Expert Voices

Do 'Smarter' Dogs Really Suffer More than 'Dumber' Mice? (Op-Ed)

yawning in dogs indicates emotional connection to owners
(Image credit: Dognition.)

Marc Bekoff, emeritus professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is one of the pioneering cognitive ethologists in the United States, a Guggenheim Fellow, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. This essay is adapted from one that appeared in Bekoff's column Animal Emotions in Psychology Today. He contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

The question I ask in the title centers on the idea that supposedly smarter nonhuman animals (animals) suffer more than animals who are not as intelligent. Indeed, many people who write about other animals make this assumption, as do those who develop and enforce policies on which sorts of treatment are permissible and which that are not.

In the eyes of the United States Federal Animal Welfare Act, animals such as mice and other rodents, birds, fish and invertebrates receive little if any protection from extreme abuse and they're not even considered to be animals. Indeed, about 99 percent of the animals used in research are not protected by federal legislation and are routinely subjected to horrific abuse.

Here is a quote from the federal register: "We are amending the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) regulations to reflect an amendment to the Act's definition of the term animal. The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 amended the definition of animal to specifically exclude birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus, bred for use in research," (Vol. 69, no. 108, 4 June 2004).

Common sense tells us that the animals who are excluded from that definition of animal are indeed animals.

Treatment of non-human animals

In 1994, I published an essay titled "Cognitive ethology and the treatment of non-human animals: How matters of mind inform matters of welfare". When I reread it this past week, I came to realize that some of the arguments I offered and rejected back then about a possible relationship between intelligence and suffering are still being considered — even in light of a plethora of new data on the cognitive and emotional lives of other animals.

It is important to revisit some of these claims given what scientists now know about animal cognition, emotions, consciousness and sentience based on more recent research on animals' fascinating minds and their capacity to suffer and to feel pain.

Human-centric claims about the ways in which animals interact in their social and non-social worlds are often the basis for decisions about how animals can or should be used by humans in various sorts of activities. Thus, the treatment of animals is often tightly linked to how people perceive them with respect to their ability to perform behavior patterns that suggest that they can think — if they have beliefs, desires or make plans and have expectations about the future.

Much comparative research still needs to be done before any stipulations can be made about how an individual's cognitive abilities can be used to influence decisions about how she or he should be treated. Scientists need to study more individuals from diverse species whose lives, sensory worlds, motor abilities and nervous systems are different from those of animals with whom humans identify most readily or with whom people are the most familiar.

As do other researchers, I stress the importance of subjectivity and common sense — along with the use of empirical data — in making decisions about animal welfare, and I believe subjective assessments should be viewed in the same critical light as supposedly objective scientific facts. I also argue that whatever connections there are between an individual's cognitive abilities and what sorts of treatment are permissible can be overridden by that individual's ability to feel pain and to suffer.

When people are uncertain, even only slightly, about an animal's ability to experience pain or to suffer, that animal should be given the benefit of the doubt.

Are dogs more intelligent than mice, and do they suffer more?

To begin, in the past twenty years since completing my cognitive ethology essay, there has been an explosion in studies and data concerning the cognitive, emotional,and moral lives of animals. Scientists have uncovered numerous surprises about species that were assumed to be not all that smart or sentient.

In a nutshell, research has opened up the door to reconsider not only the nature of the cognitive, emotional and moral lives of animals but also how much they suffer when they are mistreated. It has also become clear that the word "intelligence" needs to be considered in light of what an individual needs to do to be a card-carrying member of his or her species and that comparisons between species don't really tell us much.

So, asking if a dog is smarter than a cat or a cat is smarter than a mouse doesn't result in answers that are very meaningful. Likewise, asking if dogs suffer more than mice ignores who those animals are and what they have to do to survive and thrive in their own worlds, not in ours or those of other animals.

Furthermore, with respect to the original abstract and what I wrote in the essay itself, a great deal of subsequent comparative research has shown that what was then taken to be well-founded common sense about what animals know and feel based on solid evolutionary theory (e. g. Charles Darwin's ideas about evolutionary continuity) has been borne out by numerous studies — and many surprises have also been forthcoming.

The biology of the mind

It's bad biology to rob animals of the traits they clearly possess. For example, we share with other mammals and vertebrates the same areas of the brain that are important for consciousness and processing emotions.

Humans need to abandon the anthropocentric view that only big-brained animals such as ourselves, nonhuman great apes, elephants and cetaceans (dolphins and whales) have sufficient mental capacities for complex forms of consciousness and for enduring deep suffering.

In addition, numerous stories about the lives of animals have opened up areas of detailed research. Indeed, as my colleague Dale Jamieson and I like to say, "the plural of anecdote is data," and anecdotes and citizen science are very useful for stimulating systematic research.

With respect to some other areas I covered back in 1994, recently a group of esteemed scientists put forth the Cambridge Declaration on Animal Consciousness in which they concluded, "Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates."

And, we need to keep the door open to the possibility that other vertebrates and invertebrates also feel pain.

The "not so cognitive" individual

Because access to my earlier essay is restricted, let me include here some more of what I wrote (with references to the original sources for this material available here) as it's extremely relevant to the argument that we need to take the pain and suffering of "less intelligent" animals very seriously and that speciesist arguments about "higher" and "lower" animals need to be shelved.

