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The Intelligence and Sentience of Animals

Updated on November 10, 2014
mcbutters-adopted | Source

Animal: from the Latin animalis, meaning "having breath"

In colloquial usage the word incorrectly excludes humans!

Animal Intelligence

Here are some fascinating resources that show animal intelligence at work, and that show they are sentient beings in much the same way that we are.

Jump right here to watch a video of

or to really make you feel fuzzy, watch this video of a

Animals deserve so much more respect and care than we give them. This isn't about projecting human feelings on to animals, to anthropomorphize them, but rather about looking at actual behavioural facts. There is a wealth of scientific data based on decades of observation in the wild, that show that creatures feel much like we do, and are intelligent in ways we're only beginning to understand..

A bright eyed pig has worked you out already

pigs | Source
grateful | Source

For example, pigs...

Just like us, pigs enjoy listening to music, playing with soccer balls, and getting massages. Pigs can even be taught to play video games and are considered more trainable than dogs. Pigs dream, sleep in pig piles, or sometimes alone - and definitely all have their own personalities.

This may seem pretty amazing and unbelievable to people who have no contact with these animals. We're generally told that pigs are stupid and dirty, but this is far from the truth. In fact, all of that wallowing in mud, is partly a method of protecting their fair skin against the sun, and partly to help their skin, by covering it with all the minerals and goodness found in mud. There's nothing stupid-looking about this pig in the photo to the right, I think you might agree. And perhaps it's not so crazy, after all, that some women put mud packs on their faces!

Some people consider pigs even more intelligent than chimps, in their ability to learn. It's not unheard of that pigs are used as pets, as they become good companions.

Is it really all about brain size?


  • communicate with each other and with humans
  • have a memory
  • have hopes and fears
  • experience affection and loss
  • can solve problems
  • even think deeply about life

Studies of animals show that while brain size is a large factor in estimating an animal's intelligence, there's something else - a specific form of intelligence - that goes way beyond brain size. There's a lot of talk of 'emotional intelligence' these days, rather than estimating intelligence by measuring intellectual prowess.

However, displays of intelligence that we more readily associate with our own type of thinking, is evident in animals that have large brains. For example, dolphins, chimps and elephants all have large brains, and show high levels of intelligence. In the case of elephants, they have the largest brain size of land-based mammals, even though in relation to their whole body size it is quite small...


Elephants are known for their prodigious memories. Their social structure is complex, just like that of humans, with the female leading the herd. They mourn their dead, by returning to the place where a member of their group died. Apparently they will even attempt to bury their dead, by covering carcasses with branches and sometimes taking the tusks to be placed at a different spot.

They're altruistic creatures, not only toward other elephants, but other creatures as well such as humans. This trait is similar to dolphins, as we shall see later.

The following footage is that of some elephants that have been taught to paint!

An Elephant painting an Elephant

It would seem that we humans do not realize the intelligence that all creatures are endowed with. They don't speak like we do, don't have thumbs like we do and so we tend to feel superior to them. Yet, it's recognized that animals have relationships every bit as complex with each other, as humans do with each other.

Their senses are attuned differently, and their rules of behaviour are mostly lost to us. In our greatly over-extended intellects and technological wizardry, we have become masters of their world, while not properly understanding their natures. For example, many farmers are well aware of the turmoil of emotions that go on inside of them, as cattle are taken to abattoirs on their final journey - some even say that they hear cows cry while they wait their turn. Only someone experienced in all the intonations of sounds that cows make, could distinguish between them.

It could be argued that we have a very ill-defined perspective on what is considered intelligent. For us, intelligence is usually something 'intellectual', an ability to think in abstract numbers and so on. But without proof of writing, there's really no knowing what's going on inside a bird's head, for example.

Speaking of intelligence, we humans think of ourselves as very intelligent, but our ability to destroy the very environment we live in is remarkable! ;-))

Working with others

We tend to think that being cooperative is really a characteristic of human beings. By being cooperative with each other, we've achieved incredible things. This cooperation between individuals has paved the way for immeasurable success for humans. This ability, however, isn't just specific to humans though. Working with others, is observed across the whole of the animal kingdom, from water or land based mammals, to insects.

Bees and ants show high levels of cooperation. Ants even build bridges of themselves, by linking themselves into a solid line, so that their compatriots can walk across them.

