Ensuring Animal Welfare: Weighing the Options and Understanding Choices
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2009
Gail C. Golab, PhD, DVM, MACVSc (Animal Welfare)
Animal Welfare Division, American Veterinary Medical Association, Schaumburg, IL, USA


Personal values, experiences, and information gleaned from science all influence animal welfare decision-making. Understanding and accepting the various contributors to animal welfare decision-making is critical to veterinarians’ effectiveness in successfully addressing animal welfare and the related concerns of other veterinarians, clients, businesses, and the general public.


Animal welfare is a term used by a great many people, but when asked whether a particular situation or condition in which an animal finds itself is welfare-friendly, respondents may have very different views.

Consider the question of whether the welfare of laying hens is better when they are kept in cages, barns, or allowed to range freely in a field? In cages, hens have easy access to feed and water, individual birds are easily observed, aggressive interactions are infrequent and cannibalism is minimal, and their eggs are protected and easily collected. However, in conventional cages movement is restricted, and nest boxes and litter for dust bathing (both of which support the behavioral aspects of animal welfare) generally are not provided. Laying hens raised in barns most often have access to nest boxes and litter for dust bathing, but aggression, cannibalism, and flightiness are other behavioral characteristics of that environment, and feed and water are less easily monitored. Free-range systems allow great freedom of movement, usually include enclosures for sleeping and nesting, and natural substrates are readily available that provide multiple opportunities for expression of natural behaviors. On the other hand, laying hens in free-range systems have increased exposure to adverse weather conditions, pests, and predators.

As the doctor, which of the three systems described would you recommend to best ensure the hens’ welfare? Would your colleague in the next town or state choose the same system? Which might your client be most comfortable with? Your neighbor? How about the public officials in your community? The answer that we each give depends upon our personal values, experiences, and various social influences, and may or may not be affected by our knowledge of the science behind animal care and use practices. Your challenge and responsibility as a veterinarian are to assist in the decision-making process, while recognizing that even veterinarians are not immune from prejudices when making animal welfare decisions.

Personal Values

Chances are that, as a veterinarian, you may be most comfortable with hens being kept in cages. That’s because veterinarians (and many other scientists, animal producers, and breeders) tend to emphasize measures of health, growth, and productivity in their evaluation of an animal’s welfare. The veterinarian recognizes that keeping hens in cages allows better monitoring and control of disease, minimizes the risk of attack by the hen’s conspecifics, protects the hen from predators, and ensures consistent provision of food and water. In other words, the veterinarian concludes that the hen is in a good state of welfare because its health, safety, and physical needs are met.

For other people, however (including veterinary clients, business owners, public officials, and even some other veterinarians), the answer may not be so clear-cut. Fraser et al.4 have suggested that views on animal welfare generally fall into three buckets: individuals who emphasize basic health and function of the body; those who are most concerned with how an animal ‘feels’ (i.e., its psychologic or affective states, such as pain, suffering, or contentment); and those who emphasize the animal’s ability to lead a reasonably natural life and perform behaviors in which it might normally engage. None of these views can be classified as being inherently ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ nor are they mutually exclusive. Rather, they represent different areas of focus or emphasis. Physical and health scientists are generally most comfortable with the functional view of animal welfare, more recently trained animal behaviorists and psychologists tend to equate good animal welfare with positive affective states, and many members of the general public (particularly those who rebel against what they perceive to be the wrongs of an industrialized society) look for components of natural living.

Sometimes the various views of what constitutes good animal welfare go hand-in-hand. For example, allowing a pig to wallow in mud helps it maintain its body temperature (a function criterion), feel more comfortable (an affective state criterion), and perform a natural cooling behavior (a natural living criterion). Other times the various views conflict. For example, an owner feeding his/her dog treats on a regular basis may result in the dog having a positive psychologic response and, depending on how the treats are provided, may meet its needs for exploratory and/or play behavior; but too many treats can also cause the dog to become obese with negative effects on health.

