ABSTRACT: No doubt you will recognise the title of this article as the first of the 10 Guiding Principles of Veterinary Nursing. But what exactly do we mean by animal welfare? It seems to mean different things to different people in different contexts!

In the veterinary profession, animal welfare is broken down into three component parts:

   animal welfare science;

   ethics; and


This article will focus on the first point of this triad, although it will become clear that each component interlocks to form an analytical framework with which to explore animal welfare concerns and, ultimately, the facilitation of high animal welfare standards.

Animal welfare science

As Marian Dawkins, professor of animal behaviour at the University of Oxford explains, animal welfare science is a relatively young discipline; but one of the most comprehensive, drawing on all branches of biology, including behavioural ecology, evolution, ethics, animal behaviour, genetics, neuroscience and even consciousness.

As a science, it asks three big questions: Are animals conscious? How can we assess good and bad welfare in animals? How can we use science to improve animal welfare in practice?

So, to set this in context, how can animal welfare be defined? After all, without a definition, how can we assess whether welfare is good or bad? Or indeed, make recommendations on how to improve it?

For some, the very concept of animal welfare is contentious, with criticisms of non-objectivity often levelled by its detractors. Moreover, it is ‘a science in which judgements are not solely based on scientific evidence but also on philosophical value statements and economic considerations’. While elements of this may well be true, this does not devalue the study of animal welfare but emphasises its complexities and the wider importance it has to society in general.

Here at the RVC, when teaching welfare assessment, we use a modified version of the definition put forward by Professor Dawkins, in which two simple questions are asked:

a.   Are the animals healthy?

b.   Do they have what they need? (modified from the original version, ‘Do they have what they want?’)

If the answer to both of these questions is ‘Yes’, then we can be confident the animal(s) in question are experiencing good welfare.3 Of course, the first question is relatively easy to answer – and is, indeed, the raison d’etre of the veterinary profession!

The second question is slighter harder to address and very importantly, considers the mental state of the animal. It also highlights the importance of animal consciousness, or sentience, as a key to understanding welfare: ‘if an animal is consciously aware of what it is experiencing the potential for suffering is increased’.

To answer this second question we must first explore the difference between an animal’s wants and needs. In animal welfare science, this is done by using choice and preference tests. Unfortunately though, animals, like humans, do not always choose the best option for their long-term well-being. For example, if we were offered the choice between a healthy muesli bar or a naughty bar of chocolate, we might well choose the chocolate even though we know it is not good for us: we find it a much more pleasurable experience!

Therefore, it becomes important to distinguish between what an animal wants (its choice) and what it needs to meet its requirements for physical and mental well-being. Refining these tests further, we can allow the animal to illustrate the strength of its preference by how hard it is prepared to work for access to a resource or conditions conducive to performing a desired behaviour.

For example, a study in Slovenia offered dogs in a shelter the opportunity to work for three different environmental enrichments (contact with a human, contact with another dog or access to a toy) by training them to press a lever that opened a door and compared this to how hard they would work for food.

It showed that dogs worked hardest for food (perhaps unsurprisingly) followed by contact with a human, which was significantly more important to them with that of contact with another dog or toy. This kind of information can be used to shape policy for dogs housed in this – or similar – environments.

Quality of life

Question two also brings us to the concept of ‘quality of life’ (QoL), originally developed in human medicine to assess potential benefits of varying treatments to human welfare. John Benson (a veterinary professor at the University of Illinois), and Bernard Rollin (professor of philosophy, physiology and animal sciences at Colorado State University) discuss animal welfare within this context. They emphasise the on-going ethical concern for the treatment of animals, outlining how social critics, ethicists and others have expressed three different but overlapping types of concern about the quality of the lives of animals.

Firstly, there is a perspective of welfare centred on the basic biological functioning of animals, looking at parameters such as normal health, growth, behaviour and development. Professor Donald Broom, of the University of Cambridge, suggests the quality of an animal’s life may be judged by determining its ‘state as regards its attempts to cope with its environment’.6

The second concern is that of affective states of animals, or their emotions and feelings: especially unpleasant states such as fear, pain, distress or hunger. It assumes that the subjective states of animals can be assessed scientifically by examining an animal’s preferences and motivations, linking back to Dawkins’ emphasis on the mental state of animals, as well as those relating purely to biological functioning. Parallels can be drawn between this and the human concept of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as the individual’s physiological and psychological needs are met welfare levels increase.7 This effect may even be synergistic.

It is interesting to note that while established welfare standards aim to establish the absence of negative feelings, experiences and conditions as a priority, there is currently much interest in the promotion of positive affective states such as comfort and pleasure.8 This is, of course, a worthwhile undertaking, but it is seriously important not to lose sight of the fact that the reduction, indeed elimination, of negative welfare states for the majority of animals should remain a priority.

