The term animal welfare is being used increasingly by businesses, consumers, veterinarians, and politicians. However, it can mean different things to different people. In fact, in some parts of the world, animal welfare has no meaningful translation. Interestingly, animal welfare is no more or less difficult to define than human welfare. I cannot assume that what I believe to be a state of happiness in me is the same as for my friends and for my colleagues. In general, for most humans we would say that enjoying good welfare means that we’re in good health, have good wealth, and have freedom of choice.
We could assume of course that animal welfare is somewhat similar with different definitions of animal welfare emphasizing different aspects of a bigger picture. It seems that animal welfare will be defined in a way that is meaningful in terms of the way the animal is used, the way it is viewed in society, and the interests and purpose of the person who is doing the defining. For example, veterinarians and farmers have tended to judge animal welfare chiefly in terms of animal health and the physical environment.
When assessments are made using only one dimension of an animal’s welfare, there is of course the risk that not all animal needs are catered for. There is also the problem that there are differences in opinion in relation to what is acceptable. There’s no doubt that many animal livestock producers will hold views about what are acceptable animal welfare standards that may differ from advocates for less intensive, more naturalistic housing systems for livestock. And this can often lead to tensions.
These differences are also seen in the scientific definitions of welfare, with some emphasizing the physical well-being. Some more about natural lifestyles, and others focusing on the animal’s psychological state. In order to be able to properly assess welfare, we need to be able to agree on what it is. And most agree that animal welfare is a state or condition that changes depending on the animal’s experience and its ability to deal with the challenges it may face at any given time. The assumption that animals are conscious and capable of experiencing negative sensations and emotions is at the core of most people’s concern about animal welfare.
Over the past few years, the term animal sentience has been increasingly used in animal welfare. There has been an acceptance, not just by pet owners, but also scientists, animal producers, and policy makers of the notion that animals are sentient. And thus capable of positive and negative feelings such as pain and fear, as well as happiness and pleasure. This has been an important development for animals all over the world.
Animal welfare first appeared in modern history in writings in the mid 18th century. The first animal welfare group, the English RSPCA, was founded in 1824, the first one in Austria, the WTV, in 1846 in Vienna. The first Austrian animal law was introduced in the same year. Animal welfare is motivated by compassion and empathy. The aim is to reduce the suffering of animals to a “necessary” minimum. The first animal welfare groups worked mostly on helping animals in need, especially so-called pets, i.e. animals, who live in human households as companions. Killing of animals is no issue in animal welfare. As long as the killing is done painlessly, it is of no ethical concern. The paradigm that animals are there for humans to be used, is not questioned in principle. As long as this use is done “humanely”, there is nothing wrong with it. Animal welfare does not question the animal-human relationship in society as a whole. The primary aim is to alleviate suffering, hence social, and not to change society, i.e. political. Animal welfare asks humans to be good people, to be kind to animals, to show empathy and compassion.