Experiences and Social Influences

Public consensus on what constitutes appropriate animal use and care is tied to social influences and culture. Since the 1960s, there has been a shift in the American family unit from the nuclear family (represented by a mother, father, and children with grandparents often living nearby) to families that may comprise younger or older couples with no children in the household, single parents with children, single persons, or same-sex partners, with or without children. Grandparents, parents, children, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews are often spread across the country, rather than being close by. Both mothers and fathers often work outside the home, and latchkey children are the norm rather than the exception. Substantial traditional social support has been removed in the process, and pets have filled the void as dependable companions. Higher per capita incomes have allowed owners to treat their animal companions more and more like the human companions they have replaced and to perceive such treatment as normal and appropriate. Almost simultaneously, direct experiences with animals as sources of food and fiber (i.e., functional animal uses) have been reduced. Since the 1950s, the United States has seen a dramatic trend toward urbanization with fewer than 2% of the American public currently residing on farms.1 Together these factors put the American public in the position of viewing all animals and expectations for their care with the same spectacles they apply to the family dog, cat, or bird.

While the structure of families has changed, businesses have changed as well. After World War II, the United States saw a market-driven intensification of almost all industries, including those using animals.3 Profit margins narrowed as production costs (especially wages) increased and prices dropped. Economies of scale and type were discovered and translated to animal production and care. A business culture emphasizing efficiency emerged, leading to increased specialization and economy of scale (e.g., farms became larger and shifted to a single species and, later, to a single phase of production), contract operations (e.g., biomedical research was outsourced), and selection for animal characteristics (e.g., increased muscle mass, hardiness, susceptibility or resistance to particular diseases [as beneficial to their particular use]) that maximize return on food, housing, and care investments. Animal care interests correspondingly moved from a focus on the health of individual animals to an emphasis on the health of the herd and the quality and quantity of the final product.

Deep down, most members of the American public recognize, accept, and support the need to use animals in research and as sources of food and fiber;6 however, the picture of animals as ‘commodities’ does present conflicts with their vision of animals as ‘friends.’

Attempts to resolve this ideologic conflict have resulted in:

  • Closer scrutiny of traditional animal use and care practices.
  • Increasing prominence and public support of existing nongovernmental organizations focused on ensuring animal welfare, as well as the emergence of new ones.
  • Retailers and their suppliers recognizing that members of the public can vote with their pocketbooks and acquiescing to their demands by creating business centers focused on issues of social responsibility, including animal welfare.
  • Governmental regulations and legal obligations directed toward aspects of animal use and abuse that the public finds most egregious.

But Doesn’t Science Tell Us What ‘Good’ Welfare Looks Like?

We all want to believe that decisions about animal care will be based solely (or at least primarily) on science. A look at the history of animal welfare decision-making, unfortunately, tells us otherwise. Science didn’t actually play a substantial role in animal welfare decision-making until the 1950s and 60s, in concert with the publication of The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique5 by Russell and Burch and the report of the Brambell Committee2 in Europe. Concerns about animal welfare, however, have been publicly addressed since at least as early as 350 BC (in the time of Aristotle) and some people justifiably argue that mythologic, cultural, and religious histories suggest an even earlier focus.

Science (and scientists) actually emerged as a player in the animal welfare debate when it was proposed as a possible way to help resolve conflicting perspectives. The strongest growth in animal welfare science has occurred since the mid-1980s, and the field is inherently inter- and multi-disciplinary. Peer-reviewed information was initially published in journals of various established fields (e.g., animal science, laboratory animal science, animal behavior, veterinary medicine); more recently, animal welfare science-specific journals have been established.

Today’s approach to animal welfare science generally assumes that multiple parameters must be evaluated for a complete assessment of animal welfare. These parameters include the animal’s biologic function (e.g., growth, reproduction, ability to maintain homeostasis), its health (e.g., absence/presence of disease or injury), and its behavior and social functions (e.g., adaptation, emotional states [distress, suffering], cognition/awareness, preferences). Assessments may look at what is provided for the animal (also referred to as inputs, resource-based criteria, or engineering criteria) or the effects of these inputs on welfare performance (also referred to as outputs, animal-based criteria, or performance criteria). More recently, animal welfare science has shifted from an emphasis on easily measurable parameters (e.g., morbidity, mortality, production indices) to asking questions about the animal’s perception of its situation.

