‘Sentience’ statement rouses debate among veterinarians

AAHA adopts controversial classification of animals

December 3, 2012 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Texas' highest court will hear a case next month in the Supreme Court Building in Austin (above) to determine whether pet owners can claim damages for the sentimental value of their animals. Some fear AAHA's statement that animals are 'sentient beings' might inadvertently encourage similar lawsuits.
The American Animal Hospital Association’s (AAHA) statement that animals are “feeling, sensing beings capable of sentiency” is generating curiosity, applause and some concern within the veterinary profession.

Officials with AAHA, representing 16,000 veterinarians and 5,500 veterinary practices, said the group is simply stating something most already know:

Like humans, other animals are "feeling beings."

“The American Animal Hospital Association supports the concept of animals as sentient beings,” the position statement reads. “Sentiency is the ability to feel, perceive or be conscious or to have subjective experiences. Biological science as well as common sense supports the fact that the animals that share our lives are feeling, sensing beings that deserve thoughtful high-quality care. The care that is offered should provide for the animal’s physical and behavioral welfare and strive to minimize pain, distress and suffering for the animal.”

AAHA’s Board of Directors adopted the statement in July but didn’t announce it to the public until mid-October. Although the statement doesn't specify this, Executive Director Dr. Mike Cavanaugh says AAHA's position refers to companion animals — dogs, cats and the like — given that the group represents companion animal practices.

“Our Board of Directors believes that animals are sentient beings, and we’re willing to take a firm stand,” he said. “The AAHA board decided that now was the time to show leadership.”

AAHA might be the only national veterinary group to make such a statement, but it’s not the first veterinary organization to do so. In 2004, the California Veterinary Medical Association crafted welfare guidelines that identified animals as “sentient beings with wants and needs.”

Since then, other veterinary medical groups have been slow to use such terminology. The American Veterinary Medical Association, representing more than 80,000 veterinarians, does not have a position statement regarding sentience. The idea that animals think and feel, however, is addressed in several AVMA policies on issues of animal welfare and pain management.

On the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community for the profession and parent of the VIN News Service, some veterinarians identified pitfalls in making blanket statements about the sentience of animals.

“I find it amusing that AAHA used a blanket label of ‘animals’ when declaring sentience,” wrote Dr. Alison Stambaugh of Clearlake, Calif. “Technically, that includes not just my cats but my dumb-as-rocks turtles, my minimally-interactive geckos and the cockroaches on my walls.”

Others on VIN consider the sentience of animals to be a “no-brainer” but are concerned about political implications of using the term. Dr. Pete Cyrog believes AAHA’s statement could “open up a can of worms” related to the lengths society might go to protect animals from pain.

“Perhaps the bigger question is, ‘Now that you are using the term, what do you intend to do with it?' " wrote Cyrog of Green Valley, Calif. “Are all animals going to need anesthesia for every procedure that is done on them so they are no longer conscious of their feelings?”

He added: “We don’t anesthetize babies undergoing circumcisions. Thoughts to ponder.”

Dr. John Carey also weighed in on the VIN discussion, noting that the concept of sentience carries baggage. As a practitioner in Madison, Wis., he began exploring sentience as a philosophical issue when a law student implored him to treat a vomiting dog at no charge.

“If he were human he could go to the ER for free, right?” Carey recalled her stating.

“Unfortunately, sentience has recently gained an additional connotation … in that sentience awards individual rights,” he wrote on VIN. To make his point, he paraphrased a philosophical quandary that he believes reflects the meaning of sentience in today’s social and political climates.

“If you meet a wild boar on a pathway, why should you have the right to kill the animal before it tries to kill you since you are both sentient?” he asked.

Given that the word sentience spurs such connotations, AAHA should have avoided using it, Carey contended.

“They could have released the statement without using the word ‘sentiency’ without losing any meaning,” he wrote on VIN. “I think the scientific community in general has finally accepted that animals have emotions and feel pain, as the statement says. I think some have even come to realize that animals can have higher emotions (previously reserved for us special humans) such as loyalty, affection, jealously, satisfaction.”

Dr. Gary Block, owner of a specialty referral practice in Rhode Island, considers fearing any long-term impact tied to defining animals as sentient beings to be “inane.”

AAHA’s position proclaims the obvious, he said by email, and “cannot be debated.”

It’s “much ado about nothing,” Block added, noting that during the mid-2000s — long before AAHA issued its declaration — pet owners began seeking punitive and compensatory damage awards in cases of alleged malpractice or wrongful death involving animals.

“Although I am no judge or lawyer, I can’t imagine cases regarding animal cruelty or where plaintiffs were trying to recover non-economic damages having hinged on whether or not animals were sentient,” Block wrote. “Not surprisingly, many are assuming this is a nefarious plot by the animal rights community and promoted by ambulance chasing lawyers to open the floodgates to lawsuits against vets.”

