Position Statement: Sentience

Policy type: Position statement
Status: Current
Date ratified: November 2018

Position Statement

The NZVA believes that ‘sentience’ is the ability to feel, perceive or experience subjectively. (ie. the animal is not only capable of feeling pain and distress but also can have positive psychological experiences, such as comfort, pleasure or interest that are appropriate to its species, environment and circumstances). To state that animals are sentient accepts that they can experience positive and negative emotions.


In August 2015, acknowledgement of animals as ‘sentient’ was introduced to New Zealand’s Animal Welfare Act (1999), but ‘sentience’ was not defined as part of this amendment to the legislation. The NZVA sees this legislative gap as an opportunity for veterinarians to demonstrate leadership by providing a definition. The inclusion of ‘sentience’ in the Act should not be merely symbolic but rather should set a new standard for society’s expectations of the ways animals are treated, and move us beyond minimum standards to focusing on positive welfare states and welfare enhancement.

The NZVA’s development of a definition of sentience that encourages a prioritisation of positive states and welfare enhancement is consistent with scientific knowledge and current public expectations of ‘good practice.’

It also aligns with the stated objectives of the NZVA 2030 strategy that promote the well-being of the animals, humans and the environment as being inseparable.

Such an acknowledgement establishes a responsibility for those in charge of animals to treat them in such a way as to prevent unnecessary pain or distress and to provide opportunities for them to experience positive emotions.