Interestingly, the basic parameters identified as being necessary components of a complete science-based animal welfare assessment mirror the ‘view buckets’ discussed previously. The implication of this, of course, is that any data obtained may be differentially interpreted and emphasized based on these view buckets. Therefore, a critical review and interpretation of the science demands the reviewer be cognizant of the views held by the researcher(s) involved, and consider those views during his/her interpretation. Science is almost never value-free or immune to experiential prejudice, and animal welfare science is no exception to that truth.

It is also true that while science can determine what type or degree of animal welfare risk exists with regard to a particular animal care practice, it cannot determine what type or degree of risk is acceptable—that is a social question. This social component of decision-making means that if the overwhelming perception is that a particular welfare risk is unacceptable (i.e., that doing something is ‘wrong’), what the science says can become less relevant to those making the animal use/care decision. That science can be relegated to the back seat when animal welfare decisions are made is a reality that can be very difficult for scientists, including veterinarians, to understand and accept.

A Role for Veterinarians

Ultimately, whether we are comfortable with the concept or not, animal welfare decisions are value-laden ones. As a result, science and scientists don’t make animal welfare decisions by themselves—they can, however, contribute greatly toward informing those decisions. This dimension of animal welfare decision-making, in particular, is where veterinarians have a responsibility to (and can) play a critically important and influential role.

Leading in the animal welfare debate has consequences. Some are beneficial. We have a tremendous opportunity to improve the welfare of animals. We also have an opportunity to maintain (and potentially improve) a positive image and healthy social respect for the profession. Some are negative. Leading means we run the risk of alienating those veterinarians, clients, employers, association members, and other stakeholders who may not agree with our recommendations. It is also possible we will make mistakes and have to retract recommendations when we find their results are not as intended.

Not leading also brings consequences. If you do not help make decisions, you have no basis for complaining when they have been made for you. And, if history is any indication, they will be!

Veterinarians can be more influential and effective in animal welfare decision-making if they:

  • Remember that veterinary medicine is a service industry and that animal use and care decisions are multi-stakeholder ones
  • Communicate with all kinds of individuals, even if it appears we will never agree with them
  • Accept that differing perspectives may be valid (not all ‘good,’ not all ‘bad,’ just ‘different’)
  • Understand that while science informs decisions, it does not make them
  • Study the science and ethical theory of animal welfare decision-making
  • Become familiar with the players, but focus on the issues
  • Try to learn something from everyone they speak with
  • Try to teach something to everyone they speak with
  • See animal welfare questions, issues, and challenges as opportunities rather than liabilities

Literature Cited

1.  Anonymous. Too few farmers left to count, agency says. The New York Times. October 10, 1993. Available at: www.nytimes.com/1993/10/10/us/too-few-farmers-left-to-count-agency-says.html. Accessed April 15, 2008. (VIN editor: Original link was modified as of 1-9-21.) Results of the 2000 U.S. Census suggest further declines.

2.  Brambell, F.W.R. 1965. Report of the technical committee to enquire into the welfare of animals kept under intensive livestock husbandry systems. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

3.  Colyer, D., P.L. Kennedy, W.A. Amponsah, L. Kennedy, and S. Fletcher, eds. 2000. Competition in Agriculture: The United States in the World Market. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press Inc.

4.  Fraser, D., D.M. Weary, E.A. Pajor, and B.N. Milligan. 1997. A scientific conception of animal welfare that reflects ethical concerns. Anim. Welf. 6:187–205.

5.  Russell, W.M.S. and R.L. Burch. 1959. The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique. London: Methuen.

6.  Virginia Commonwealth University. 2002. Life sciences survey. Available at: http://www.vcu.edu/lifesci/images2/survey2002.pdf. (VIN editor: Link no longer accessible as of 1-9-21).


Speaker Information
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Gail C. Golab, PhD, DVM, MACVSc (Animal Welfare)
Animal Welfare Division
American Veterinary Medical Association
Schaumburg, IL, USA

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