When people use individual cognitive capacities to draw lines along some arbitrary scale concerning what can and cannot be done to individuals, accepting that an individual is conscious or capable of behaving intentionally and having thoughts about the future (for example) can greatly influence the treatment to which that individual is subjected.

Using the word 'stupid'to refer to domesticated animals when compared to their wild relatives can certainly influence how one treats an individual, said philosopher J. Baird Callicott of the University of North Texas. Perhaps, as the late JánosSzentagothai has noted: "There are no 'unintelligent'animals; only careless observations and poorly designed experiments."

What would be the implications of discovering that some animals are "not all that cognitive,"that they have relatively impoverished cognitive abilities and lives or that they have fewer memories and fewer beliefs about the future?

First, we would have to show that these so-called cognitive 'deficiencies'are morally relevant. Is having a sense of time and being able to foresee one's own death a morally relevant difference between humans and animals, a point raised by Guelph University's Ian Duncan.

Second, one could argue that although some individuals'cognitive lives are not as rich as those of other "more cognitive"animals, the limited number of memories and expectations that "less cognitive"individuals have are each more important to them. Not allowing certain expectations to be realized is a serious intrusion on those individuals'lives, perhaps more serious than not allowing some expectations in animals with richer cognitive lives to be realized. As philosopher Lori Gruen at Wesleyan University has pointed out with respect to death, a person who does not get home to write the play they have been thinking of and the dog who does not get to go for one more run by the river are both having desires thwarted to the same degree — totally.

Furthermore, some have argued, if the memories of some animals are not well developed (they live in the present and lack the ability to know the passage of time), then their pains have no foreseeable end. Thus, I might know that my canid companion Jethro's pain might end in five seconds, but he cannot know this on this account, a point raised by Duncanand his colleague J. C. Petherick.

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Related to that line of reasoning is the observation by Alastair Hannay that many animals — even those for whom humans would be hard-pressed to suggest a rich cognitive life (such as lobsters) — take what are called self-regarding steps. Those animals seem to try to remove themselves from situations that they find aversive —situations they seem not to prefer that resemble situations that normal human beings and other animals do not prefer, either. Even if those individuals do not imagine that there is something that is more pleasurable, and even if they are (some might say merely) removing themselves from a situation that is aversive, they seem to be showing some indication of displeasure and possibly pain. Not being able to imagine a brighter or cooler future does not mean that they are not in pain when they are dropped into hot water. They are acting as if they do not like the situation in which they find themselves and they may be trying to remove themselves from it without having a subjective experience of pain or a thought about the future.

Guelph University's Georgia Mason points out that there seems to be no good reason why self-awareness needs to be a prerequisite for suffering. Why is, "the (self and shy; aware) feeling 'I am suffering'considered worse than the (not self-aware) feeling 'Something truly terrible is happening'."

Nonetheless, it is possible that there is a difference between a preference for cool water rather than hot water and having a preference to live. Philosopher David DeGrazia at George Washington University claims that if a struggle for survival is not accompanied by a particular mental state, then it fails to reveal a preference to live. DeGrazia's claim forces the following issue: we must be sure that there is not a particular mental state — perhaps a mental state with which we are unfamiliar — that is associated with a preference shown by an animal who we think is 'not all that cognitive', and we must remember that this remains largely an empirical question.

Does perception influence pain?

It is possible that some animals experience pain and suffer in ways that we cannot yet imagine, and it would be wrong now to conclude that their responses to various stimuli do not count in welfare decisions — that they are similar to the various tropisms shown by plants (see this paperfor a discussion of pain that concerns itself with the possibility that others who act nothing like we do when we feel pain nevertheless really do feel pain).

As Cambridge University's Patrick Bateson points out, it was rare in the past to find people taking seriously the possibility of insect pain, but now there is a lot of interest in this area (see also works by Barbara Orlans,Duncan,and Frederik Kaufman) that separately suggest that despite inherent shortcomings, it is possible that preference tests that are developed for a broad spectrum of animals would help to shed some light on the phylogenetic distribution of sentience. This is a challenge for the future, because when animals do not do what we expect them to do or when they do nothing, it is possible that they are not motivated by the situation that we create. As University of Pennsylvania researchers Paul Rozin, Dorthy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth suggest, there are as yet unknown factors that influence an animal's behavior.

Now, the minimalist might want to argue that having a more impoverished life might be a morally relevant difference, but she can't have it both ways. If there are fewer memories or mental states, each of which matters more, then we have to be sure that we do not forget this in our moral deliberations. Removing a calf who is to become veal from his mother might be agony for the mother, for her calf is all she has at the moment. She cannot, it seems, anticipate having another calf in the future, but even if she could have this thought, this would not in any way justify removing her present calf.

Furthermore, if my companion Jethro's pains are interminable for him, then causing him pain would be more serious than causing pain for someone who would understand that it would only last for five seconds. But, intentionally causing him pain might still be wrong even if he could know that it would only last for five seconds.

For those who look to studies of humans in order to find some relevance for these sorts of arguments, there might be some strong connections. Consider humans who Rebecca Dresser at Washington University (St. Louis)calls "missing persons"— those who are seriously demented and mentally disabled. These people have impoverished mental lives, but it is possible that each of their few memories is more important to them than many of the memories of unimpaired humans.

For a complete list of references to research that informed this article, see the original essay "Do "Smarter" Dogs Really Suffer More than "Dumber" Mice?" in Psychology Today. More of the author's essays are available in "Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed" (New World Library, 2013). The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.