Animal sentience: their emotions, feelings, and experiences of life

Animal sentience was explicitly recognised in the Animal Welfare Act 1999 in 2015. Find out what it means and how it is linked to animal welfare and animals living a good life.

What is animal sentience?

The National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC) understands animal sentience to mean that animals have emotions, feelings, perceptions, and experiences that matter to them. These can be negative (such as pain or boredom) as well as positive (such as pleasure or comfort).

We don’t know whether animals’ emotions, feelings, and experiences are similar to those of humans. We also don’t know if they are felt with the same intensity. But they matter to individual animals and have an impact on their welfare.

How animals feel and experience the world

Two types of experiences affect an animal’s welfare. Those that are:

  • critical for survival
  • related to how they perceive their environment.

Experiences critical for survival (for example thirst, hunger, pain)

These motivate the animal to engage in particular behaviours, such as drinking and feeding, to correct imbalances in its internal state. Survival-critical experiences are generally negative because they signal to the animal that something is going wrong or soon will go wrong, and that action is required (for example drinking or feeding).

Experiences relating to how animals perceive their environment

These are situation-related experiences. They can be negative or positive. For example, pleasure, feeling secure and safe, frustration, boredom, helplessness, loneliness, anxiety, or fear.

How can animals live a good life?

Emotions and feelings are subjective and cannot be measured directly. But we don’t need direct evidence of how animals feel to achieve good animal welfare and for animals to live a good life.

Preventing negative experiences can at best lead to a neutral state of welfare. A neutral state is where animals are surviving – they do not feel excessively hungry or thirsty or anxious. Good animal welfare, and a good life, can be achieved only when animals can also have experiences that they find rewarding and positive.

Taken together, the steps below can help animals live a good life.

Cater for animals’ basic needs

When animals are sick, uncomfortable, or hungry they may not be able to engage in rewarding behaviours, even if given the opportunity. Ensure animals feel healthy and comfortable by giving them what they need to maintain optimal health and ensuring they are comfortable (for example, by providing appropriate shade and shelter).

This will ensure that negative survival-critical experiences are minimised, allowing animals to engage in rewarding behaviours when they have the opportunity.

Improve how animals are kept

Give them opportunities to engage in behaviours that promote positive experiences. For example:

  • make sure they have appropriate social companions
  • provide opportunities for exploration and mental stimulation
  • allow animals to make their own choices.

Change husbandry practices

Where negative experiences cannot be avoided, reduce their negative impact by changing your practices.

Take steps to improve the handling of animals to reduce their fear of humans. During painful husbandry procedures, reduce the severity of pain that animals experience by providing pain relief where this is not already mandatory.

Opportunities for positive experiences

When providing opportunities for positive experiences, we need to keep in mind the natural behaviour of the animal. It is also important to know that animals, like humans, like to feel safe and make their own choices. They like to have some control over their lives.

A simple way to provide positive experiences is to allow animals to bond with others of their kind or appropriate companions of other species. This allows for positive relationships between animals to be established and maintained. Positive human-animal interactions can also promote positive experiences.

Depending on the species of animal, other opportunities to provide positive experiences may include:

  • presenting animals with a choice of foods of different textures, smells, and tastes
  • giving animals access to devices or material they can explore or manipulate (such as straw, grooming brushes, novel items, toys)
  • providing voluntary access to areas of interest (like the outdoors, hide-outs, platforms)
  • providing opportunities for exercise and other rewarding behaviours, such as play.

Positive experiences: some examples for different species

Dairy cattle

Allowing cattle to have more time for lying and positive interactions with other animals may be a way to promote a positive experience for cattle. While cattle normally need at least 8 to 10 hours of lying a day to rest and ruminate, they choose to lie down for 12 hours or more if they have time available and have access to soft, clean, and dry lying surfaces.

When given the opportunity, cattle kept indoors for extended periods will choose to go outside depending on weather, time of day, food availability, and other factors. Giving them voluntary access to the outdoors lets them take control over their own actions. They may want to go outside to graze, have more space to lie, experience cooler temperatures at night, or get away from dominant cattle. Or maybe they just enjoy a gentle stroll with a view.

Companion animals like dogs, cats, and rabbits

The SPCA website has resources for these animals:

Exercise and enrichment for dogs

Enrichment tips for cats

Creating an enriching home for your rabbits

Zoo animals

Wellington Zoo’s video has some great examples of positive experiences.

Animal welfare at the zoo – YouTube

References

Mellor, D.J. and Beausoleil, N.J., 2020. Moving Beyond a Problem-based Focus on Poor Animal Welfare Toward Creating Opportunities to Have Positive Welfare Experiences. In Mental Health and Well-being in Animals, Ed McMillan FD; p.50. (ISBN # 1786393409, 9781786393401).

Who to contact

If you have questions about the information on this page, email info@mpi.govt.nz

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