The world is bearing witness to a shift in the way animals are treated in our homes, in public, and by the law. Interest in veganism is rapidly increasing, and more and more people are caring for animals as if they were their own children. All that’s left to do is put it in writing.

Though legal recognition of animal sentience isn’t common, it’s slowly but surely becoming a point of issue worldwide. 

The latest development in terms of animal sentience in law comes from the United Kingdom, where it was revealed that new laws are now being considered to formally recognize animals’ ability to think and feel.

As he launched the government’s plan, Environment Secretary George Eustice explained that the UK is “a nation of animal lovers” and was “the first country in the world to pass animal welfare laws,” according to Fiona Harvey in a 2021 article for The Guardian.

The new laws are part of a series of bills involving the microchipping of cats, pet theft, banning of dog shock collars, and restriction of glue traps for wild birds. The bills will also prevent people from taking in primates as pets, importing hunting trophies, and exporting most live animals, among others. In short, the new laws are meant to provide more extensive protection for animals compared to country’s existing animal welfare laws.

The new bills are what Humane Society International/UK Executive Director Claire Bass has called a “proactive agenda” that “animals suffering both here and overseas for food, fur, entertainment, the pet trade” deserve. The most significant section perhaps is one that acknowledges vertebrate animals’ awareness of what happens to them, as reported by Tom Williams in a 2021 article for Metro UK.

According to The Guardian, many of the bills to be considered by the government have either “been several years in preparation” or “been the subject of decades-long campaigns.” Animal welfare activists have understandably welcomed the new laws, but there’s still much to be done. Some practices, such as the use of cages and crates for poultry and pigs, are not set to be banned in the UK but looked into. Another issue is the UK government’s unwillingness to put into law their mission to consider animal welfare in trade deals.

All of this begs the question, what does “sentience” actually mean in the law and what does it mean for animals? 

France recognized animal sentience way back in the ‘70s and further regarded animals as “living beings gifted with sentience” in 2015. However, they failed to define the term “sentience.” The European Union also recognized animals as sentient in 2009, and New Zealand and Quebec did the same in 2015. Some countries like Quebec don’t define the term but rather discuss what the law might mean to look at animals not as property but as sentient beings.

On the other hand, the state of Oregon in the US defined sentience in 2013 as the capability to experience “pain, stress and fear.” In 2008, Tanzania also provided a definition for animal sentience. Just two years ago, the Australian Capital Territory recognized the “intrinsic value” of animals as sentient beings who can “feel and perceive the world around them.”

However, the use and definition of a term in law is largely dependent on context. In Tanzania, this means respecting animals but in the context of their increased productivity as livestock. In Australia, only vertebrates are considered “animals” when sentience is discussed. The Deakin University School of Law in Australia also explains in a 2019 article on their website that animal cruelty may still be allowed “in accordance with a code of practice” in contexts such as the animal industry.

According to the American Bar Association, “the context in which sentience is recognized by the state arguably limits its application,” which means that the lack of detail around the term “sentience” in law could still be useful to animal welfare activists.

While any law promoting the protection of animals is a step in the right direction, there are concerns that recognizing animal sentience is more symbolic than productive. Despite this, it may still do some good.

In Bass’s opinion, respect for animal welfare will “play a critical role in tackling global environmental and public health challenges such as climate change, antibiotic resistance and pandemic prevention.”

The Deakin University School of Law also points to the European Union provision which has “played a role in assisting legislative interpretation and in motivating further legislative protections for animals.”

In 2020, Denmark passed a new animal welfare law recognizing all animals as sentient.

According to Eurogroup for Animals, the framework law was set to take effect in the beginning of 2021, allowing Denmark “to become a true leader in the international animal welfare movement,” as written by Dyrenes Beskyttelse in a 2020 article for the group’s website.