How to define Animal Welfare?

Defining animal welfare is an important and challenging ethical concept for science. Many Europeans are concerned about the welfare of both farm and companion animals, and it is an aspect of animal husbandry that is often challenged. Views on animal welfare are very personal, and the concept is much more complex than it initially seems. Ask three people what “animal welfare” means, and you will probably get four different answers, which is understandable. So, looking at what science has to say about it is interesting.

Today, all European livestock professionals are subject to legislation based on knowledge derived from animal welfare research. Like any other sector, Livestock professionals need a stable and predictable framework. Therefore, agreeing on a definition based on scientific progress is important. For example, according to the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH), ” Animal welfare means the physical and mental state of an animal in relation to the conditions in which it lives and dies. An animal experiences good welfare if the animal is healthy, comfortable, well nourished, safe, is not suffering from unpleasant states such as pain, fear and distress, and is able to express behaviours that are important for its physical and mental state. Good animal welfare requires disease prevention and appropriate veterinary care, shelter, management and nutrition, a stimulating and safe environment, humane handling and humane slaughter or killing. While animal welfare refers to the state of the animal, the treatment an animal receives is covered by other terms such as animal care, animal husbandry, and humane treatment. “.

Five Freedoms approach

The starting point for the Five Freedoms was a 1965 British parliamentary enquiry into the welfare of animals in intensive livestock production systems, which focused attention on the need for all farmed animals to be able to stand up, lie down, turn around, stretch their limbs and groom all parts of the body. This was the basis of the first general scientific consensus on animal welfare and remains a strong scientific reference point today. The Freedoms include: freedom from hunger or thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury or disease; freedom to express normal behaviour; and freedom from fear and distress.

The science is also developing in this area, and many scientists and animal welfare academics now talk about the Five Domains of animal welfare, which essentially include these same five elements but with a greater focus on the animal’s mental state.

The critical point in both these and other scientific approaches to animal welfare is that they take the animal’s point of view as their starting point. Before the 1960s, concepts such as animal health were commonly used and focused on human perception of visible pain and suffering in animals, providing a limited but more straightforward approach to the issue, particularly for farmers. Because animals can’t express emotions directly, the definition and assessment of animal welfare depend heavily on scientific assessment results. With advances in neuroscience, for example, our knowledge base continues to grow. Therefore, the definition of ‘animal welfare’ will not end at a limited point but will continue to be debated and developed.

Animal welfare is a subjective concept

Animal welfare is a subjective concept; therefore, there is a value component to animal welfare that cannot be explained by science alone. Ethical concerns about animal welfare can be grouped into three main types: basic health and functioning, that is, animals should be well fed and housed, free from injury and disease, and relatively free from the adverse effects of stress; affective states of animals, that is animals should be relatively free from negative states, including pain, fear, discomfort and distress, and capable of experiencing positive emotional states; natural living, that is animals should be able to engage in normal behaviours, particularly those for which they are highly motivated, in an environment appropriate to the species.

Most animal welfare researchers agree that all three aspects are important. There is less consensus about where to draw the line in the gradient within an aspect. For example, to what extent can we impose short-term distress or keep social animals in isolation for longer-term health benefits?

The balance between economic and welfare considerations is also further debated

In debates about animal welfare, people tend to emphasise different concerns, partly because opinions about the appropriate course of action are rooted in human values. Some emphasise elements such as freedom from disease and injury. Others emphasise the experience of positive emotions and the avoidance of pain. Still, others emphasise the ability of animals to live a reasonably natural life, behaving like their ‘wild’ counterparts and having natural elements in their environment. These concerns form different criteria that people use to assess animal welfare.

There is, of course, considerable overlap. An animal with a disease may experience pain, whereas good health is a good starting point for a positive mental state. Similarly, natural behaviour can lead to positive emotions. Good animal welfare can include elements from all three dimensions, while a single-minded pursuit of one criterion can lead to poor animal welfare. For example, despite their benefits, free-range systems can lead to increased disease pressure, higher mortality, and sometimes negative emotional states, such as in hierarchical flocks. This is why animal welfare debates are often more complex than they appear. And a simplistic approach can sometimes cause more damage than benefits.