimpanzees and other nonhuman primates on traits such as ‚Äėinventive,‚Äô which is not surprising given the behavioural and genetic similarities between humans and nonhuman primates. On the other hand, trying to assess the ‚Äėinventiveness‚Äô of hermit crabs does not make as much sense. However, hermit crabs hide inside their shells when threatened before re-emerging; the duration of these startle responses can be readily measured and easily studied across situations of high and low predation risk.

Personality differences have now been described in more than 60 species. Animals in which the presence of personalities have so far been claimed include humans and other primates such as chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans, dogs, cats, squirrels, birds, fish and octopuses.

OneKind is firmly opposed to any experiments using animals that causes them pain or suffering. Where such experiments increase our understanding of animal sentience, we will report them in the long term interest of all animals. The more scientific evidence we have of the capacities of other animals as sentient creatures the stronger our case for re-evaluating our relationships with them to benefit us all.  OneKind

Posted on 17th February, 201410:01 pm by admin