What is animal welfare?

What is animal welfare and why is it important?

What is animal welfare? 

Animal welfare is a complex and multi-faceted subject with many definitions. One commonly cited definition from the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) states: 

“Animal welfare refers to the physical and psychological wellbeing of an animal. The welfare of an animal can be described as good or high if the individual is fit, healthy, free to express natural behaviour, free from suffering and in a positive state of wellbeing.”   

The concept of animal welfare includes three elements: the animal's normal biological functioning (which means ensuring that the animal is healthy and well-nourished), their emotional state (including the absence of negative emotions, such as pain, stress, and chronic fear), and their ability to express certain normal behaviours. 

High welfare means animals have agency and control over their own lives, including the ability to express their full range of natural behaviours, feel safe, have positive experiences, and have a good quality of life.  

This applies to all animals – from cows, pigs, elephants, and dogs, to chickens, fish, parrots, and snakes! 

World Animal Protection believes animal welfare, good and bad, is affected by the actions and relationships human beings have with animals and their environments. It is our duty to ensure all animals are treated humanely, responsibly, and with respect.  

Animal welfare is a science. There is a large body of published research that addresses a wide range of topics from methods for assessing animal welfare, to evaluating and improving animal care (such as housing, husbandry, transport, and slaughter) to safeguarding the welfare of the impacted animal. Scientific research, among many other things, has helped to inform and influence legislation to better protect captive wildlife, and in developing standards of care for farmed and other animals under humans’ care. 

Determining how to evaluate animal welfare has been essential to this field of science and has led to the development of several methodologies, including frameworks such as the “Five Domains Model”. 

A diagram of the three pillars of animal welfare
Fraser, D., Weary, D. M., Pajor, E. A., & Milligan, B. N. (1997). A scientific conception of animal welfare that reflects ethical concerns. Animal welfare, 6, 187-205.

What is the Five Domains Model of animal welfare? 

The Five Domains Model is a science-based framework developed by David Mellor as a more inclusive approach to animal welfare compared to the previous concept of the Five Freedoms. While this framework covers similar key elements, the Five Domains Model explores the mental state of an animal in more detail by looking at animals’ positive experiences and the factors that contribute to those experiences instead of only focusing on preventing negative experiences. 

The Five Domains Model can be applied for an assessment of quality of life of an individual animal, and provide insightful information about husbandry practices that should contribute to a good quality of life for the animal and includes: 

  1. Nutrition: animals have opportunities to access unrestricted, sufficient, species-specific, balanced, varied, and clean food and water. 
  2. Environment: the animal’s environment provides comfort through temperature, substrate, space, air, odor, noise, and predictability. 
  3. Health: animals are in good health, and illnesses and injuries are prevented, or immediately and appropriately treated. 
  4. Behaviour: animals are able to express a full range of natural behaviours such as exploration, foraging, bonding, playing, retreating, and others. 
  5. Mental State: by presenting positive situations and/or solutions in the previous four domains, the mental state of the animal should benefit from predominantly positive states, such as pleasure, comfort, or vitality while reducing or eliminating negative states such as fear, frustration, hunger, pain, or boredom. 

Putting this model into practice, let’s take a look at an egg-laying hen in a free-range outdoor environment versus one kept in a small battery cage indoors:

Chickens in a high welfare farm outdoors
The free-range hen has free access to clean water and nutritious food (1), has access to natural light and space to roam (2), is closely monitored for injuries and illness as fewer chickens makes it easier to spot potential health issues (3), and is able to express natural behaviours like perching, exploring, foraging, and dustbathing (4). Because of all of this, the free-range hens will likely experience an overall positive mental state (5) – they experience good animal welfare.
Chickens in a poor animal welfare environment inside battery cages
Conversely, the hen confined to a battery cage may not be able to access food and water easily because of the crowded conditions (1), they are in a crowded cage with little to no space to move or spread their wings (2), illnesses are not prevented because of overcrowding, built-up waste, and ammonia in the air (3), and they are unable to perform any natural behaviours (4). The caged-hen experiences an overall negative mental state (5) – they experience poor animal welfare.
Every animal deserves to have a good life, and animal welfare standards help to improve the lives of all animals.

Why is animal welfare important? 

Animals are sentient beings and they have the right to live free from pain and suffering.  

Billions of people rely on animals for their livelihoods, food security, and for companionship. But that does not mean that animals have to be cruelly exploited. We can co-exist with animals by using the best animal welfare practices and by doing this ensure that animals live a good life. 

Right now, animals are exploited at an industrial and global scale for things like food, fashion, exotic pets, and entertainment. Habitats are being destroyed, people are being exploited to carry out this terrible work, and animals are being kept captive in degrading and cruel conditions. 

Every animal deserves to have a good life, and animal welfare standards help to improve the lives of all animals. 

At the heart of all our work, and the solutions we propose, is the most recent science. We recognize that animals are sentient and experience emotions such as joy, pleasure, pain and fear. We believe that every animal deserves a life where the overall balance of their experiences are positive, and where they can express their full range of natural behaviours, such as freely interacting with others of their own species. 

How we treat animals also impacts humans and the planet. We all play an important role in keeping the planet healthy and we all feel the impact when that interconnection is ignored. Animals inherently deserve our respect but it’s also in our best interest to protect them and prioritize their welfare. 

Animal welfare is also important as it’s inextricably linked with human health and welfare. Urgent issues like the climate emergency, the biodiversity crisis, public health risks (including anti-microbial resistance and pandemic risks), and inequality and social injustice have increased public awareness of our interconnectedness with animals.  

Promoting animal welfare is critical to making important changes and can help further other environmental and social justice issues.

How is animal welfare connected to the welfare of people and the planet? 

We are all part of a shared world – animals, human, and planetary health are connected. Choose to explore an area below and learn about the deep connections between the welfare of animals, our health and the protection of our environment.

Pictured: A woman shopping in the meat section of a grocery store.
Choosing what to eat is complicated and personal. There are so many factors that play a role, and the countless labels don’t usually make it easier. Our tools can help decode those labels and help you make informed choices that will improve the lives of animals.
Pictured: A kangaroo escaping the bush fires in Australia.
Our world is changing. The climate crisis means more wildfires, floods and droughts that could destroy habitats, kill millions of animals and displace millions of people. When animals lose their environment, so do we. But with action today and planning for tomorrow, we can make a difference together.
People everywhere want to see wildlife. It’s natural. What’s not natural, is that the demand to be close to wild animals means that dolphins and other animals are held captive and made to perform. That’s not entertainment and together we can do better.
Pictured: Pigs deserve a better life.
We do everything we can to give animals a better life, here in Canada and around the world. With the best available science and our collaborative approach, that’s the promise we’ve kept for decades. But we can’t do it alone. Will you join us?

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En kos betar utomhus
Free range chickens on a traditional poultry farm.