Animal Welfare: A Complex Concept

Author: Amber Itle, MS, DVM, and Susan Kerr, DVM, PhD - Washington State University

Publish Date: Summer 2016

Regardless of where they stand on the vegan-vegetarian-omnivore-carnivore continuum, enlightened and progressive consumers care about animal welfare. Animal welfare is a complex issue that is greatly influenced by individual values and ethics. Although most people would agree that giving animals a “good” life is the right thing to do, disagreements about animal welfare often occur when different measures of welfare are used by different stakeholders. While producers or veterinarians may prioritize animal health, consumers may put emphasis on the naturalness of an animal’s life or be concerned about the animal’s “happiness.”

Producers, veterinarians, and educators think animal welfare is important because:

  • Animals that are well-cared-for are healthier, grow faster, and produce better products
  • Animal welfare is a component of long-term sustainability for livestock enterprises
  • Heathy animals foster food safety for consumers
  • It’s just the right thing to do

However, many consumers associate animal welfare with the naturalness of the animal’s environment or the quality of life:

  • Animals have access to pasture
  • Animals have a “good” or “happy” life
  • Animals can engage in natural social or foraging behaviors

Public perceptions are changing. Many non-farm consumers have an interest in animals as moral objects and companions, some with a holistic view that focuses on environmental impacts (organic production systems). In contrast, many producers tend to think of animals as resources that when “taken care of, take care us.” Regardless, more and more consumers are demanding evidence that their animal-origin products come from farms that care about and enact best practices related to animal welfare:

In a survey conducted by market researcher The Hartman Group, 44% of respondents said they wanted to know more about how food companies treat the animals used in their products. Forty-seven percent of consumers said they support companies that avoid inhumane treatment of animals, a six point increase from a similar survey conducted in 2013. In addition, 65% of respondents indicated they want animals raised in as natural an environment as possible.

 Animal Proteins: The Consumer-Driven Demand for Transparency, The Hartman Group, Aug. 18, 2015.

A survey of west coast consumers commissioned by the poultry company Foster Farms found that 49% completely agreed they are more concerned about animal welfare and how animals are raised for food than they were five years ago. Also, 74% completely agreed they would like more large producers to raise animals for food in a humane way.

— Foster Farms First Major Poultry Producer in the West to Earn Humane Certification from American Humane Association Meats Increasing Consumer Demand for Humanely Raised Foods (press release), Foster Farms, March 11, 2013. 

Despite recent and growing interest in animal welfare, the concept is not a new one. In 1979, the Farm Animal Welfare Committee (FAWC, formerly Farm Animal Welfare Council) of the United Kingdom developed a code pertaining to animal welfare and care standards in the U.K. These standards have been widely adopted by other organizations, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE). They are also used by some of the animal welfare certifying organizations in the U.S.

The Five Freedoms are:

  1. Freedom from hunger, thirst or malnutrition by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor.
  2. Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  4. Freedom to display most normal patterns of behavior by providing sufficient space, proper facilities, and company of the animal’s own kind.
  5. Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

Despite these guidelines, producers and consumers often disagree about which management system is better for animals: conventional vs. organic vs. free range vs. pasture raised vs. grass fed. Producer and consumer values often dictate this conclusion making it possible for both groups to be able to rationally justify what they perceive as “better.” However, animal welfare is not as dependent on the type of system used as the Management of that system—animal welfare has the potential to be excellent or terrible in any system.

In 1997, David Fraser and his colleagues at the University of British Columbia introduced a framework complementary to the Five Freedoms to demonstrate this point. They proposed there are three major concepts of animal welfare: health and production; natural behavior; and feelings (affective states). Every type of management system has tradeoffs. While a pasture system may provide more freedom of movement (natural behavior), an indoor system may provide more freedom from parasites (health). Furthermore, a pasture system may subject an animal to the “fear” of predators, but an indoor system has the potential for the animal to experience “boredom.” Despite which management system is chosen, all three conceptions of welfare must be considered in an attempt to optimize welfare in that system.

An exercise for readers: apply the animal welfare framework to indoor vs. outdoor pork production systems. Note: an advantage for one is a disadvantage for the other.

The FAWC states animals should have “a life worth living” from the animal’s viewpoint. Although each individual conception in the animal welfare framework can be studied scientifically, there is no scientific or value-freeway to establish their relative importance to an animal. However, with careful consideration of system trade-offs at each stage of an animal’s life from birth to slaughter, animals can experience “good” animal welfare with “good” management.

Regardless of how one feels about “animal rights,” all informed and rational individuals should be able to agree that animals under the care and responsibility of humans deserve the reasonable care defined by the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare.


Animal Welfare Institute. (2016). Consumer Perceptions of Farm Animal Welfare.

Farm Animal Welfare Council. (2009). Farm Animal Welfare in Great Britain: Past, Present and Future.

Fraser, D. (2008). Understanding Animal Welfare: The Science in its Cultural Context. Ames, IA: Wiley Blackwell.

Fraser, D., D.M. Weary, E.A. Pajor, & B.N. Milligan. (1997). A Scientific Conception of Animal Welfare that Reflects Ethical Concerns. Animal Welfare, 6, 187-205.

von Keyserlingk, M.A.G., J. Rushen, A.M. de Passillé, & D.M. Weary. 2009. Invited review: The welfare of dairy cattle—Key concepts and the role of science. Journal of Dairy Science, 92(9), 4101-4111