An ant bridge

Ant bridge - by
Ant bridge - by | Source


But it goes deeper than this with many species of animals. It isn't just about being cooperative for a group outcome i.e.attaining food. Time and again, it's been observed that animals are keenly aware of the feelings of other creatures and have an ability to be altruistic, which is pretty amazing.

For example, a faithful dog will sense when someone is unhappy. It's not unheard of for a dog to go out of its way to help a person, or give them comfort. In fact, even in my mother's house, her dog used to go upstairs and to sit quietly next to the cot, when a grandchild was crying. (This was a very special dog, who has now sadly moved on.)

This ability to empathise with the plight of other creatures, is found in many other animals -and not just mammals, either. Altruism is found to be cross-species.

In this next example, dolphins came to the rescue of a floundering dog!

Dolphins have empathy and intervene to help other creatures

Many people who have swum with dolphins attest to the fact that they seem to have an intensely keen understanding of the emotional state of the person who is with them. Many people even claim to have been helped and healed by the understanding presence of dolphins; there are countless examples of amazing dolphin behaviour in that regard - hence, the whole 'swimming with dolphins' holidays that are on offer.

Sometimes though, as in the following video, a dolphin will actually seek the help of a human being - who has the ever practical use of thumbs, arms and hands... the dolphin has fishing netting wrapped around its fin and gets a diver to disentangle him. He remains still while the diver does the work, knowing that he's being helped by the human.

A stricken dolphin asks a diver for help

The following video is another great example that shows that animals are cognizant of what is going on around them... and in this case, showing amazing appreciation after being freed from fishing nets.

A Humpack Whale shows amazing appreciation

A Chimp shows wonderful gratitude...,

Communicating with Animals

The idea of communicating with animals is as old as time itself, and one of the aspects of any earth culture and which is present today in modern day Shamanism. This whole notion of communicating with animals, hasn't only been about getting an animal to grant its life - in a respectful fashion for a successful hunt - for the sake of a people or tribe, but in some cases, to have a meaningful dialogue in an even deeper way.

The ability to read nature, as it were, is an ancient skill and which would have been essential for survival in ancient times. It is rather incredible how some people view this whole subject as superstition, when in fact, being finely attuned to nature and the animals, would have been essential for survival in ancient times, and necessary for a respectful co-existence with the animals (a far cry from today's very sick industrialized approach to animals). Humans would have needed the assurance of future animals to eat and use, and any abuse or waste would have been regarded as a heinous crime.

The next video is an amazing glimpse into the power of animal communication - and again, evidence that animals are far from stupid!

A woman talks to a leopard

Bugs... and even smaller things

There's often an assumption that bugs are not intelligent, that all they do is react to the external environment in which they live, perhaps somewhat robotically. That their attempt to escape being squished and killed, is just an automatic survival extinct, somehow disassociated from any sense of self.

And yet, if they had no sense of self, why would they be attempting to defend themselves? Without a sense of their own boundary, there would be no need to attempt to remain alive.

An interesting study has shown that spiders have an excellent memory of their surroundings, such as the common house spider, that usually hunts at night. In fact, some spiders will even take large detours to get a proper approach to something they want to catch, having perfect cognition of their surroundings.

Could it be that single cell organisms, which we are literally crawling with, are also endowed with awareness and intelligence? Such a notion would fit in with the concept that the whole of existence is a big dance of consciousness..

Intelligent spider


Rats of course need no introduction. Everyone knows that rats are clever. People who have battled with rats in their lives, will even attest to the fact that the rats know just how to play them, especially if they are both fighting for the same space to live in. But there again, a pet rat can be an entirely different prospect, and unusual bonds are made between these animals and humans.

Rats are very clever

All creatures care for their young in the same way

If there is one leveler, is that on the whole, all animals, especially mammals, care for their young in much the same way. The pain of separation can be felt with an intensity that humans usually only think they are capable of. For example, a mother cow can walk many miles in search of her calf, that has been taken away so that she can produce milk. Cows will typically bellow for days on end, when their calves are removed from them. Humans usually find babies of other species cute, but don't always make the connection, that the way animals feel about their young, is often the same as we do about ours.

In the following video, it's impossible not to be drawn into the near-human way the chimp is teaching her child. The care and attention is incredible.

Chimps are intelligent - amazing video

Are we so different?

