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The Importance of Sentience: Recognizing the Emotional Lives of Animals

The Importance of Sentience

Animals are more than just entities that exist for human consumption, entertainment or experimentation. They are sentient beings – meaning they have the capacity to feel pain, pleasure and experience emotions. Understanding sentience is not just a matter of comprehension, but it has real consequences for animal welfare, ethics and sustainability. Below are some key points to help you reflect on the importance of collaborating to recognize animal sentience.


1) Understanding Sentience and Commoditisation: What It Is and Why It Matters

2) Sentience and Veganism: The Moral Imperative

3) Emotional Lives of Animals: Evidence and Research

4) The Ethical Case for Veganism: Animals are Sentient

5) Raising Awareness: The Importance of Advocating for Animal Sentience

6) Acknowledging Our Responsibility: The Power of Individual Action

7) Conclusion: Embracing Sentience for a Compassionate Future

1) Understanding Sentience and Commoditisation: What It Is and Why It Matters

Sentience is a property of an organism that refers to the capacity to feel or experience sensations, emotions, or consciousness. It is an essential characteristic of all animals that allows them to respond to their environment, survive and interact with others. Research shows that animals are capable of experiencing emotions, ranging from joy, sadness, fear, and anxiety to love, compassion, and altruism (Masson and McCarthy, 2012). Recognizing sentience is essential because it helps us to understand and appreciate animals' complexity and to treat them with respect and dignity rather than as just a commodity.

The standard definition that modern society gives to a commodity is as follows: “A commodity is any raw material or primary agricultural product that can be bought or sold such as metals, petroleum, wheat and livestock. It is something that can be standardized and traded in large quantities, usually for business purposes. Commodities are often used as inputs in the production of other goods or services, or as a basis for financial investments.”

The fundamental difference between a sentient commodity and a non-sentient commodity is the presence or absence of consciousness. A sentient commodity, such as an animal, has the ability to experience emotions, feelings, and pain, while a non-sentient commodity, such as a metal or a grain, lacks such ability. It is this sentience and ability of animals to experience emotions, feelings and pain that is at the heart of why commoditisation and use of animals in human consumption, entertainment or experimentation is wrong.

2) Sentience and Veganism: The Moral Imperative

Sentience refers to the ability or characteristic of any living being to have subjective experiences or perceptions, feelings, and possess consciousness. It often covers a broad spectrum of experiences including pain, pleasure, emotions, and even self-awareness. In terms of animals, sentience is the recognition and acknowledgement that animals too can have such experiences.

Veganism extends from an ethical standpoint that seeks to exclude, as far as possible, any form of exploitation or cruelty to animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose. It advocates for a lifestyle and diet devoid of animal products such as meat, milk, eggs, leather, fur, and the like.

The moral imperative in the context of sentience and veganism can be understood as a responsibility towards recognizing the sentience of animals and, hence, treating them with compassion. The premise is that since animals can feel pain, pleasure, and have subjective experiences, it is morally wrong to cause them unnecessary harm or suffering, and consuming or using animal products usually involves some form of animal exploitation or cruelty.

Veganism advocates that if we, humans, being sentient beings, recognize and understand these experiences, we have a moral obligation to respect the rights of animals, and one way to do that is through adopting a vegan lifestyle. It also ties in with the concepts of justice and fairness, implying that if we can live healthy and fulfilling lives without causing harm to animals, we should do so.

3) Emotional Lives of Animals: Evidence and Research

Research has demonstrated that numerous animal species possess the capacity to experience a broad set of emotions, not unlike human beings. In essence, animals such as mammals and birds, and potentially others, show signs of experiencing emotions like joy, anger, fear, and more.

1. "Dogs and Empathy": A study conducted at the University of Vienna revealed that dogs are capable of empathetic behavior. In a test, dogs rushed to comfort their owners when they appeared distressed. They ignored a stranger who feigned distress, suggesting the dogs were responding to their emotional bond with their owners, not the distress itself. (Custance, D., & Mayer, J. (2012). Empathic-like responding by domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) to distress in humans: an exploratory study. Animal Cognition, 15(5), 851-859).

