top of page

Legal Sentience and Animal Law

Jurisdictions around the world are increasingly reforming their legislation to extend the concept of sentience to animals. Sentience can be described as the ability to perceive one’s environment, and the experience of positive or negative emotion such as pleasure and pain. Other more complex theories of sentience involve theories of the mind, metacognition and self-awareness. Guest writer Luiza Calvin will explore how this is provided for in the law.

The Challenges of Defining Sentience in Legislation

When it comes to enshrining animal sentience in law, formulating animal sentience tests can be a challenge in itself, especially with regard to ethical considerations. Tanzania's Animal Welfare Act 2008 and, in the US, Oregon state cruelty laws from 2013 have provided definitions of animal sentience. Despite that, the language employed can be misleading and has limited use. In Tanzania, the law recognises any vertebrate or invertebrate animal as a sentient being and defines the moral obligations humans have towards them. However, in the context of farmed animals, their welfare is directly connected to their productive output, for example, better welfare means higher quality meat. In Oregon, the cruelty laws focus on the negative experiences of the animals, rather than focusing on positive states.

The European Union has recognised animals as sentient beings, but the meaning of the word is not defined. In other jurisdictions, such as Canada, Colombia, Chile, New Zealand and Australia, animal sentience is acknowledged. Some jurisdictions even go further, such as Brussels and Quebec where there have been shifts in the property status of animals, from mere commodities to living beings that have their own interests. However, much of the rest of the world fails to include sentience in their laws.

Following Brexit, animal sentience is no longer specifically recognised in UK law. The Government argued that because the Animal Welfare Act 2006 recognises that animals are capable of suffering and therefore possess sentience, Article 13 of The Lisbon Treaty is superfluous. This has been controversial among animal protection groups, who argue direct recognition is important and that the EU provision also required public bodies to pay regard to sentience when formulating policy, something which no longer exists. An attempt to recognise animal sentience was made in the Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Bill; however, the bill received widespread critique and ultimately died off. Animal advocates were concerned with the lack of depth demonstrated by the Bill and argued that the Animal Welfare Act 2006 does not cover wild or farmed animals and does not recognise the sentience of animals.

The Benefits For Animals of Recognising Animal Sentience

The psychological needs of animals are rarely included in legislation. As a general rule those responsible for animals must protect their basic needs, including food, housing, and protection from suffering. Recognition of sentience could mark the first step towards appreciating animals’ inherent value, rather than merely viewing them as commodities with only basic needs to be provided for.

Recognising the sentience of animals could target incidents of cognitive bias in current laws, such as speciesism, which is nothing more than irrational prejudice. Furthermore, it would emphasise our obligations towards them. To ensure the personal interests of animals are recognised, a systematic enforcement of their protections should be applied rigorously.

It is also important, when formulating legislation on sentience, that they are flexible in incorporating animals that are yet to have their sentience studied, otherwise, only limited species would be protected.


Recognising animal sentience won’t solve all animal welfare issues, but it would mark a major step in animal advocacy. Providing animals the legal recognition they deserve, alongside well-written, precise standards of treatment and adequate enforcement, would inevitably improve animal protections.

Getting Advice

This post is not legal advice and should not be relied on as such. If you require legal advice on animal protection laws please contact

199 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page