Expert Voices

Are Pigs as Smart as Dogs, and Does It Really Matter? (Op-Ed)

a pink pig with a muddy nose
Researchers fear the spread of PEDv (porcine epidemic diarrhea virus) may be hastened by the wind. (Image credit: © Martine De Graaf |

Marc Bekoff, emeritus professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is one of the world's pioneering cognitive ethologists, 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.

Recently, an essay by Associated Press reporter David Crary caught my eye. With the catchy title "Pigs smart as dogs? Activists pose the question" it attracted almost 2000 comments, as of this writing.

As a scientist who has studied the cognitive and emotional capacities of a variety of nonhuman animals (animals) and as an advisor to The Someone Project on which that article focuses, I want to respond using solid, scientific research as a foundation.

First, as a biologist, I don't consider questions comparing the intelligence of different species to be useful. Individual organisms do what they do to be card-carrying members of their species. Comparing members of the same species might be useful in terms of the ways in which individuals learn social skills or the speed of learning a different task, but comparing dogs to cats or dogs to pigs says little of importance. I always stress that intelligence is a slippery concept and should not be used to assess suffering.

Another reason why cross-species comparisons are relatively meaningless, and put us on a slippery slope, is because some people claim that supposedly smarter animals suffer more than supposedly dumber animals — and that it's okay to use the dumber individuals in all sorts of invasive and abusive ways. There are absolutely no sound scientific reasons to make that claim and indeed, the opposite might actually be the case, but we really don't know. [After 2,500 Studies, It's Time to Declare Animal Sentience Proven (Op-Ed )]

Lori Marino, founder of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, Inc., who also works on The Someone Project, says it well: "The point is not to rank these animals but to re-educate people about who they are. They are very sophisticated animals." I've emphasized the word "who" because these animals are sentient beings, whos, not whats. So, it's a matter of who we eat not what we eat when they wind up in our mouths.

Emotionally complex versus emotionally sophisticated

In discussions of the emotional lives of animals, the phrases "emotionally complex" and "emotionally sophisticated" also place us on a slippery slope, because there are no data on which to make the claim that dogs, for example, are emotionally more complex than pigs or other food animals.

Farm Sanctuary's Bruce Friedrich notes this as well. Thus, the claim that it's okay to slaughter pigs, for example, rather than dogs, because dogs would suffer more, is misleading and vacuous and there are no data to support that conclusion. All of these mammals, and all other mammals, are sentient beings who share the same neural architecture underlying their emotional lives and who experience a wide spectrum of emotions including the capacity to feel pain and to suffer.

All one has to do is look at available scientific literature to see that millions upon millions of mice and other rodents are used in a whole host of studies to learn more about pain in humans. Yet, despite the fact that we know that mice, rats and chickens display empathy and are very smart and emotional, they are not protected by the United State's Federal Animal Welfare Act.

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Would you do it to your dog?

Mr. Crary's essay does raise some important points that are worth noting. Research shows that many people who eat meat are indeed concerned with the level of intelligence of the animals who find themselves in their meal plan, so discussions about the comparative intelligence of other animals are indeed important.

Also of interest in the question: Why do some people have radically different views about other animals? Indeed, the titles of two very interesting books raise this question, the first by Psychology Today writer Hal Herzog called "Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals" (Harper Perennial, 2011) and the second by Melanie Joy called "Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows"(Conari Press, 2011).

Answers to questions such as these are being sought by researchers interested in anthrozoology. I always like to ask people if they would do something to a dog that would cause them prolonged and intense pain and suffering, such as that endured by food animals, and the most usual answer is "no," marked with surprise and incredulity about why I would ask that question in the first place.

Claiming other animals are smart or are deeply emotional beings is not "humanizing" them.

Some of the comments by opponents of The Someone Project also need some further discussion. For example, David Warner of the National Pork Producers Council claims, "While animals raised for food do have a certain degree of intelligence, Farm Sanctuary is trying to humanize them to advance their vegan agenda — an end to meat consumption." While seeking a vegetarian or vegan world, or a world in which meat consumption is drastically reduced, is among the goals of many people, claiming that other animals are intelligent or have rich and deep emotional lives is not an attempt to "humanize" them.

Indeed, when we pay attention to solid evolutionary theory, namely Charles Darwin's ideas about evolutionary continuity, we see that we humans are not the only smart, sentient and emotional beings. Indeed, it's bad biology to rob nonhumans of their cognitive and emotional capacities and we're not inserting "something human" into these animals that they don't already possess.

Along these lines, the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, underwritten by world-renowned scientists, notes that available scientific data clearly show that all mammals, and some other animals, are fully conscious beings. It's clear that the time is right for a Universal Declaration on Animal Sentience that involves people personally taking responsibility for the choices they make when they interact with other animals.

The time is now to shelve outdated and unsupported ideas about animal sentience and to factor sentience into all of the innumerable ways in which we encounter other animals.

When The Cambridge Declaration was made public there was a lot of pomp, champagne and media coverage. There is no need to have this fanfare for A Universal Declaration on Animal Sentience. It can be a deep, personal and inspirational journey that comes from our heart and also has a strong and rapidly growing evidence-based foundation.

Finally, the conclusion of the Crary's essay deserves some attention. Janeen Salak-Johnson, a professor in the University of Illinois Animal Science Department, claims, "she favors a 'happy medium' and contends that campaigns such as The Someone Project go too far in trying to equate 'production animals' with household pets." Furthermore, according to Professor Salak-Johnson, "We can't let all these animals roam free — it's not an economically sustainable system ... Yes, we have to fulfill our obligations to these animals, but is it fair for us to starve the world?"

The Someone Project is simply raising consciousness about who food animals are and stays well within the bounds of available scientific evidence. Furthermore, no one I know who favors a vegetarian or vegan diet believes that food animals will roam free if they're not eaten. The way in which we could fulfill our ethical obligations to these animals would be to stop factory farming right now and allow those animals who find themselves in these horrific places to have a good life. And, we would not be starving the world. There are many more-humane alternatives to factory farms and indeed, as people come to realize that they are eating pain and suffering, non-animal meals will likely become more common.

Pardon our obliviousness to the pain and suffering of other animals

Who we eat is on the minds of many people and the conclusion of a recent essay in the New York Times by Nicholas Kristof called "Can We See Our Hypocrisy to Animals?" is a good way to end this essay.

Mr. Kristof writes, "May our descendants, when, in the future, they reflect uncomprehendingly on our abuse of hens and orcas, appreciate that we are good and decent people moving in the right direction, and show some compassion for our obliviousness."

This article appeared as "Are Pigs as Smart as Dogs and Does It Really Matter?" 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.