Animal Welfare-From Philosophy to Regulation: Assessing Animal Welfare and its Impacts on the Veterinary Profession and Animal Industries
IAAAM Archive
Gail C. Golab; A. David Scarfe
American Veterinary Medical Association
Schaumburg, IL, USA


Inasmuch as domestication is defined as "adaptation to intimate association with human beings,"1 animal welfare has been a concern for people at least since the domestication of the dog more than 12,000 years ago and the first farm animals 10,000 years ago. Animal mythology, a common element of ancient (and some modern) cultural rituals and religious beliefs, helped to define the relationship between man and animals and often arose out of a need to resolve ethical conflicts encountered in animal use. Since ancient times, however, there have been differences in the way that various cultures have thought about animals. Religions emerging in Southeast Asia conceptualized life as a continuous cycle of birth and death in which humans could be reincarnated as animals, and animals were/are often correspondingly afforded respect that rivaled that given to humans. In contrast, religions with their roots in the Abrahamic tradition treated animals as the property of their owners and rules were/are codified for their care and slaughter primarily on the basis of human hygiene concerns.

Although a subject of schooled philosophical discussion since the time of Aristotle, debate about people's moral and ethical responsibilities to animals became more focused beginning in the late 17th century, with the intensity of the debate increasing throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and into the 21st. Early popularization of that debate, when combined with the beginnings of an industrial revolution that created the first separation between popular experience and animal husbandry, lead to codification of the first secular public policy on animal welfare in Great Britain in 1822. That policy was an anti-cruelty law protecting cattle, sheep, and horses. Similar laws were soon enacted at the state level in the United States, and were followed in the late 18th century by the first US federal law addressing animal welfare (i.e., the Twenty-Eight Hour Law, which provided for rest and watering of transported livestock). Interest in animal welfare quickly spread to caring for surrendered animals, particularly dogs, and gave rise to societies formed for the sole purpose of protecting animals (e.g., Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals, Australian RSPCA, American SPCA). By the end of the 18th century the first anti-vivisection proposals emerged both in the United States and abroad, and, by 1966, the US federal Laboratory Animal Welfare Act had been passed (known today, after further refinement, as the Animal Welfare Act). Today, voluntary codes of conduct, policies, and standards; legally binding statutes and regulations; and professional and public perception all play a role in how we use and care for animals. Everyone who uses animals of any kind, for any purpose, and anywhere is impacted by the associated expectations and obligations.

Most cultures and individuals are in agreement that responsible animal use can be justified and is likely to continue. With that in mind, a persistent difficulty confronting those who attempt to ensure animal welfare has been its definition and how to evaluate it within the context of animal use. A variety of frameworks have been developed for assessing animal welfare. Most involve efforts to examine the physiologic and mental responses of animals to their environments, including how well they cope with various conditions and practices imposed upon them. What differs is how assessments are approached within each framework. Irrespective of framework, in examining how well animals cope/adapt, questions regarding consciousness, pain, stress, and distress naturally emerge.2

There are five broad frameworks3-12 commonly used by scientists (and sometimes others) in studying animal welfare:

 The 'quality of function' or homeostatic approach,

 The 'feelings' approach,

 The 'animal choices' approach,

 The 'nature of the species' approach, and

 The 'five freedoms' (a.k.a., needs) approach.

Within the 'quality of function' or homeostatic approach, attempts to cope are measured in terms of the magnitude of the animal's physiologic and behavioral responses and the fitness costs of those responses (i.e., welfare is considered within the concept of biological fitness). The 'feelings' paradigm defines animal welfare in terms of emotions and emphasizes reductions in negative responses, such as pain and fear, and increases in positive responses, such as pleasure and comfort. The 'animal choices' framework looks at motivations of animals and how those motivations might reveal the existence of important underlying needs. The 'nature of the species' approach considers that animals are best raised in 'natural' environments that facilitate the practice of 'natural' behaviors. Finally, the 'five freedoms' approach13,14 suggests that ideal welfare exists when five conditions are fulfilled, those conditions being: freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury, and disease; freedom to express normal behavior; and freedom from fear and distress.