CVMA Executive Director Valerie Fenstermaker said that to her knowledge, the association's recognition of animals as "sentient beings" in the group's 2004 welfare principles has not been referred to in legal cases.

Legal side of sentience

When it comes to civil remedies, animals are classified as chattel and worth no more than their replacement costs — a stance upheld by supreme and appellate court rulings on pet-related litigation in more than 25 states.

In July, the Supreme Court of New Jersey rejected an owner’s emotional distress claim in McDougall v. Lamm. In a 5-0 decision, Justice Helen Hoens wrote, “Although we recognized that many people form close bonds with their pets, we conclude that those bonds do not rise to the level of a close familial relationship or intimate marital-like bond."

Some courts, however, are opening the door to the notion that animals are sentient beings. In August, the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled in a neglect case that animals could be classified as victims of a crime, implying that they are sentient beings.

A case before the Texas Supreme Court also could upend the strict property standard for animals.

On Jan. 10, the high court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in Strickland v. Medlen, a case involving a Fort Worth family who sued an animal shelter employee after their dog mistakenly was euthanized. The owners seek damages tied to the dog’s sentimental value despite 121-year-old legal precedent that strictly limits awards to the price a pet might fetch in the marketplace.

The Texas Courts of Appeals ruled last year to alter established law by overturning a trial court’s refusal to allow sentimental damages based on the precedence that pets are property. The three-judge panel found that an 1891 Texas Supreme Court decision that limited the status of pets to property was antiquated and failed to reflect the “attachment owners have to their beloved family pets.”

Given Texas’ conservative leaning on many social and political issues, some believe that if emotional value is allowed for pets in the Lone Star State, the decision could reverberate across the nation.

If damage precedents spike, so will the volume of pet-related lawsuits, some legal experts say. Court dockets could become flooded with malpractice and wrongful death cases. This could force veterinarians to practice defensive medicine as malpractice insurance costs rise, said Dr. Jim Wilson, a lawyer and veterinarian who has for more than a decade tracked legal challenges to the notion that pets are property.

“I’m interested in seeing the outcome of this Texas case,” Wilson said, “With what I've read to date, I'm struggling to determine whether that case would only expand sentimental damages. This form of damage has been awarded for inanimate property known as heirlooms. Awards under this legal theory generally have been limited to $10,000 or less, whereas non-economic damage awards for human life have been in the hundreds of millions of dollars." 

Wilson continued: "So far all the state supreme courts of which I am aware have struck down lower court rulings allowing non-economic damages for the loss of pets."

That hasn't stopped owners from continuing the fight.
To find some middle ground, attorney Carolyn Matlack proposed creating a new legal classification that regards animals to be innate beings worth more than inanimate objects. She coined the term “sentient property” in 2004.

Matlack could not be reached for comment about whether the classification has been used in court.

AAHA's sentience statement was not designed to help redefine how animals are treated in court cases. Though the group recognizes that some clarification is needed on animals' legal classification, pets already are treated differently from inert property, AAHA officials say.

“If I beat on my car I am not going to get into trouble, but if I beat on my animal, I'm going to get into big trouble,” Cavanaugh reasoned.

He added that while AAHA supports the idea that animals can be sentient, the group does not favor raising the legal classification of animals so that non-economic damages might apply in lawsuits involving pets.

Extrapolating human characteristics

Questions about pet worth aside, some in the veterinary profession note that science hasn’t proven what animals feel emotionally, if anything. Applying human perceptions to animal behaviors, critics say, is an anthropomorphic slippery slope that could one day impact how animals are used for food and research.

Fear, for example, is an emotion felt by humans, but it might be a survival instinct in dogs. Animals can exhibit behaviors suggestive of depression or grief such as diminished appetite, hiding, excessive sleeping and wandering around looking for their companion. Still, no one knows whether it’s true grief, said Dr. John Daugherty, a practice owner in Poland, Ohio, and a VIN consultant.

“What I do know is that it’s far too easy to project our feelings on to other creatures without knowing for sure if they think the way we do,” he wrote on VIN.

Cavanaugh acknowledges that “Everyone is going to have their opinion.”

“If you look at the physiological makeup of pain pathways, animals and humans are essentially identical,” he said. “My sense is they do feel pain, and they respond to it. When it gets beyond that, it's an academic philosophical discussion that some enjoy, but we're not going to go there.”

There's no need to, he added.

“I don't know if my border collie can scientifically be proven to have emotion, but I know she's very intelligent and can feel and perceive and have subjective experiences,” Cavanaugh said. “That satisfies my curiosity.”

Editor's note: This article was amended from its original to replace the word "objective" with "subjective" in AAHA's sentiency statement. The error originated with an AAHA news release that now is corrected.


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