Animal Sentience


By Dr. Michael W. Fox

Government Animal Welfare Acts in the U.S. and other countries to establish standards that mandate humane treatment of various species and their enforcement are at best inconsistent and need considerable revision and greater international accord. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) conducts annual inspections of all licensed facilities and generally oversees compliance but many animal species are excluded from protection.

Enacted January 23, 2002, Title X, Subtitle D of the U.S. Farm Security and Rural Investment Act, changed the definition of ‘animal’ in the Animal Welfare Act, (administered by the U.S. Dept of Agriculture) specifically excluding birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus, bred for use in research. Such exclusions essentially deny that these species are sentient, can experience pain and fear and can therefore suffer. This selective speciesism is biologically absurd and scientifically and ethically untenable. If fish could scream, would that make any difference since they have no protection under such laws in most countries. (Visit

The British Veterinary Association Council has declared that crabs, lobsters, octopuses and squid “should be regarded in legislation as having consciousness and the capacity to experience feelings such as pleasure and pain.” (Veterinary Record,10 Dec.2020-2 Jan 2021, p. 468). Now this legislation has been passed into the law of the land: “.Octopuses, crabs and lobsters are capable of experiencing pain or suffering, according to a review commissioned by the UK government, which has added the creatures to a list of sentient beings to be given protection under new animal welfare laws. The report by experts at the London School of Economics looked at 300 scientific studies to evaluate evidence of sentience, and they concluded that cephalopods (such as octopuses, squid and cuttlefish) and decapods (such as crabs, lobsters and crayfish) should be treated as sentient beings.”

The thoughtful editorial by Suzanne Jarvis (Legislating for animal welfare) and informative report by Josh Loeb ( Late change for sentience bill criticized) in the Veterinary Record Vol.190, No 7 p 259-260) lead one to conclude that the constraints that may be imposed on the committee implementing the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill will hamper its authority and effectiveness. Having this committee ‘respect…religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage’, conditionalities also adopted by the European Union’s constitutional acknowledgement that animals are sentient, will do little to change the status quo of many forms of inhumane animal exploitation regardless of societal and scientific recognition of animal sentience. Similar arguments were made in the not-so-distant past to oppose the abolition of slavery, child labour, bear-baiting and dog-fighting.

This “balancing” of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill with consideration of vested interests engaged in various forms of animal exploitation/use is indeed regrettable, economic justifications regardless. Ethical and legal constraints on our collective negative impacts on the natural environment, biodiversity and animal well-being are long overdue. Clearly, the concept of One Health will not advance significantly without a complementary One Ethic template: Specifically, the bioethical principle of equalitarianism (Michael W. Fox, Bringing Life to Ethics: Global Bioethics for a Humane Society. State University of New York Press, Albany NY 2001)..This principle extends the Golden Rule to embrace all sentient beings which Albert Schweitzer advocated in his philosophy of reverence for life. (Albert Schweitzer, Reverence for Life. Harper and Row New York 1969). David Anderson, a biology professor in his latest book, The Nature of the Beast: How Emotions Guide Us describes research from his lab that suggests the brain circuits underlying human emotions have a lot in common with circuits found in mice and even fruit flies.

Scientists have done many studies to determine what animals, vertebrate and invertebrate, sense and feel and think—so called cognitive ethology: And this as challenging as it is to know what another person is thinking and feeling. There are gradients of sentience, varying degrees and kinds of sensing, feeling, intelligence and self-awareness both within and between species as we know from our own interactions with people and other animals in our lives. If we had no empathy would we have any real understanding? As farmer Joe Hutto (in his PBS TV documentary My Life as a Turkey) asserts, “ We don’t have a privileged access to reality.”

The instinctual intelligence evident in the behavior of Hutton’s turkeys speaks to the inherent wisdom of every living cell, plant, animal and microorganism in the co-evolving matrix of what Prof. Gregory Bateson envisioned in his book Mind and Nature (1979). Nature’s living biofield of intelligent, sentient beings leads us to consider the documented evidence of the empathosphere, the quantum field of animal awareness, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere.

