Consciousness of Suffering in Animals

Are animals aware of their suffering? For anyone who lives with one, he knows perfectly the answer to this question.


Are animals aware of their suffering? For anyone who lives with one, he knows perfectly the answer to this question. But what does neuroscience tell us about it? Can we, finally, ensure that science supports the consciousness that animals have of their own suffering and that of others?

Well, how could it be otherwise, the answer is yes. Neuroscience has more than conclusive proof that all mammalian animals, birds and other species are aware of their own suffering. The information is not new. In 2013 the Cambridge Declaration already put this issue on the table with undeniable evidence. The investigations continue and do nothing more than ratify it.

Homologous circuits have been identified, both in humans and in animals whose activity coincides with conscious experience. It seems that the neuronal circuits that are activated while an animal feels an emotion are the same ones that are activated in humans for the same emotion. Renowned neurologists from around the world endorse this study and agree that animals experience awareness of their own suffering.

The Cambridge Declaration

Seven years ago, on July 7, 2012, a group of renowned scientists signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. This document states that not only humans, but also a significant number of animals, including vertebrates and invertebrates, are sentient beings. This means that they are sentient beings, that is, they experience what happens to them and they have mental states that can be positive or negative for them.

There is a scientific consensus on the evidence that shows that non-human animals possess the neuroanatomical, neurochemical and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states together with the ability to exhibit intentional behaviors. That is, humans are not the only ones to possess the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.

Philip Low, founder and executive director of the neurodiagnostic company NeuroVigil, in California; Christof Koch, of the Allen Institute of Brain Sciences in Seattle; David Edelman, of the Neurosciences Institute of La Jolla, California, and other prestigious neuroscientists issued in the Cambridge statement.

It is a clear message that confirms that the ability to have positive and negative experiences is what causes a being to be damaged. There is powerful evidence to think that this is what must be taken into account when it comes to giving someone a non-discriminatory consideration.

Recent studies

During all this time there have been studies that confirm these facts again and again. Jarrod Bailey and Shiranee Pereira presented in 2016 an investigation about brain circuits related to emotions and empathy in dogs. This study confirms and extends the conclusions of the Cambridge Declaration.

INRA, in collaboration with the European Food Safety Authority, has carried out a new updated scientific evaluation of the literature on animal conscience. The results were presented in 2017 in Parma (Italy). This research corroborates that animals are equipped with nervous systems that support conscious processes of complex information, including negative emotions caused by nociceptive stimuli.

The study includes different species, including primates, corvids, rodents and ruminants. The research concludes that because animals with autobiographical memory, as seen in primates, corvids and rodents, may have desires and goals that extend to the past and the future, they may be adversely affected by the aversive experience.

There are no excuses

Seven years after the presentation of more than solid evidence about the consciousness that animals have about their own suffering and the multitude of subsequent studies that support it, there is no longer an excuse to defend animal abuse claiming that they do not suffer.

All those who defend and defend their right to have fun with the damage caused to other beings should seek other arguments because science does not support them. In the same way, the regulation of the right of these beings to their protection and welfare is having an important echo in the legal field, where these evidences are materializing in the form of laws that will affect many other fields.

Despite the complexity of the study of consciousness in humans, it seems that, from now on, studies on human consciousness will go hand in hand with that of our planet companions. And this, despite the few dissonant voices already, is very good news.