Animals' Psychological and Social Lives

The Physicians Committee

Animals' Psychological and Social Lives

Rats laugh in response to being tickled. Chimpanzees mourn their dead. Dogs jump and wag their tails when they see a familiar face. These are just a few examples of animals’ sentience, their ability to feel pleasure and pain and to be aware of their surroundings. In all probability, they represent the tip of a neurobehavioral iceberg. That is, animals have sensory and cognitive capacities that we are only now beginning to appreciate. And these capacities suggest that many ways that humans use animals need to be rethought, in light of animals’ capacity to suffer.

Animals used in laboratories find themselves in situations that are not attuned to their psychological needs and typically involve considerable suffering. At research facilities, animals are often isolated, with little or no social contact, or are crammed tightly in cages with too many other animals. Routine laboratory procedures, such as handling and blood collection, cause animals stress. Prolonged captivity can lead to abnormal behaviors, such as aggression and self-injury.

Experiments and training procedures themselves are often painful and terrifying for the animals involved. In pain studies, for example, mice are subjected to thermal paw withdrawal tests, which measure the time it takes for them to react to a painfully hot surface. In tests of experimental antidepressants, they are forced to swim, with experimenters tracking the time it takes for them to give up. Ferrets in pediatrics training and vervet monkeys in military-funded chemical casualty management training are dosed with toxic chemicals over and over again, suffering long-term physical and psychological effects.

The vast majority of animals are killed, needless to say. But survivors have a rough time, too. Even years after leaving the laboratory, animals can experience the negative psychological and social effects of experimentation. In a 2011 study, PCRM researchers found that previously-traumatized chimpanzees exhibited signs of mood and anxiety disorders similar to PTSD and depression in humans.

Evidence of animals’ sentience presents a serious challenge to the ethics of using animals in laboratories. At the same time, the availability of nonanimal research and education methods makes their continued use unnecessary.

To learn more about the vast emotional and intellectual capacity of animals, from the smallest mice to the great apes, please visit PCRM’s resources below.

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