The Emotional Lives of Animals

Billions of animals are farmed each year for food, with the vast majority of these animals reared on intensive factory farms, often in unnatural conditions. But is an animal able to experience emotion? And do they feel stress or pain?

The definition of sentient is to be ‘able to perceive or feel things.’ As sentient beings, all animals – from cows, pigs and sheep to chickens, ducks and geese – are able to experience pain, fear, comfort, joy and a whole host of emotions, just like humans.

The secret lives of animals

Scientists have discovered, for example, that goats experience frustration when isolated from their herd mates or food is withheld from them. Other studies have found that the personality type of a fish can affect its likelihood of having certain parasites, or its ability to move past barriers when migrating.  

Sheep are able to recognise other sheep’s faces and remember them for up to two years, while mother hens teach their chicks which foods are best to eat. Cows show excitement when they discover how to open a gate which leads to a food reward, and pigs are thought to be as intelligent as three-year-old humans – they are able to solve challenging problems, they love to play, and they have unique personalities.

So because animals experience emotions, they can also suffer. Farmed animals, in particular, are subjected to high levels of stress, from struggling to cope during transportation, experiencing grief when separated from their family or herd, and feeling pain during slaughter as well as in everyday situations.

While popular culture would have us believe that dairy cows all happily live out at pasture, egg-laying hens lead enriched lives perched on straw-laden roosts, and pigs spend their days rolling around in mud, sadly for most farmed animals that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The effect of factory farms on animal emotions

Animals raised on ‘supersize’ factory farms, or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) – which globally account for 72% of poultry, 42% of egg, and 55% of pork production – lead miserable, destitute lives.

In the US 99% of all farm animals are reared in factory farms. From pigs kept in tiny cages called gestation crates where they can’t even turn around, chickens suffering deformities and heart attacks because they’re made to fatten up as quickly as possible, to calves being separated from their mothers at just 24 hours old – so that humans can drink their mother’s milk – animals are known to suffer terribly in the farming system.

So surely factory farms must be harming the emotional, as well as the physical lives of animals? In the wild, animals – regardless of species – love to forage, play and learn social skills. These are all completely natural behaviours which evolution has dictated, regardless of whether the species has been selectively bred for meat – such as pigs reared on farms for meat compared to their wild boar ancestors who are free to roam. But how can an animal that’s designed to be able to play, roam and develop social skills amongst its family group, experience natural emotions when confined to a barren, tiny cage, or when separated from its family?

Sadly, they can’t – and that’s why beyond the physical limitations of the factory farming system on farmed animals – the emotional lives of these animals are also deeply affected. And even animals raised on grassland are not always able to execute their natural behaviours, especially when we return to the plight of the dairy cow and her calf, separated at birth.

Giving animals – and the planet – a brighter future

Given that animals are able to feel such a complex range of emotions, isn’t it only right that we should reassess our relationship with other species, and consider switching to a plant-based diet free from animal products?  By trying vegan, not only are we minimising our impact on the environment, we are also helping to reduce the suffering of the billions upon billions of animals reared and slaughtered for food each and every year.

Will you show compassion to all creatures by trying vegan for Lent? Sign up to receive the Million Dollar Vegan starter kit for advice on how to follow a plant-based diet – for the animals, for the planet, and for your health. It’s free to download and contains a whole host of delicious recipe ideas, tips on eating out, and information on life-changing documentaries to watch.

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Caroline Burgess-Pike is Million Dollar Vegan’s International PR Manager. She has been vegan for over three years and made the switch after watching documentaries such as Cowspiracy and Earthlings. Caroline went vegan for ethical and environmental reasons, and has also spent much of her professional and personal life campaigning for a better world for animals. Her career spans journalism, marketing for vegan brands, charity campaigns and corporate communications.

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