2. "Elephants and Mourning": Several documented incidents showcase that elephants mourn their dead. They touch the bones of deceased elephants with their trunks and feet and sometimes carry the bones for long distances. (Douglas-Hamilton, I., Bhalla, S., Wittemyer, G., & Vollrath, F. (2006). Behavioural reactions of elephants towards a dying and deceased matriarch. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 100(1-2), 87-102.)

3. "Primates and Anxiety": A study showed that primates, such as chimpanzees, suffer from crippling anxiety and depression when they lose a close companion or offspring (Bercovitch, F. (1993). Dominance rank and reproductive maturation in male rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta). Journal of Reproduction and Fertility, 99(1), 113-120).

4. "Rats and Distress": Rats have been found to display signs of distress when witnessing pain inflicted upon other rats. A study published in "Science" suggested that rats would refuse to pull a lever for food if it meant another rat would receive an electric shock (Church, R. M., (1959). Emotional reactions of rats to the pain of others. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 52(2), 132-134 ).

5. "Crows and Grief": Crows are known to hold 'funerals' and they often gather around, make loud noises, and appear unsettled when one of their numbers dies, suggesting they are capable of feeling grief (Swift, K., & Marzluff, J. M. (2015). Wild American crows gather around their dead to learn about danger. Animal Behaviour, 109, 187-197).

This evidence helps demonstrate that a wide range of animals display complex emotional behaviours, further supporting the argument for better treatment and consideration of animal welfare.

4) The Ethical Case for Veganism: Animals are Sentient

The ethical argument for veganism is grounded in the understanding that animals, being sentient, experience pain, pleasure, emotion, and consciousness. Underlying this stance is the belief in animal rights—the view that animals are deserving of certain fundamental rights, such as the right to live free from unnecessary suffering or exploitation.

Scientific consensus acknowledges that many animal species are sentient. According to the "Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness" established in 2012 by a group of internationally respected scientists, many non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and numerous other creatures, possess the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.

Being sentient beings, animals have the capacity to experience pleasure and to suffer physically and emotionally. Evidence shows animals express joy, recognize their offspring, form social bonds, and visibly mourn the loss of companions. Similarly, they also exhibit signs of physical pain and emotional distress, often observed in factory farming and other forms of animal exploitation like animal testing, hunting, fur farming, etc.

Understanding animal sentience and consciousness has led many to argue that it's morally wrong to cause them harm or exploit them for food, clothing, entertainment, or experimentation.

Veganism emerges as an ethical response to this knowledge, offering a way of life that seeks to exclude, as much as possible, forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals. The goal is not only to reduce suffering but also to take a stand against the commodification of sentient beings.

In essence, the ethical case for veganism insists that acknowledging animal sentience places a moral obligation on us to respect their intrinsic rights, and therefore alter our lifestyle choices to prevent their suffering and exploitation.

5) Raising Awareness: The Importance of Advocating for Animal Sentience

Increasing awareness about animal sentience is critical for enhancing animal welfare and infusing more respect for animals in our society. Animal sentience refers to the capacity of an animal to have subjective experiences and feelings, which include feelings of pain, happiness, sadness, fear, and even longing. Many animals, such as dogs, cats, cows, pigs, and even fish and birds, demonstrate evidence of such sentience.

Despite this scientific knowledge, a significant number of individuals are not fully aware of the emotional depth of animals' lives. Likewise, they remain oblivious to the high degree of exploitation and abuse that animals withstand, particularly in industries like food production, entertainment, and fashion. A recent survey revealed that less than half of the British population were conscious of the extent of suffering caused by contemporary farming practices (Davies, 2020).

Animals in modern farming systems are typically bred and raised in confined spaces, endure rough handling, and are commonly subjected to painful procedures without sufficient pain relief. These practices contribute to chronic stress, fear, and ill-health among these animals.

