Science and Sentience: Assessing the quality of animal lives

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractpeer-review


This paper will review recent research on qualitative behaviour assessment (QBA), asking how human and non-human animals might interact and understand each other as whole sentient beings. The conference theme ‘Animal lives worth living’ suggests a view of animals as sentient beings, implying that life has value for animals - in other words, that animals, like humans, have a perspective, a point of view of their own, where things acquire a personal, ‘felt’ quality and are enjoyed or disliked. Such ‘feeling’ does not have to be regarded, as animal scientists often do, as essentially private; rather it indicates the possibility of a framework that complements and enriches mechanistic ones. Sentience, simply put, is a notion implying that animals are not just ‘things’, and so accommodating sentience is to ask how we might assess animals ‘not as things’.
It was this question that drove the development of qualitative behaviour assessment (QBA), a method designed to assess the expressive qualities of an animal’s demeanour (e.g. as relaxed, fearful, agitated or content). Many years of research by research groups, scientists, and students across the world have helped establish that such an approach can be reliable and valid, and has significant potential to support the assessment of animal welfare states. Unease persists, however, about the status of the descriptors on which QBA relies. Does describing a pig as relaxed and happy really speak to us of how the animal feels, or is this a delusion, imposing anthropomorphic language on mute patterns of physical movement shown by the pig?
Such dilemmas can bring to light points of friction that arise when science and sentience meet. Recent studies indicate that although QBA can indeed provide valid information about animals, in uncontrolled on-farm environments agreement between observers on what animals feel is considerably harder to reach, and various kinds of observer bias may come into play. This may reinforce scientists’ unease that QBA is essentially a form of ‘subjective’, not ‘objective’ assessment; however we should consider such apparent contrasts with care. QBA’s sensitivity to dynamic human-animal-environment relationships and their context gives it immediate meaning, and is basically an interpretative strength. Assessing meaning is not in itself anthropomorphic; it raises the possibility of engaging with an animal’s world. Yet when anthropocentric bias threatens this effort, what we need is more, not less focus on ‘meaning for the animal’, through observation, training, and informed debate. The insight this creates may be different - less certain and fixable – compared to knowledge produced by mechanistic measurement, but it is no less real and useful. It may particularly benefit stockpeople, keepers and caretakers who work with animals every day, and so can practice and apply their QBA skills to improve the quality of animals’ lives. Projects are currently underway exploring such practical implementation of QBA, working together with dairy farmers, zoo keepers, and donkey specialists. That applied ethology increasingly accepts such ‘grounded perspectives’ (a social science term) as part of science, is a sign that animal and human perspectives are beginning to meet.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages1
Publication statusPrint publication - 2019
Event53rd Congress of the International Society for Applied Ethology (ISAE) - Bergen, Norway
Duration: 5 Aug 20199 Aug 2019


Conference53rd Congress of the International Society for Applied Ethology (ISAE)
Internet address


  • Animal welfare assessment
  • Qualitative Behaviour Assessment
  • Sentience


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