The third of the interlocking perspectives is the ability of the animal to lead a natural life,5 or be raised in a manner which suits the need of the species and allows it to perform its full behavioural repertoire. For example Compassion in World Farming points out that all domesticated animals have inherited a range of behaviours from their wild ancestors that are created from needs; an inability to fulfil these needs can seriously affect an animal’s welfare.

Rollin9 talks about animals having ‘basic natures that will not be submerged in the course of their use by humans’, and David Fraser (professor of animal welfare at the University of British Columbia) defines an animal’s nature as ‘the set of adaptations that is characteristic of the species and the set of genetically encoded instructions that guides the animal’s normal development’.10 He goes on to state that ‘allowing animals to live in accordance with their basic nature will allow them to live in a manner to which they are adapted, and develop physically and mentally as is nor
mal for that species’.

However, there is a caveat to this ability to perform a full behavioural repertoire: for example, anti-predator behaviour implies the animal perceives a serious risk to its life, which will elicit a negative stress response and impinge negatively on its welfare. Would it be necessary for an animal to be expected to express this natural behaviour in a domestic context, or would we be failing in our duty of care if we allowed such an encounter to happen?

This brings us neatly to the Five Freedoms framework, first proposed in 1979 by the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC, www.fawc.org.uk) that provides guidelines for an acceptable level of welfare for farm animals. These form the basis of the 2006 Animal Welfare Act: therefore defining acceptable welfare for all animals in the UK (Table 1).

A sister organisation, the Companion Animal Welfare Council (CAWC, www.cawc.org.uk) is involved in research to establish codes of practice for a range of companion animal species.

Christopher Wathes, (professor of animal welfare at the Royal Veterinary College and current chairman of FAWC) explains that FAWC is developing the QoL concept further with the possible development of a welfare continuum ranging at the lower end from ‘a life not worth living’ (literally the animal is better off dead than alive and should receive speedy treatment or be euthanased), to a minimum acceptable standard of ‘a life worth living’ and increasing to a desirable, but rarely achievable, ‘good life’ (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Quality of life

So, from this whistle-stop tour of animal welfare science, we can see that it is a complex, multi-faceted discipline that explores the health and physical, physiological and psychological needs of animals. It is integral to the veterinary welfare triad of animal welfare science, ethics and law.

Armed with knowledge derived from animal welfare science and appraised of applicable legislative requirements, a veterinary nurse or veterinary surgeon can apply relevant ethical considerations to any animal welfare dilemma they might encounter and make an informed decision on the best course of action to take.

For example, how might using this framework influence a decision on the best way to approach advising an owner who presented with an obese pet? Or an owner who wanted a perfectly healthy cat put down because of behavioural problems, such as urinating inappropriately in the home environment?


Angela J Wright BSC MSc(Oxon)

After a career as a government scientist – during which she pursued her passion for animal welfare – Angela Wright returned to education and obtained a Masters degree in Biology (Integrative Bioscience) from the University of Oxford, before starting a PhD at the RVC in 2006. Now, as a lecturer, she teaches animal welfare and welfare assessment to veterinary undergraduates, veterinary science students and veterinary nurses. Her research interests include the welfare of farmed animals and, as a keen biologist, she has an interest in behavioural ecology, evolution, ethics and animal behaviour.


1.   DAWKINS, M. S. (2006) A user's guide to animal welfare science. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 21(2): 77-82.

2.   KING, L. A. (2003) Behavioural evaluation of the psychological welfare and environmental requirements of agricultural research animals: theory, measurement, ethics and practical implications. Institute of Laboratory Animal Research. 44(3): 11.

3.   DAWKINS, M. S. (2004) Using behaviour to assess animal welfare. Animal Welfare. 13: 3-7.

4.   Kos, U. (2005) Do dogs show preferences for certain types of environmental enrichments. In XIIth International Conference. Warsaw: International Society for Animal Hygiene

5.   BENSON, G. J. and ROLLIN, B. E. (2004) The Well-being of Farm Animals, challenges and solutions. Blackwell, New York

6.   BROOM, D. M. (1986) Indicators of poor welfare. British Veterinary Journal. 142(6): 524-526.

7.   HAGERTY, M. R. (1999) Testing Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs: National Quality-of-Life Across Time. Social Indicators Research. 46(3): 249-271.

8.   MAIN, D. C. J., WHAY, H. R., LEEB, C. and WEBSTER, A. J. F. (2007) Formal animal-based welfare assessment in UK certification schemes Animal Welfare 16: 233-236.

9.   ROLLIN, B. E. (2003) Assessing animal welfare at the farm and group level: the interplay of science and values. Animal Welfare. 12: 433-443.

10.   FRASER, D. (1997). Fraser on Animal Welfare, Science, and Ethics, in Animal Welfare. 6: 97-106

• VOL 25 • No4 • April 2010 • Veterinary Nursing Journal