By | October 21, 2013

Lay people have acknowledged for hundreds of years that animals have consciousness. We see it when a dog or cat is trying to figure out a new stimulus. We see it when they dream. When a dog sleeps, he may rapidly move his paws, he may whimper, you see his eyes rapidly moving back and forth and we can see that he is in the deep stages of REM. We know that he is dreaming, but we may not know what he is dreaming about. The very fact that he is dreaming proves his sentience. If you have no consciousness, then you can’t dream.


Over the last hundred years or so, science has begun catching up to what most people already knew. Animals are sentient beings. It seems absurd to the average dog owner, but scientists are uncomfortable with the idea of consciousness in animals. If an animal is aware of his surroundings and can feel pain, then blinding him with cosmetics in test studies suddenly seems more cruel. Accepting that animals are conscious beings went against previously held beliefs and conventional wisdom at the time. Realizing that animals are conscious beings meant developing and testing new theories. However, science is now accepting the fact that animals have feelings. According to Dr Jaak Panskepp, a neuroscientist at  Washington State University, animals are capable of these core emotions;

Seeking, Rage, Fear, Panic, Lust, Care and Play.

These “generate well-organized behaviour sequences that can be evoked by localized electrical stimulation of the brain.” Translation; if you stimulate the brain system for one emotion you will always get the same behaviour.

Seeking: According to Panskepp, seeking “Is the basic impulse to search, investigate, and make sense of the environment.” Seeking is a combination of curiosity, wanting something really good and anticipating it. Seeking drives a tiger to stalk his prey, it’s the reason ants farm aphids for nectar, it’s why beavers build dams so elaborate that they change northern topography.

Seeking is why humans desire to learn, it is also why we desire shiny objects. We are always looking for something we don’t yet have. Seeking is a very pleasurable emotion, it is tied to anticipation. Sometimes looking forward to getting something is just as good or even better than actually getting it.

Rage: This is a very basic emotion, one that even newborns experience. It occurs when the subcortical area of the brain is stimulated. Frustration is a mild form of rage that is caused by physical or mental restraint. (This is why keeping dogs constantly tethered can be so damaging and even dangerous.)

Fear: Fear is located in the subcortex of the brain, in this lies the amygdala, or fear center of the brain. Animals feel fear when their survival is threatened in one way or another. When the amygdala is damaged, fear is gone. There are reports of wild animals becoming very tame after damaging the amygdala.

Panic: According to Panskepp, panic is related to the social attachment system. It is likely that the panic system evolved from physical pain. Dogs who experience separation anxiety are literally experiencing pain when they fear that their pack will not return.

Lust: Without lust there will be extinction. Lust is sexual desire and is very necessary for species survival. Lust is instinctual and unless an animal has been altered in some way, there is no suppressing this instinct. People who have had intact animals have no doubt noticed the lengths that an animal will go to to fulfill these desires.

Care: Care refers to the maternal love that an animal feels for its young.


Play: Play is located in the subcortex. Science can not yet explain play, though it is thought to be a sign of good welfare. Play is something that the young of most mammals engage in. By playing, animal young are able to practice fighting, food gathering and fornication. Skills that will serve them well into adulthood. Play is something that young animals leave behind when they enter adulthood; with two exceptions: dogs and humans. Humans and dogs are the only animals who continue to play as adults. Dogs are the juvenile forms of wolves. They share much of the same DNA, but never fully grow into adulthood. Humans share much of the same DNA as chimps. Based on that, there is a theory that humans are the juvenile forms of chimpanzees. Humans grew smarter, but never really grew up. While I can not say for sure whether or not this theory is correct, I’m sure it needs much more testing and observation, I find it fascinating nonetheless.

These core emotions, found in all mammals (including humans) and birds, come from the same systems in the brain. When experts dissect brains or study them in x-rays, it is very difficult to tell the difference between the Hindbrain and Limbic systems of a human’s brain and an animal’s. Humans have a larger, more fully developed neocortex. The neocortex controls higher, consecutive functions. Primates, Dolphins, and possibly elephants have a neocortex, though a humans is larger. The frontal lobe, located in the neocortex, controls reasoning, judgment, problem solving and impulse control. The neocortex is where we differ from most animals. Most animals have a Limbic system of the brain, the Limbic system controls the emotions.

Ian Duncan, professor of Animal Science at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, notes a time line on animal sentience, public and scientific awareness of sentience, and welfare. Starting in the Renaissance among the populace and in the 1800s among scientists and philosophers. Scientific study of sentience lagged in the mid 1900s but picked up again with a vengeance towards the latter part of the century.  It got to the point where some scientists were attributing the same complex emotions in animals from dolphins to butterflies! This led to a negative backlash, where once again, scientists were afraid to mention sentience at all. We are now in a period where it has leveled off again. We recognize that, because of the limbic system, animals and humans are capable of the same basic emotions.

If we understand how animals feel, then we can better understand their needs and how to meet them.  A handful of dedicated researchers have spent years teaching sign language to gorillas and language comprehension to parrots, both with great success. This has opened up a previously unknown world of animal minds. It is really exciting to me to see where this will lead.

Treaty of Lisbon

On 1 December 2009, European Union members ratified the Treaty of Lisbon, which grants legal status to animals by virtue of sentience. This is huge as it now offers European animals greater standards in welfare. Live animals used for experiments must now be spared pain in every stage from transportation through the experiment and even until the death of the animal. Animals must now be constantly monitored for stress and the environment must meet all the animals needs. Scientists are also looking for more viable non-animal models to test on.
1 December 2009 was a big day for European animals!