Animal Cognition & Awareness

Cognition is the process of obtaining knowledge through thought, experience and the senses. Animal cognition and awareness is an area heavily debated between the various groups and increasingly, scientific studies are exploring this area in depth.

A key area of interest is to understand whether wild animals can feel stress and experience pain in the same way as domesticated animals, and indeed humans.

One thought process is that the reason why wild animals are able to carry on their lives with equanimity in circumstances that we would find intolerable, is almost certainly due to their limited range and intensity of feelings. However, this is not to state that animal welfare is of no consequence. Most neuroscientists and experimental psychologists believe that non-human animals possess sensory or core consciousness.

Should we anthropomorphize wild animals?

Anthropomorphism implies that wild animals have the mental abilities to worry in human fashion over the chronic uncertainties and possible impending disasters of life in the wild. However, is such a state un-evolvable as otherwise, wouldn’t wild animals have been stressed out of existence by now?

Some scientists believe that evolution has maintained wild brains to not feel stress in the way that human brains do. Taking this logic, it would not be right to apply the same human emotions to wild animals.

However, during domestication, despite an overall reduction in brain size, human selection for useful behaviours and sensitivities may have changed key areas of the brain, creating animals with minds that no longer tolerate the wild.

The Domestication Effect

Domestic and wild animals differ in appearance, physiology and psychology. This includes directly opposed responses to crowding, humans and restraint. The dog with its ten thousand years plus of human selection must be the extreme example of domestication. Its psychology is so changed that even our closest relatives, chimpanzees, trail behind dogs at reading the intentions, emotions and faces of humans.

The power of human selection is dramatically illustrated by a Russian experiment where human-hating silver foxes were turned into face-licking, tail-wagging ‘dogs’ within 35 generations. However, their brains have not been examined in detail.

When considering how animals might feel pain, it is thought that this is only felt as a sensation, rather than as an emotion. As Veterinarians, certainly, we are often surprised by the apparent lack of concern with which our non-human patients respond to procedures that would be expected to be deeply distressing to humans.

Please visit our Resources section to read published papers in the area of animal cognition and awareness.

Russian Silver Fox-VAWM website