Cognitive ability and awareness in domestic animals and decisions about obligations to animals

Observation of behaviour, especially social behaviour, and experimental studies of learning and brain function give us information about the complexity of concepts that animals have. In order to learn to obtain a resource or carry out an action, domestic animals may: relate stimuli such as human words to the reward, perform sequences of actions including navigation or detours, discriminate amongst other individuals, copy the actions of other individuals, distinguish between individuals who do or do not have information, or communicate so as to cause humans or other animals to carry out actions. Some parrots, that are accustomed to humans but not domesticated, can use words to have specific meanings. In some cases, stimuli, individuals or actions are remembered for days, weeks or years. Events likely to occur in the future may be predicted and changes over time taken into account. Scientific evidence for the needs of animals depends, in part, on studies assessing motivational strength whose methodology depends on the cognitive ability of the animals. Recognition and learning may be associated with changes in physiology, behaviour and positive or negative feelings. Learning and other complex behaviour can result in affect and affect can alter cognition. The demonstration of cognitive bias gives indications about affect and welfare but should be interpreted in the light of other information. All of the information mentioned so far helps to provide evidence about sentience and the level of awareness. The term sentience implies a range of abilities, not just the capacity to have some feelings. The reluctance of scientists to attribute complex abilities and feelings to non-humans has slowed the development of this area of science. Most people consider that they have obligations to some animals. However, they might protect animals because they consider that an animal has an intrinsic value, or because of their concern for its welfare. In social species, there has been selection promoting moral systems that might result in behaviours such as attempts to avoid harm to others, collaboration and other altruistic behaviour. An evaluation of such behaviour may provide one of the criteria for decisions about whether or not to protect animals of a particular species. Other criteria may be: whether or not the animal is known as an individual, similarity to humans, level of awareness, extent of feelings, being large, being rare, being useful or having aesthetic quality for humans. Cognitive ability should also be considered when designing methods of enriching the environments of captive animals.

Donald M. Broom

Applied Animal Behaviour Science 126 (2010) 1–11

To view full article click here

Oct 2010