The Science Of Animal Welfare
Animal welfare science is a relatively new interdisciplinary field of study, dating back to only the 1970s in the U.S. The field first emerged in Britain a decade earlier as the public there grew increasingly concerned over the living conditions of animals in intensive production systems. Early research in the field looked primarily at animal behavior and “stress physiology,” but then quickly began to incorporate other fields.
These have included “veterinary epidemiology, environmental physiology, environmental design, comparative psychology, and studies of the behavior of animal handlers, along with conventional fields such as nutrition and microbiology.” Initially, much of this research was intended to solve problems specific to factory farming systems. However, scientists soon noticed that the research methods and findings could be applied to animals in a variety of production systems.
Using key findings from this research, the 178 nations that make up the World Organisation for Animal Health (known by its French acronym, OIE) met in 2012 to create guiding principles for the development of welfare standards in all farmed animal production systems. The list of ten principles is as follows:
- Genetic selection should always take into account the health and welfare of animals.
- The physical environment, including the substrate (walking surface, resting surface, etc.), should be suited to the species and breed so as to minimize risk of injury and transmission of diseases or parasites to animals.
- The physical environment should allow comfortable resting, safe and comfortable movement, including normal postural changes, and the opportunity to perform types of natural behavior that animals are motivated to perform.
- Social grouping of animals should be managed to allow positive social behavior and minimize injury, distress, and chronic fear.
- Air quality, temperature, and humidity in confined spaces should support good animal health and not be aversive to animals. Where extreme conditions occur, animals should not be prevented from using their natural methods of thermo-regulation.
- Animals should have access to sufficient feed and water, suited to the animals’ age and needs, to maintain normal health and productivity and to prevent prolonged hunger, thirst, malnutrition or dehydration.
- Diseases and parasites should be prevented and controlled as much as possible through good management practices. Animals with serious health problems should be isolated and treated promptly or killed humanely if treatment is not feasible or recovery is unlikely.
- Where painful procedures cannot be avoided, the resulting pain should be managed to the extent that available methods allow.
- The handling of animals should foster a positive relationship between humans and animals and should not cause injury, panic, lasting fear, or avoidable stress.
- Owners and handlers should have sufficient skill and knowledge to ensure that animals are treated in accordance with these principles.
It’s worth mentioning that the goal of the principles is to improve production practices and, consequently, minimize animal suffering, but not to eliminate confinement systems. That said, many of the principles are sensible first steps towards better lives for animals on farms, and some industries and companies are working towards them. However, a couple of the principles are so forward-thinking (like principles one and nine) that they are worth special mention.
For the first principle, the authors note that genetic selection has been devastating for animals and that the genetic focus on “extreme production” has resulted in traits that “impair normal biological functioning” in virtually all farm animals. They note that good animal welfare depends on a match between animal genetics and their environment. In factory farming systems, this balance is profoundly lacking.
For animal advocates, principle number nine is likely the most significant and perhaps even the most controversial. The idea that a positive relationship between humans and animals can be fostered in animal production systems is not one that we’re used to hearing. The authors point to the stress-reducing potential of good handling and the ways that physical force and electric shock—two common ways that animals are handled on farms—can increase stress and hurt animals. This principle is significant because it is not tied to actual production mechanisms.
Moreover, the broader implication is that animal handlers need to take responsibility for more than just an animal’s biological health. The emotional well-being of animals, which is greatly impacted by their relationship with human caretakers, is equally important. The ten principles outlined by the OIE ask us to reevaluate our responsibility towards and relationships with farmed and “production” animals.