Are cats sentient beings?

For me, cats are sentient beings and I think it's obvious that they are but I cannot say the same for everybody else. Some people think that the definition of sentience is rather vague and therefore we don't know whether cats are sentient beings. However, the definition of "sentience" is not vague because it means an animal that has feelings and by now all of us should realise that cats can have feelings. We know that cats have emotions. What we are not sure about is whether they can experience the higher emotions such as grief and shame etc..

Sentience is about having feelings
Are cats sentient beings? Yes, of course.


I don't think cats can feel the higher emotions because in order to feel higher emotions an animal has to be self-aware and I don't believe that, at this juncture, we can say with conviction that cats are self-aware or self-conscious. It is work in progress and I think the outcome will be, no. But it doesn't stop cats having feelings. It does not take an awful lot of personal research either on the Internet or in direct contact with your cat to figure out that they have feelings.

Perhaps there was a time, about 50 years ago or more when a lot of people were unsure if animals, in general, even felt pain. This seems remarkable now. There has been an awakening both about animal welfare and the sentience of animals. In fact, the latter precedes the former because as soon as you comprehend that animals are sentient beings you automatically are taken down the route of improved animal welfare.

The question in the title is the kind of question that you might have asked about 40 years ago. But today, in 2021, it is a given, by which I mean it is an accepted premise in any discussion about animals and, in this instance cats, that they are sentient beings.

We can see them being happy and content and expressing it through purring. We can see them being stressed and anxious when going to the veterinarian, for example. In fact, there are many and various situations under which they can feel anxious. It is apparent by their demeanour and body language. We can see them displaying affection towards us and towards other animals. There are a countless number of videos on YouTube of cats and dogs showing affection for each other. And the same goes for the cat-to-cat friendships.

The classic feline head-butt is an expression of affection and when you come home your cat rubs against your legs in an act of scent exchange. This is an act of friendship. When two cats meet each other in friendship they have their tails up in a vertical position and they touch noses. This is a friendly feline greeting. It is body language which tells us that cats have emotions. You can't experience the feeling of friendship without having the capacity to have an emotion.

Aggression is based on the emotion of anger. Often domestic gas display defensive aggression even with their owner. For instance, they display it when defending their territory which we call a 'home range'.

Some people would even say, contrary to what I have said, that cats can sometimes feel the higher emotions such as grief. There are videos on the Internet of cats staying at the burial site of their previous owner and staying there for a very long time, by which I mean days. Some people have taken that to mean these cats are experiencing grief.

In the UK, the British government, right now, is rolling out some new animal welfare laws all of which are based upon the fact that animals are sentient beings. They are rolling out an Action Plan \For Animal Welfare. The government is able to do this because they are now free of European Union regulations and diktats. This allows Britain to go down a path of improving animal rights and welfare beyond that which is protected by law in the European Union. And Defra has produced an excellent little video (see below), which they have tweeted on animals having feelings and animal sentience. It is central to the improvement of animal welfare to recognise in law that animals have feelings.

So, this cannot just be about domestic and feral cats. It is about all animals including wild animals and livestock. People treat livestock like nuts and bolts but when you see a cow becoming great friends with a cat suddenly the word 'livestock' seems inappropriate. The cow becomes a sentient being, a pleasant and loving domesticated animal. That's how we should relate to them.

I have written an article about animal sentience and animal laws in relation to the objectives of the British government which you can read by clicking on this link. And if you click on this link you can see the Defra tweet.

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