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At what stage of development do animals become sentient?

Animal sentience is the capacity of an animal to experience different feelings such as suffering or pleasure. The onset of sentience, that is the life stage at which an animal becomes sentient, is a highly contentious topic but it’s important as it forms the basis of decisions regarding animal foetuses.

Some have suggested that “the embryo and foetus cannot suffer before or during birth” [1] and “foetuses cannot consciously experience negative sensations or feelings” [2].

However, expert bodies considering available scientific literature have “concluded that the stage of development at which there is a risk of poor welfare … is the beginning of the last third of development for mammals; when a fish, amphibian, cephalopod or decapod becomes capable of independent feeding and during the last days before hatching in precocial oviparous species [such as birds]” [3].

In regards to marsupials which develop in the mother’s pouch, unfurred pouch young are not considered sentient [4] because they “do not appear to show clear behavioural or EEG [electroencephalogram] signs of conscious awareness for at least the first one-third to one-half of pouch life” [5]. Pouch young are “thought to become sentient at roughly four months” [6].

Recommendations have been made that “consideration should be given by regulators to the possibility that foetuses may suffer … [and] even if one is convinced that prenatal animals cannot suffer, there is good reason to afford protection to animal foetuses not for their own sake but in order to provide coherent protection to the welfare of the animals which they will become” [7].

Some codes of practice and guidelines consider the onset of sentience. For example, the Australian Code for the Care and Use of Animals for Scientific Purposes [8] states “As a guide, when embryos, fetuses and larval forms have progressed beyond half the gestation or incubation period of the relevant species, or they become capable of independent feeding, the potential for them to experience pain and distress should be taken into account”. Accordingly, the Victorian Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Foetal and Neonatal Mice, Rats, Guinea Pigs and Rabbits [9] states that the literature on the development of pain pathways suggests the possibility of pain perception in mice and rat fetuses 15 days in gestation to birth and “there may be pain perception consistent with development of the functional brain… from 60% gestation in guinea pig and rabbit foetuses.

Based on decisions about onset of sentience, several jurisdictions including the European Union, NZ and QLD have moved to protect animal foetuses in the last stages of development in legislation.

References

[1] Mellor DJ & Diesch TJ (2006) Birth and hatching: key events in the onset of awareness in the lamb and chick. New Zealand Veterinary Journal 55: 51-60. doi: 10.1080/00480169.2007.36742

[2] Mellor DJ (2010) Galloping colts, fetal feelings and reassuring regulations: putting animal welfare science into practice. Journal of Veterinary Medical Education 37: 94-100. doi: 10.3138/jvme.37.1.94

[3] European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) (2005) Opinion of the Scientific Panel on Animal Health and Welfare on a request from the Commission related to Aspects of the Biology and Welfare of Animals used for Experimental and other Scientific Purposes. EFSA Journal 292: 1-46. doi: 10.2903/j.efsa.2005.292, http://ec.europa.eu/environment/chemicals/lab_animals/pdf/efsa_opinion.pdf (accessed on June 10, 2019).

[4] Hampton JO & Forsyth DM (2016) An assessment of animal welfare for the culling of peri-urban kangaroos. Wildlife Research 43:261-266. doi: 10.1071/WR16023

[5] Mellor DJ et al (2010) Legal and animal welfare implications of when consciousness first appears in developing young and of the potential for delayed onset of increased pain sensitivity. Australian Animal Welfare Strategy Conference, http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.550.4040&rep=rep1&type=pdf (accessed on June 10, 2019).

[6] Ben-Ami D et al (2014) The welfare ethics of the commercial killing of free-ranging kangaroos: an evaluation of the benefits and costs of the industry. Animal Welfare 23:1-10. doi: 10.7120/09627286.23.1.001

[7] Campbell MLH et al (2014) How should the welfare of fetal and neurologically immature postnatal animals be protected? Animal Welfare 23: 369-379. doi: 10.7120/09627286.23.4.369, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4786996/pdf/emss-67507.pdf (accessed on June 10, 2019).

[8] National Health and Medical Research Council (2013) Australian code for the care and use of animals for scientific purposes 8th edition https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/about-us/publications/australian-code-care-and-use-animals-scientific-purposes (accessed on June 10, 2019).

[9] Agriculture Victoria (2017) Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Foetal and Neonatal Mice, Rats, Guinea Pigs and Rabbits http://agriculture.vic.gov.au/agriculture/animal-health-and-welfare/animal-welfare/animal-welfare-legislation/victorian-codes-of-practice-for-animal-welfare/code-of-practice-for-the-housing-and-care-of-laboratory-mice,-rats,-guinea-pigs-and-rabbits/appendix-3-guidelines-for-the-euthanasia-of-fetal-and-neonatal-mice,-rats,-guinea-pigs-and-rabbits (accessed on June 10, 2019).

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Updated on June 17, 2019
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