A new study into the welfare of animals forced to work shows they live healthier lives when owners recognize their sentience.

Lady Freethinker does not condone the exploitation of any animal forced to work for people’s own ends. We do not believe that animals forced to work should ever be portrayed as “happy.” Conditions for exploited animals absolutely must improve, however, and this study highlights the critical importance for animal advocates and campaigns to promote compassion for animals because they are sentient and capable of feeling pain, distress, and fear when their needs are overlooked in pursuit of profit.

The study, published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare, was a collaboration between researchers at the University of Portsmouth and the Donkey Sanctuary, a UK-based welfare charity focused on working equids, such as mules, donkeys, or horses.

Researchers surveyed 378 participants, across six countries and four continents, about their beliefs and attitudes toward the animals they were using for agriculture, tourism, and construction. They also conducted welfare assessments of the animals. 

The study resoundingly found physically healthier animals when the owners felt an emotional connection to the animals or believed — correctly — that the animals were sentient, or capable of feeling emotions including pain, happiness, or distress.

Animals had healthier body condition scores and also were much less likely to be lame if owners believed they could feel pain, according to the study. 

The study’s lead author Emily Haddy said the research was the first of its kind to study the welfare of animals forced to work across different cultures, while Donkey Sanctuary’s Executive Director of Equine Operations Faith Burden noted sentience-centered public awareness campaigns could help influence attitudes and lead to improved welfare for animals forced to work.

“We have long understood that donkeys and mules are sensitive and sentient beings who fare best when they are treated as individuals and with the kindness and respect they deserve,” Burden said. “This study provides further peer-reviewed, scientific evidence to support our work across the world.” 

Lady Freethinker looks forward to the day when no animals are abused for “work” — but until that day comes, we applaud these researchers for non-invasively adding to the body of scientific research that establishes that nonhuman animals deserve to live lives free from pain and suffering.

To read about another interesting study about animals’ sentience, you can check out our story on species that can “laugh” here