As a curious naturalist in childhood and elected Fellow of the U.K.’s Royal Entomological Society in my late teens I never doubted that insects were highly sentient and had emotional reactions. Now scientists are confirming this and elevating our understanding and appreciation for this class of animal life as documented in the excellent review posted Nov. 28th 2021 by Zaria Gorvett, who writes “ For decades, the idea that insects have feelings was considered a heretical joke – but as the evidence piles up, scientists are rapidly reconsidering.”

It is evident from the United Nation’s 2019 IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. ( ) that we have yet to learn to share this planet with other intelligent life forms and consciousnesses. This would be for our own good which is bound to that of other beings who comprise and sustain the life community even if we do not respect and care for the least of them. Without the ethics of respect and care we are less than human and have become the most dangerous species on Earth. Inhumanity has no bounds ecologically, spiritually or ethically.

I did not foresee in my 1980 book One Earth One Mind how rapidly dystopias and planetary dysbiosis, signaled by climate change and a plethora of new pests and diseases, would come from our collective lack of respect and care. Now almost four decades later we are well into the “Anthropocene” age and awakening to the tragedy of reality and the challenge to either evolve or perish.

The ethics of respect and care awaken compassion and empathy, broadening into bioethics and now giving rise to the One Health movement recognized by the U.S. government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ( ). This is being embraced by more and more physicians, veterinarians and others in the healing professions along with organic farmers, foresters and other users of animals and natural resources.

In my opinion all animals, including earthworms (who possess enkephalins and beta endorphins identified in human brains as similar to opiates in their ability to affect sensations of pleasure and pain.) and insects (who can manifest fear and injury-avoidance behaviors, many having serotonin and dopamine receptors as we have in our brains) are sentient beings. All sentient beings should be treated with care and consideration with no exceptions for commercial, animal research and other purposes or cultural tradition and erroneous belief that some species are simply instinct-driven, unfeeling automatons. Objectification and “mechanomorphization” of other sentient beings is scientifically invalid and ethically unacceptable. One of the first scientists to confront this cultural attitude was zoologist Prof. Donald R. Griffin in his seminal text, The Question of Animal Awareness (1976).

The empathic question is not do sentient beings “know” ( and are self-conscious) but rather, can they be harmed? All sentient beings avoid being harmed often in ways which we are only just discovering, like bacteria mutating and evolving resistance to antibiotics and trees signaling chemically to others when they are under some attack by insects.

Will and instinct are interdependent as are the senses, sensibility and consciousness all of which can vary as greatly within as between species. In several realms of the senses many species are far more evolved than we while others, as we are discovering, are emotionally more similar to us than they are different in their responsiveness, joys and suffering.


Our understanding of animal cognition, of what our animal companions know and what they think, is enhanced when we are able to put ourselves in their place and minds. This is not a difficult process since we share similar physical-body and mental-brain functions, sensations and inner experiences and desires that are expressed behaviorally in various emotional displays, vocal signals and specific actions and reactions. We are not the only animal species with the ability to recognize another’s intentions — or at least conceive of them. This is a basic component of Theory of Mind, namely, the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others which may be facilitated by so-called “mirror “neurons.

Adapting to domestication should not lower animals’ quality of life physically or emotionally. Some animals, like humans, can suffer from attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, a condition that has genetic, developmental and nutritional elements in its genesis. Other animals can vary in their abilities of concentration, self-control/inhibition, learning/memory recall, as well as reasoning, insightfulness, and affective or emotive scope of expression, comprehension, playfulness and empathy. Such individual variations in abilities and motivation mean there is no singly way to raise and relate to other sentient beings. We must relate to each as an individual, and above all we should not use punishment (negative reinforcement) to inhibit most instinctual reactions since they are part of every animal’s feral spirit, but rather, apply ways to redirect and sublimate.

