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Editor's Note, Personal/Professional Development

Animal Sentience: An Inconvenient Truth?

The legal aspect of animal sentience could lead to more trouble than it's worth.

Simon R. PlattBVM&S, MRCVS, DACVIM (Neurology), DECVN

University of Georgia
College of Veterinary Medicine
[email protected]

Simon R. Platt, BVM&S, MRCVS, DACVIM (Neurology), DECVN, is a professor of neurology and neurosurgery at University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine. His research interests include ischemic disease of the central nervous system, canine brain tumors, and epilepsy.

Dr. Platt is a member of the International Veterinary Epilepsy Task Force and a founding member of the Southeastern Veterinary Neurology Group. He has authored or coauthored more than 190 journal articles and 50 book chapters and is the co-editor of three textbooks: BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Neurology, Manual of Small Animal Neurological Emergencies, and Canine and Feline Epilepsy: Diagnosis and Management. Dr. Platt received his veterinary degree from University of Edinburgh (Scotland) and completed an internship in small animal medicine and surgery at Ontario Veterinary College (University of Guelph) and residency in neurology and neurosurgery at University of Florida.

Animal Sentience: An Inconvenient Truth?

“Animals are like robots: they cannot reason or feel pain.” — René Descartes

Such a quote is sure to grab attention and set the mind racing. As preposterous as this statement sounds in 2021, the concept of animal sentience has ebbed and flowed over the centuries, and it is not until the last couple of decades that science and law have both focused on accepting the truth. Hippocrates and Pythagoras were advocates for the fair treatment of animals based on their understanding of the capacity of animals to suffer. Darwin proposed that at least some animals were capable of self-consciousness, which has since been demonstrated in great apes, dolphins, and elephants. However, John Watson, who founded the behaviorist movement in psychology in 1913, discredited any subjective experiences, intention, or emotions in animals.

Animal sentience refers to the ability of animals to feel and experience emotions such as joy, pleasure, pain, and fear. It is the capacity of animals to feel emotions that drives the animal welfare movement and the reason why animal protection laws now exist. However, such laws are geographically inconsistent and often lack in substance—for instance, what stops us from banning animal cruelty for entertainment on a worldwide basis? Is it disbelief or unawareness of animal suffering, desire for profit, or lack of empathy as a species? What if we were to briefly turn our attention away from the pain and suffering of animals and instead look toward the ability of animals to feel joy, form lasting friendships, hold grudges, or be empathetic? If people were to see animals as the individuals that they are, with their own personalities, they might then begin to act more compassionately toward them. 

Today, it is generally accepted that at least the vertebrate species are sentient, and this is supported by the existence of inconsistent animal protection legislation around the world. The American Veterinary Medical Association and the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association recognize that sentient animals are capable of experiencing positive physical and emotional states, including but not limited to comfort and pleasure.1 Accordingly, these associations state that animals deserve appropriate care and consideration. How far you go with this is up for debate. We may all accept it, but as humans we will have limits on what is accepted once it impacts what we want for ourselves. As an example, pet owners in some areas of the world could receive fines for failing to walk their pets on a daily basis. Harsher penalties to owners can apply if there is inappropriate effort made for veterinary treatment where necessary. What does our profession think about how far we should go? In the United States, Oregon appears to be the only state to specifically cite animal sentience in its laws, although politicians in several states are currently advocating a greater recognition of the intrinsic worth of animals when they are harmed.

This is where problems could arise: should non-economic considerations such as emotional bonds become recognized in court, some fear veterinarians could be exposed to life-changing damage awards. It is the property loss versus emotional impact argument that will no doubt concern those in the profession, but we should remember that we can advocate for both issues. We accept sentience as a truth but that does not have to mean it is used against us. 


1American Veterinary Medical Association. Joint AVMA-FVE-CVMA statement on the roles of veterinarians in promoting animal welfare.
avma.org/resources-tools/avma-policies/joint-avma-fve-cvma-roles-veterinarians-promoting-animal-welfare. Accessed June 1, 2021.