A closeup of an elephant's eye.

Animal sentience

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Scientific research proves that animals have thoughts, feelings and unique personalities.

What is animal sentience?

Sentience means being able to feel things. We know from research that animals experience joy, pleasure, pain and fear. They’re individuals who are sensitive to the world around them, with likes and dislikes, wants and needs. 

Elephants experience grief and pigs show empathy. Cows get excited when they’re rewarded with food, dolphins recognise themselves in a mirror and chickens love to play. 

Just like us, animals want to feel positive emotions. They want to be healthy and well fed, to do things they enjoy and to be with other animals. 

Why animal sentience is important

Each animal is a unique being with their own experience of the world. This means that every animal matters, and protecting them should be a priority for all of us. 

We can’t know what animals are thinking, but we can stand up for their right to have good lives free from pain and distress.  

With what we know about animal sentience, there’s no justification for the suffering human activity causes to billions of creatures each year. In farming, in captivity and in the wild, animals are killed, harmed and exploited on an alarming scale. This is an escalating crisis.

But together, we can stop it in its tracks by challenging the cruel systems that cause so much suffering.

What we know about animals’ experiences

Our knowledge of animal sentience varies. Some species have been extensively researched, while we know less about others. 

Mammals and birds

There’s clear evidence that all mammals and birds are sentient. Birds’ brains may be very different to ours, but they’re able to feel things and experience the world. For example, chickens show empathy and magpies have been observed grieving.

Reptiles, amphibians and fish

Cold-blooded animals are able to feel things too. Studies prove this is clear from both their behaviour, and the way their brains and bodies are structured. They may seem very unlike us, but these creatures have feelings and experiences that matter.


We’re learning more about invertebrates all the time. Marine animals such as octopuses, squid, crabs and lobsters are sentient, and have been shown to feel varied emotions, including pain and fear. There’s evidence that insects have the ability to think, and that they can experience stress and pessimism.

Research into animal sentience

By learning more about animal sentience, we can strengthen our call for people to treat animals with care, respect and dignity. 

In the last 20 years, research has come a long way. Scientists now have sophisticated means to understand, measure and monitor animals’ emotional states. Their heart rate, behaviour and body positioning can all be important indicators of how they’re feeling. 

Research into animal neuroscience shows how different species’ brains enable them to experience feelings like joy, fear and pain. The resulting publication in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science documents the considerable evidence for a wide range of cognitive abilities for all living beings, from 

The more we uncover, the clearer it is that animals have sophisticated emotional lives.

Animal sentience and the law

Worldwide, laws and policies must change to acknowledge that animals are unique individuals that can suffer and feel pain. 

On 7 April 2022, the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act became law in the UK. This important piece of legislation legally recognises animal sentience, and the need to protect the welfare of all vertebrate animals, and importantly, for the first time, also for decapod crustaceans and cephalopod molluscs.

The new Act also requires policymakers to consider animal sentience when creating or changing laws. This will be governed in part by an Animal Sentience Committee, which will be formed by experts who will examine and review. It will also promote the legal protection of animals when new laws and policies are made.

By recognising animal sentience in their legislation, countries can show that they respect animals’ needs and prioritise their wellbeing. This sets a clear expectation for how they should be treated, and helps change perceptions around animal welfare. 

Defining animals in law as feeling beings is a crucial step towards ending harmful practices and giving all creatures the protection they deserve. 

Looking to the future

The science of animal sentience is really exciting. Researchers are making new discoveries all the time about the way animals think, feel and experience the world.

At World Animal Protection, we’ll use new discoveries about animal sentience to fuel our mission to stop animal cruelty and suffering. We help people see animals for the individuals they are, and inspire them to take action.

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