For these reasons, education about animal sentience, and advocacy for their ethical treatment is crucial. Through raising awareness and promoting understanding about animal's emotional capabilities, we can evoke empathy and compassion in non-vegan individuals, thereby encouraging more ethical lifestyle decisions. Such choices could range from advocating for better animal welfare regulations to transitioning to a plant-based diet.

By promoting better understanding about animals' emotional lives, their capacity for suffering, and the cruelty they often endure, we can motivate change towards a more compassionate and ethical society. Education and continued advocacy are the key factors in this change.

6) Acknowledging Our Responsibility: The Power of Individual Action

Veganism is an individual choice that can powerfully influence broader social and environmental conditions. It involves opting for a lifestyle and diet that excludes the use of animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose, to the best of one's ability and practicality.

By choosing a vegan lifestyle, individuals can take a stand against animal exploitation. Commercial farming practices often involve deplorable living conditions and brutal slaughter processes. When consumers refuse to buy these animal products, they incrementally decrease demand, which can lead to reducing the exploitation that occurs in these industries.

Environmental sustainability is another substantial benefit of veganism. Animal agriculture contributes significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and water pollution. By eschewing animal products, vegans can help decrease their personal carbon footprints and aid in combating climate change.

While individual actions might not create an instant, large-scale effect, the accumulation of multiple individual actions can lead to substantial societal and cultural shifts. Individual dietary choices can influence market demand, encouraging the food industry to provide more plant-based options. This growth in vegan products makes it easier for others to transition to veganism.

Moreover, individuals making these choices often inspire others around them to question their own habits and consider more ethical and sustainable lifestyle choices. So, individual actions have a ripple effect that can slowly change societal norms and values.

In essence, every individual effort matters and plays a pivotal part in the collective movement towards a more compassionate and environmentally sustainable world. Making a personal choice to pursue veganism doesn't just impact one's health but also contributes to the wider goals of advancing animal welfare and environmental sustainability.

7) Conclusion: Embracing Sentience for a Compassionate Future

Now that we know animals are sentient beings capable of feeling and experiencing a wide range of emotions similar to humans, we cannot ignore the implications of this knowledge. Acknowledging animal sentience should push us to reflect upon and reconsider our lifestyle choices and attitudes towards animals.

As part of this new understanding, many people are choosing veganism. By adopting a vegan lifestyle, not only can we put an end to the suffering of countless animals in the industries of meat, dairy, and more, but also make a powerful statement against animal exploitation.

So, the call to action here is simple: Go vegan. It's a practical, impactful step that each one of us can take. Make the choice to stop contributing to practices that cause harm and suffering to sentient beings.

Not only will this decision significantly reduce animal suffering, but it also contributes to environmental sustainability and can lead to better personal health. And don't stop at just adopting a vegan lifestyle - but a vegan ethos that respects all life and acknowledges the rights of animals to a life free from harm and exploitation.

In conclusion, embracing the sentience of animals brings us one step closer to a more compassionate future, a world where every life is respected and valued. This understanding implores us to make kinder, more considerate choices that respect animal life and their welfare. Veganism is not only a diet but an ethical stand, a commitment to a fairer world, and a testament to the dignity and respect we accord to all sentient beings. Each one of us has the power to contribute to this compassionate future. So, step ahead and make the change today.


Bradshaw, J., Casey, R., & Brown, S. (2018). The comfort of dogs. UFAW Animal Welfare, 27(1), 1-2.

Davies, A. (2020). Awareness of animal suffering in modern-day food production barely registers in Britons' consciousness. The Independent.

Faria, V., Guidetti, R., Whitehouse, H., Dresser, R., & Turner, R. (2017). Empathy towards animals is associated with lower meat consumption and increased veganism. Appetite, 7(1), 169.

Masson, J.M., & McCarthy, S. (2012). The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy - And Why They Matter. Balleyntyne Books.

Robertson, C., & Bailey, J. (Ed.)(2018). Animal Agriculture and Climate Change. Worldwatch Institute.


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