It's convenient for humans to think of themselves as somehow elevated above the animal kingdom, forgetting that we too 'have breath', that we too are animals. It's offensive to think of ourselves as akin to animals. While it's true that we have a choice to override our natures, whereas animals are slaves to their natures - and in that sense we are different to them - the distinction becomes a little more blurry if we analyze our ability to feel like separate entities as a consequence of consciousness.

And consciousness, no-one knows what it is. Likewise, the way intelligence is linked to emotions and consciousness, makes it even harder to say that any particular animal is any more unintelligent than another. Botanists have even noticed the way certain trees send messages to other trees, to close up their flowers, if certain animals who like eating these flowers are nearby. Could this be consciousness at work?

There are many unanswered questions, but some things are certain. The animal kingdom should be respected and not abused (the horrors of vivisection come to mind). Our understanding of nature and the natural world has in some ways decreased with our tremendous over-intellectualization. We constantly fail to understand the part that animals play in the web of creation, and our own bafflement at it all, is really a symptom that maybe we human animals are the dense ones...

Game of chess, anyone? Ok, I'm joking, but this dog looks kind of intense doesn't it?

hannah | Source


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    • Electro-Denizen profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Wales, UK

      peachpurple... completely like us, but humans prefer not to think like that, so that they can use them (when they don't generally even need to) - thanks for visiting

    • peachpurple profile image


      3 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      animals aren' stupid, they have feelings and intelligence as human does

    • Electro-Denizen profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Wales, UK

      That's because many animals ate ingenious... :-)) Thanks for visiting

    • Electro-Denizen profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Wales, UK

      I can imagine they do get offended :-)) Comparing children to dogs or dogs to children will never go down that well! But the fact remains, that animals have the sentience of humans to a large extent, but don't have the physical faculties to build much on it. The phrase 'It's a dog's life' could be applied to nearly all animals I guess, in that regard. Thanks for visiting.

    • VVanNess profile image

      Victoria Van Ness 

      4 years ago from Fountain, CO

      I totally agree. I compare my labs to children all the time, seeing as how I have two labs and I have taught 1st graders for years I know, and people get so offended.

      Animals are a lot more intelligent than many people give them credit.

    • Electro-Denizen profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Wales, UK

      Thanks for visiting Andrey - well that's just it, animals are what they are and have little choice or option - we on the other hand always have plenty of choice, but...

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 

      4 years ago from California

      Excellent hub! If we could only be as good as our animals!

    • Electro-Denizen profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Wales, UK

      rebeccamealey thanks for visiting, have a nice day :-)

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 

      4 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      What an awesome article. I will think twice now of squashing a bug. All votes up and shared.

    • Electro-Denizen profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Wales, UK

      mperrottet I always feel we don't do enough to respect/protect animals, because we don't consider them fully, and turn a blind eye (unconsciously, but often not). That's a shame when we're basically in charge of them. Thanks for visiting..

    • mperrottet profile image

      Margaret Perrottet 

      4 years ago from San Antonio, FL

      We humans seem to have a difficult time understanding and appreciating the intelligence of each other let alone the animal world. This is such a wonderful article, and I love how you emphasise the importance of respecting the animal kingdom of which we are a part of. Voting up, useful, interesting and awesome. Great job!

    • Electro-Denizen profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Wales, UK

      JayeWisdom what you say is quite true. We've evolved with many features that make us feel so much more advanced than animals. Before children can speak they understand pretty much everything that is said, or at least the intention behind the words - but because they can't speak (yet) and they're clumsy, does that make them stupid? :-)) I think animals might be a little like that, but don't have the ability to evolve the skills like human children do, so they remain in a place we never quite understand.

    • Electro-Denizen profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Wales, UK

      Eric that's very true - it's a fine line between viewing animals as they are, and anthropomorphizing them... thanks for visiting!

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 

      4 years ago from Deep South, USA

      Marvelous article! Several years ago I read the results of a study about pig intelligence. In the experiments, pigs and primates played video games, and the pigs routinely scored better than the primates.

      Animals are not only problem-solvers, they learn human language (even when they can't speak it) and can be trained to obey spoken commands. They have emotions, feel physical pain, love, grieve....much like humans.

      Voted Up++++ and shared/bookmarked to read again

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Very interesting and delightful article. It is hard to look at animals without projecting human traits. I guess that is how we do it though.


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