Learning what and how animals express themselves and understand each other opens us to their realm of emotional intelligence, an invitation that is acceptable to those people who neither lack empathy and emotional intelligence, nor who believe that dogs, cats and other animals are simply instinctual automations devoid of feeling and self-awareness.(For more details, see M.W.Fox, Dog Body, Dog Mind.and Cat Body, Cat Mind, The Lyons Press, Guilford CT 2007, and Michael A.Jawer and Marc S.Micozzi, The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion. Park Street Press, Rochester VT 2009).

ANIMALS’ RIGHTS: LIBERATION FROM LEGAL LIMBO Aside from some animal welfare, anti-cruelty and endangered species protection laws, animals are still largely regarded by our judicial system as being objects of property. The concept and evidence of their sentience is slowly making progress in the collective psyche of society today. Now the Non-human Rights Project has filed a writ of habeas corpus in New York state’s Court of Appeals which has agreed to hear the case involving a solitary captive elephant named Happy at the Bronx zoo. She has spent more than 40 years in captivity and should be placed in an open sanctuary with eventual social contact with other elephants also rescued from extreme confinement and social deprivation.

Habeas corpus petitions have only been filed on behalf of humans being held against their will and this case will raise the issue as to whether Happy is a “thing” or “person” with certain rights and interests,, writes Julie Knopp with Compassionate action for Animals in Minnesota in her article “Happy the Elephant is Giving Animals Their Day in Court”, published in the Star Tribune, Dec 31st 2021. She underscores the fact that factory farmed animals live under worse conditions than this elephant and that their welfare needs to be addressed as well as their negative environmental impact of industrial animal agriculture and its risks to human health especially from zoonotic and food-borne illnesses.


Some animal psychologists and others contend that the mirror-test, where animals recognize that a mark has been placed on their faces, is the cardinal sign of self-awareness. Species who do react to such changes in their mirror-image include humans and the great apes, dolphins, elephants and magpies. Ethologist Jonathan Balcombe in his book Super Fly cites research indicating that some ant species also pass the mirror test.

I have long contended that self-awareness in various species cannot be decided simply on the basis of this mirror-test. Many people living with cats and dogs will attest to the fact that after initially reacting to their mirror-image, often as though it were another animal, their animals simply ignore their reflections. This is evidence to me that they know it is not another animal but themselves that they are seeing. Some cats will play games, stalk their image and look behind the mirror.


In my doctoral dissertation in ethology/animal behavior I documented emotional states in the behavior of wolves and other wild canids (as published in my book The Behavior of Wolves, Dogs and Related Canids, 1971) which we humans share. These include care-giving empathy, protectiveness, affection, joyful playfulness, curiosity, fear, anxiety and depression. So how can we continue to be indifferent to other species who share similar emotional intelligence and degree of sentience?

This disconnect of empathy is rooted in ignorance, rationalization, denial and beliefs so trapping, snaring, shooting, poisoning and caging of wolves, coyotes, foxes continue.

Coyote and other wildlife killing contests ( visit for details) should be outlawed just as dog and cock fighting are illegal in the U.S. The capture and trade in wildlife and their products, nationally and internationally, legal and illegal, must end for humane, environmental and public health reasons.

English philosopher Richard Ryder attributes such wanton cruelty to “speciesism”, which shares the same root of psychopathy with racism and sexism. Without respect and empathy for all life the rule of law will remain arbitrary, capricious and self-serving. All creatures have intrinsic value and interests and also, extrinsic ecological value which Dr. Jonathan Balcombe in his book Super Fly, 2021) underscores in his statement “ Whatever justified angst and antipathy we may feel for certain flies, we can simultaneously cultivate respect, even reverence, for their essential place in the world.”

Lakota Sioux Luther Standing Bear, in his 1993 book Land of the Spotted Eagle, wrote “The animal has rights-the right of man’s protection—-The concept of life and its relations was humanizing and gave the Lakota an abiding love. It filled his being with the joy and mystery of living; it gave him reverence for all life; it made a place for all things in the scheme of existence with equal respect for all.” Missionary doctor Albert Schweitzer later echoed this spiritual realization in his philosophy of reverence for life especially from the perspectives of world peace and disease prevention. Contemporary religions have taken us away from such affinities with other living beings and the natural world, long condemning such views as primitive paganism, and heretical to the divine order of man under God and man over all else.