All of these frameworks have been applied across a variety of animal species and uses by their proponents, and during this presentation they will be described in more detail, including their strengths and weaknesses. The desire and resulting push for regulatory actions to have a scientific underpinning means that a preference for one or another of these frameworks can substantially impact what associated public policy ultimately looks like. Veterinarians' abilities to influence, understand, and implement good public policy therefore require a thorough understanding of these frameworks and their motivations.

Examples of public policy on the global level in which established animal welfare assessment frameworks have played a role are the animal welfare principles and associated guidelines being developed by the Office International des Epizooties (OIE, International Organization for Animal Health). Broad guidance has already been developed for terrestrial animals and is now part of the Terrestrial Animal Health Code.15 Development of similar guidance for incorporation into the Aquatic Animal Health Code16 is anticipated in 2006. As animal welfare science and understanding progress, we expect that the associated OIE Codes will become more specific. Ultimately, the information contained within the Codes may form the basis for animal welfare standards worldwide. Although animal welfare is not currently covered by the World Trade Organization's (WTO) Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (a.k.a., the SPS Agreement), member countries of the OIE have expressed a wish to have guidelines to assist them in bilateral negotiations. The OIE Codes therefore directly affect animal production and trade and, at least in principle, animal production units at all managed and geopolitical levels (from the farm to the nation's table) will be expected to adhere to principles, guidelines, and recommendations finalized in the OIE Codes.

Of particular interest to this audience, of course, are guidelines impacting the use of aquatic animals. The OIE guiding principles for animal welfare, which have already been internationally adopted, and the guidelines already approved and those under development for terrestrial animal welfare provide some insight into what will need to be addressed in the Aquatic Animal Health Code chapters. For example, the guiding animal welfare principles17 adopted by OIE recognize:

 That there is a critical relationship between animal health and animal welfare;

 That the internationally recognized 'five freedoms' (from hunger, thirst, and malnutrition; fear and distress; physical and thermal discomfort; pain, injury, and disease; to express normal patterns of behavior) provide valuable guidance for animal welfare;

 That the internationally recognized 'three Rs' (reduction in numbers of animals; refinement of experimental methods; and replacement of animals with non-animal techniques) provide valuable guidance for the use of animals in science;

 That scientific assessment of animal welfare involves diverse elements that need to be considered together, and that selecting and weighing these elements often involves value-based assumptions that should be made as explicit as possible;

 That the use of animals in agriculture and science, and for companionship, recreation and entertainment, makes a major contribution to the well-being of people;

 That the use of animals carries with it an ethical responsibility to ensure the welfare of such animals to the greatest extent practicable;

 That improvements in farm animal welfare can often improve productivity and food safety, and hence lead to economic benefits; and

 That equivalent outcomes (performance criteria), rather than identical systems (design criteria), be the basis for comparison of animal welfare standards and guidelines.

While considerable progress has been made toward understanding and ensuring optimal welfare for homeothermic (warm-blooded) animals (mammalian and avian species), knowledge about what constitutes optimal welfare for poikilothermic (cold-blooded) animals, in particular aquatic vertebrates and invertebrates, is limited.18 Despite critical gaps in knowledge, principles addressing the welfare of terrestrial and aquatic animals are already being incorporated into animal health legislation, regulations, and international care guidelines and standards. The resultant welfare policies and regulations are likely to affect how aquatic animals are maintained, handled and transported on a global basis.

With this in mind, some specific aquatic animal welfare concerns, particularly those applying to finfish, will be addressed. These include stocking densities, water quality and other environmental parameters, nutrition and feeding, genetics, handling, grading and tagging, transportation, disease, and slaughter for consumption and disease. In addition, the process used for developing the OIE Codes will be explained.


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15. Office International des Epizooties. Terrestrial Animal Health Code (2005), accessed on April 10, 2006.

16. Office International des Epizooties. Aquatic Animal Health Code (2005), accessed on April 10, 2006.

17. Office International des Epizooties. Introduction to the guidelines for animal welfare. Appendix 3.7.1., Article Terrestrial Animal Health Code (2005), accessed on April 10, 2006.

18. Hastein T, Scarfe AD, Lund VL. Science-based assessment of welfare: aquatic animals. Rev sci tech Off int Epiz 2005;24(2):529-47.

Speaker Information
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Gail Golab

A. David Scarfe

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