How do you define animal welfare?

Animal welfare – A challenging concept for science 

Today, all livestock professionals in Europe are subject to legislation based on knowledge derived from animal welfare research. Livestock professionals, as with any other sector, need to rely on a stable and predictable framework. So, it is still important to try to find a definition, relying on the scientific progress, which is the case for this evolved definition developed by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE):

“Animal welfare means how an animal is coping with the conditions in which it lives. An animal is in a good state of welfare if (as indicated by scientific evidence) it is healthy, comfortable, well nourished, safe, able to express innate behaviour, and if it is not suffering from unpleasant states such as pain, fear, and distress. Good animal welfare requires disease prevention and veterinary treatment, appropriate shelter, management, nutrition, humane handling and humane slaughter/killing. Animal welfare refers to the state of the animal; the treatment that an animal receives is covered by other terms such as animal care, animal husbandry, and humane treatment.”

A first general scientific consensus was first found in the Committee’s FiveFreedoms from 1965, and this remains a strong scientific reference point still today.

The Five Freedoms approach is for example the basis of the European Commission’s Welfare Quality project. As the largest ever animal welfare research project in Europe, Welfare Quality sets out to design principles for animal welfare assessment. 

The critical point in both of these, as well as other scientific approaches to animal welfare is that as a starting point they take the animal’s point of view. Before the 1960s, concepts such as animal health were mostly used and focused on human perception of visible pain and suffering of animal, offering a limited but more straight forward approach to the issue, especially for farmers. In fact, as animals can’t express feeling directly, the definition and the evaluation of animal welfare greatly depended on the outcome of science based evaluation. With the progress made in neuroscience for instance, the base of knowledge that we have continues to grow, and therefore defining what “animal welfare” is will not conclude at a limited end-point, but will continue to be debated and developed. 

Animal welfare –A challenging ethical concept 

Animal welfare is a subjective concept, therefore there is a value component to animal welfare which cannot be explained by science alone. Ethical concerns over animal welfare can be grouped in three main types:

  • Basic health and functioning– animals should be well fed and housed, free from injury and disease, and relatively free from the adverse consequences of stress.  
  • Affective states of animals– animals should be relatively free from negative states, including pain, fear, discomfort and distress, and capable of experiencing positive emotional states.
  • Natural Living– animals should be able to carry out normal patterns of behaviour, particularly behaviours they are highly motivated to undertake, in an environment that is well suited to the species. 
Figure source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4235121/

Most animal welfare scientists agree that these 3 aspects are all important. There is less consensus on where we should draw a line in the gradient within an aspect. For example, to what level can we impose short-term pains or keep social animals in isolation for longer term health benefits. Also the balance between economic versus animal welfare considerations is an area of further discussion.

In debates about the welfare of animals, people tend to emphasize different concerns, in part because opinions about the appropriate course of action are rooted in human values. Some emphasize elements such as freedom from disease and injury. Others emphasize the experience of positive emotions and the avoidance of pain. Others again emphasize the ability of animals to live reasonably natural lives by carrying out behaviour similar to their ‘wild’ counterparts and having natural elements in their environment. These concerns make up different criteria that people use to assess animal welfare. 

There are substantial overlaps of course. An animal with a disease may experience pain, while on the other hand good health is a good starting point for positive emotions. Likewise, natural behaviour may lead to positive emotions. Good animal welfare may contain elements from all three dimensions, while a single-minded pursuit of one criterion may lead to poor animal welfare. 

Taking one concrete example, most animal welfare lobby groups argue in favour of free-range housing systems. For farmers, veterinarians and researchers this is a single-minded approach, because free range housing, in spite of its qualities, can also lead to increased disease pressure, higher mortality and sometimes also negative emotional states, for example in hierarchical animal herds.

This is why animal welfare debates are often more complex than they seem.