When it comes to animals and their welfare, we often hear the word "sentience." Sentience is a key factor in animal care and responsible animal guardianship - but what is it? Check out the information below to learn what it means to be sentient and why it matters.
To understand sentience, we first need to explore feelings. Feelings are something that happen within ourselves and are related to the world around us. There are different kinds of feelings that we experience. Sometimes we feel happy, sad, worried, lonely and so many more! Feelings never remain the same for too long, they keep changing.
Different things and experiences will make you feel different ways. For example, we can experience emotions such as:
Some of these feelings are positive, some are negative. These feelings arise in response to our needs and our environment. For instance – when we have nothing to do, we can feel bored, but when we have toys and games and friends to play with, we can feel joy and happiness.
Animals can’t speak to us in our human languages; however, they use their own vocalisations and body language to communicate their feelings. Animals give lots of clues through their chirps, barks, meows, neighs, and unique body language about how they are feeling – if we only know what to look for.
Being sentient means being capable of experiencing different feelings and emotions that matter to you – both positive and negative.
When we say humans are sentient beings, that means we have our own feelings, emotions, and experiences. We are capable of feeling happiness, joy, excitement, and alternatively, pain, fear, and stress and are aware of these feelings as we have them.
But do animals have their own thoughts, feelings, and emotions?
The answer is – of course! Animals are sentient, and we are constantly learning more about how they experience feelings. This means that they too have their own feelings, emotions, and experiences. Just like us, they are conscious of their feelings, whether positive or negative, and these feelings matter to them. They seek out situations in which they feel happiness and excitement, and like us, avoid situations that cause them fear, pain, or stress.
Scientists state that sentience helps animals learn effectively, determine what can cause them pain vs. what can cause them pleasure, and helps them with their social relationships.
Some examples include:
As responsible animal guardians, we need to be aware of our animals’ emotions and feelings to ensure their wellbeing. Learning to recognise and understand our own feelings and those of others, including those of animals, helps us to respond in safe, caring and kind ways.
Because animals are sentient, it is true that “what happens to them matters to them.” Therefore, as responsible animal guardians, it matters to us.
All animals are individuals with rich, complex emotional lives who deserve to be treated with kindness and compassion, just like we want to be treated this way.
It is essential that we as responsible animal guardians recognize that all animals are sentient and as such, we must meet their physical and mental welfare needs. By ensuring that animals are properly cared for and protected, and by observing them for signs of positive and negative feelings, we can help to maintain positive welfare and provide them with a happy life that’s worth living.
Not only are sentient animals able to communicate their feelings with each other, but they also communicate with us, their guardians. This is another reason why it so important for us to be more aware of how they use their body language and voices to communicate. It is also really important to be more aware of how we communicate with animals. For example, if your dog is showing signs that show they’re feeling fearful, or excitement about playing, it is essential for us to respond to those feelings to ensure good welfare.
Knowing that animals have these complex emotions allows us to recognize if they’re experiencing positive or negative welfare in different circumstances, and therefore allows us to know what we must do in these situations to protect the mental wellbeing of animals.
This is where the Five Domains framework comes in as it outlines the importance of an animal’s mental wellbeing, as well as physical needs. You can learn more about the five domains here.
The Animal Welfare Act 1999 (the Act) is the law that protect animals in New Zealand. It is a clear statement to New Zealanders – and to the rest of the world – that animals are sentient and that in New Zealand, they have a right to proper and sufficient care.
2015 was a big year for animal welfare in Aotearoa – this is when all animals were legally recognised as sentient. This law came into place as we knew that for animals to have a good quality of life, guardians need to go beyond minimising negative experiences, to also focusing on providing animals with a life that is filled with positive mental experiences.
Taking animals’ feelings and experiences into account is extremely important when it comes to how people treat animals, and is key for it to be part of the law.