If animals were incapable of empathy, of understanding another’s emotional state and having feeling for another’s distress, then we would find no evidence of altruistic behavior in the animal kingdom. But indeed we do.

Ethologists use the terms care-giving, or epimeletic behavior, and care-soliciting, or et-epimeletic behavior, to identify those behaviors that underlie the altruism we see in various species that means that they do have the capacity to empathize.

Skeptics dismiss all of this as anthropomorphic and scientifically unproven, and it disturbs me to read some professional comments on this topic. For example, veterinarian John S. Parker stated that “Pets can and often do react to their owners’ distress or discomfort, but that is not to be confused with experiencing the emotion of empathy” (Letter in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, June 1, 2006, pp 1677-1678). Aside from contending that animals “do not have the cognitive capacity to put themselves in our place”, he incorrectly sees empathy not as a process or affective state but as an actual emotion, which it is not.

Animal ethics philosopher Dr. Bernard E. Rollin’s response (in this same Journal, on p.1678), stating that “there is some very suggestive evidence that at least some animals, such as higher primates and elephants, do [empathize]” begs the question. The evidence from countless instances of empathetic behavior in companion animals is a red flag and not some anthropomorphic red herring, putting us all on notice that animals are far more aware than many people would like or accept for reasons best known to themselves. Here are some of the many accounts that people have shared with me about their empathetic animal companions.

Esther Schy from Fresno CA writes that “When I returned from the Cancer Center following treatment, I was extremely weak and ill. My two Airedale dogs would each take up their positions, like two book-ends, one on either side of me in bed and would lie there unmoving for hours, except for their taking turns laying their heads gently where I hurt the most.“One night two years earlier one of her dogs named Robbie “suddenly jumped up in bed next to my husband, almost plastered to his side. He normally never did this, preferring to sleep on his cushion next to my side of the bed. He kept trembling for one hour, and then went down stairs by himself, which is another action he did not normally do (leaving the bedroom at night). My husband suffered a massive heart attack and died a few minutes later. I believe that Robbie knew that something awful was to be.”

Like the Airedales who rested their heads on where their human companion hurt most, M.S.D., from Romeo MI has a Siamese cat who picked up on her cardiac palpitations that were causing much distress and preventing her from sleeping. “My Chloe came up, got as close as she could, and placed her paw on my left chest over my heart. Within a very short time the palpitations slowed and stopped, allowing me to get a good night’s rest.”

Amy e. Snyder in Chesapeake, VA was comforted by her Main Coon cat Bonkers, who slept at her side during the woman’s ordeal with throat cancer, giving her comfort and constant attention. During radiation treatment some 100 miles away from home, Ms. Snyder was only able to come home on weekends, and one weekend she found Bonkers lethargic and looking older. She took him to her veterinarian, and Bonkers was euthanized because he had developed an inoperable cancer “completely cutting off his windpipe.—I believe, due to the extreme oddness of similarity to our illness that my cat literally tried to take on my disease. He did get me through all of this.”

This anecdote supports my theory of sympathetic resonance, where highly empathetic animals may develop the same or similar disease that afflicts their loved one. Whether it is a deliberate or coincidental, the fact remains that empathizing is not without risk for humans and non-humans alike.

Many other letters attest to how cats and dogs have helped their human companions cope with depression and other emotional and physical difficulties, especially the loss of a spouse or other close relative.

Cary Watson from Clifton Park, NY writes that “Without my two dogs’ companionship, dealing with the loss of my wife would have been much harder. I can see why many people die soon after losing a spouse. We need love to carry on.”

Echoing this sentiment, Barbara K. Joyner of Courtland VA wrote that, following the untimely death of her husband to be, her adopted cats “make me feel wanted, needed, loved. They bring joy and happiness into my dark, sad existence.”

