Understanding The Basics of Animal Welfare

Credit: Thinkstock Youth exhibiting animal projects at fairs or shows have direct contact with the public, the consumers of animal products, who often have limited knowledge of raising livestock.

Michigan State University Extension is publishing a series of articles about animal welfare, and this is the second in their series. The first article discussed “The Five Freedoms” and the origin of animal welfare rules. While this is good information for anyone, these articles are specifically aimed at younger (4-H) folks. As a stable owner and probably an instructor, you might consider using some of this information to have a Welfare Class at your farm or stable for your youth (or adult) students or boarders.

Animal welfare is hot topic locally, nationally and internationally. Consumers are asking for more information regarding how food animals are raised and cared for. New local and national laws are being passed with guidelines for housing, transportation, care and euthanasia of livestock (including horses). All of these factors may effect youth enrolled in 4-H animal science projects.

Youth exhibiting animal projects at fairs or shows have direct contact with the public, the consumers of animal products, who often have limited knowledge of raising livestock. The public may be seeking answers to understand why certain practices are carried out. Questions related to welfare are commonly asked of youth during fairs, shows and other animal events, but youth may not always have the answers. This new series of articles from Michigan State University Extension will help provide club leaders and parents with information to introduce animal welfare to 4-H members.

What is Animal Welfare?

The term “animal welfare” is heard a great deal, but what does it actually mean? The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) defines animal welfare as “…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 behavior, 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 an animal receives is covered by other terms such as animal care, animal husbandry, and humane treatment.”

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) defines animal welfare as: “a human responsibility that encompasses all aspects of animal well-being, including proper housing, management, nutrition, disease prevention and treatment, responsible care, human handling, and when necessary, humane euthanasia.” The AVMA further explains: “There are numerous perspectives on animal welfare that are influenced by a person’s values and experiences. There are also various means of measuring animal welfare, including (but not limited to) health, productivity, behavior, and physiological responses.”

Where Did These Definitions Come From?

The definitions above draw from two important documents in the history of animal welfare. The first, the Bramble Report’s Five Freedoms (1965), was written by a scientific committee in Great Britain as a response to issued raised concerning animal production by Ruth Harrison in her book Animal Machines. The Five Freedoms are a list that includes consideration for the physical and mental states of animals and has served as the basis for most modern codes of practice and welfare audits.

The second was a paper published in 1997 by Drs. David Fraser, Dan Weary, Ed Pajor and Barry Milligan, titled “A scientific conception of animal welfare that reflects ethical concerns,” which introduced the “Three Circles” model of animal welfare. This model states the basic health and functioning, affective states and the ability to live in a way that suits the animal’s adaptations must all be considered as part of evaluating animal welfare. These three areas all overlap, but that does not mean it is easy to reconcile these three aspects of welfare.

What Does This All Mean?

The definitions presented by OIE and AVAM, the Five Freedoms, and the Three Circles model illustrate an important consideration of animal welfare: it’s a very complex topic! Not only must the animal be considered, but human attitudes and beliefs become part of this conversation as well. Evaluating animal welfare is based in scientific observation and evaluation, but at the same time, is a value-laden human subject.

This also helps us define what animal welfare is not. Animal welfare is not the same as animal rights! Animal rights address the legal and moral standing of animals in society. Animal rights seeks to cease all use of animals by humans, including use for food, fiber, entertainment and even animals as pets.

This article was published by Michigan State University Extension. For more information, visit






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