Suffering the loss of her only child from suicide, Patricia Maunu of Sioux Falls, SD tells me that her Bichon Frise dog J’aime “has given me the desire to get out of bed, and on many days given me the will to live!”

These and many other personal stories about how companion animals have helped their human guardians through difficult times, and are a constant source of affection and the joy of life, help us all appreciate why so many people who were victims of the Katrina hurricane disaster in New Orleans and other communities refused to leave without their animal companions. They are integral parts of the family and emotional lives of millions of people, and those who have not experienced the gifts of animal companionship, and the depths of animals’ empathy, have missed a golden opportunity to enrich their lives and awaken their appreciation for all creatures great and small.

Harvard University Sets Endowment for Animal Law and Policy Program

Harvard Law School has established a $10-million endowment for its Animal Law & Policy Program in November 2021 expanding the seven-year-old program through a gift from the Brooks Institute for Animal Rights Law and Policy.

The inaugural program allowed for an expansion of courses to include wildlife law and farmed animal law, helped in the development of visiting fellows programs and workshops and opened the door for the launch of the HLS Animal Law & Policy Clinic. This in-house public-interest law firm gives Harvard students hands-on experience and mentorship working directly on real-time animal law cases and policy projects, the school noted in a news release.

The program bears the name of Brooks McCormick Jr., the Brooks Institute’s founding benefactor and an animal lover and philanthropist who passed away in 2015. The institute has become the leading foundation supporting academic work in the field of animal law and policy, supporting animal law programs at Yale University, New York University, Lewis & Clark, the University of Denver and Vermont Law School, among other academic institutions. Animal rights law-related courses currently are offered at 167 U.S. law schools, 21 years after the first such course launched at Harvard, the release noted. For more details see


Johnathan Balcombe, Super Fly: The Unexpected Lives of the World’s Most Successful Insects,” Penguin Books.2021. Winner of the National Outdoor Book Award His award-winning book What a Fish Knows, Dr. Balcombe leaves no doubt that fish have feelings. Efforts to protect them and their aquatic habitats are being promoted by non-profit organizations like Fish Feel ( On the basis of several scientific studies ( Review of the Evidence of Sentience in Cephalopod Molluscs and Decapod Crustaceans, by Jonathan Birch et al, November 2021, the U.K. government is extending coverage under the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill to include cephalopods and decapods ( octopuses, crabs and lobsters)

Marc Bekoff, He notes: “As of November 2019, 32 countries have formally recognized non-human animal sentience. These are: Austria, Australia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Chile, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom…” A detailed table on the ways in which numerous countries view animal sentience and animal suffering can be seen in this summary titled “Animal rights by country or territory.” See also by Marc Bekoff:

_____. Sentient Reptiles Experience Mammalian Emotions. (A detailed review of scientific data finds evidence of reptile sentience.) _____. A Universal Declaration on Animal Sentience: No Pretending. _____. Animal Emotions, Animal Sentience, and Why They Matter, _____. Animal Sentience is Not Science Fiction: Recent Literature. ____. Fish Are Sentient and Emotional Beings and Clearly Feel Pain. _____. Should Sentient Insects Be Farmed for Food and Feed?

Dana L. M. Campbell * and Caroline Lee A Perspective on Strategic Enrichment for Brain Development: Is This the Key to Animal Happiness? Front Vet Sci. 2021; 8: 720422. Mollie A. Bloomsmith, et al Behavioral Management Programs to Promote Laboratory Animal Welfare. Chapter 5 in Management of Animal Care and Use Programs in Research, Education, and Testing. 2nd edition. Robert H. Weichbrod et al, eds, Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis; 2018. Helen S. Proctor, Gemma Carder, and Amelia R. Cornish Searching for Animal Sentience: A Systematic Review of the Scientific Literature Animals (Basel). 2013 Sep; 3(3): 882–906. Monsó, S., Benz-Schwarzburg, J. & Bremhorst, A. Animal Morality: What It Means and Why It Matters. J Ethics 22, 283–310 (2018).