Animal welfare vs animal rights: what’s the difference?

Farmers and consumers care about animal welfare in food production, and it’s important that we have open conversations about it. To do this, however, we need a clear framework to work on. The terms “animal welfare” and “animal rights” are sometimes confused, but they are distinct terms and frameworks that have a huge impact on animal agriculture.

Animal welfare describes an animal’s state of being, which includes health, comfort, nutrition, the expression of natural behaviors and the absence of negative states. This framework supports animal ownership and argues that animals should be treated well. It is an ever-evolving field of science, with established and developing methods for measuring and describing it. It is the foundation of animal care practices backed by veterinarians, farmers, ranchers, animal scientists and other stakeholders.

Animal rights is a philosophy that views animals as deserving of rights similar to those enjoyed by humans. It is a spectrum that includes views that all animal ownership is considered exploitative, and therefore any use of animals – no matter how well they are cared for – is considered wrong.

Animal welfare is a mix of hard and social sciences, with various frameworks used in the field. Since the 1960s, a concept known as the five freedoms has been a way to assess the needs of animals. The Five Freedoms are: 1. Freedom from hunger and thirst; 2. Freedom from discomfort; 3. Absence of pain, injury or disease; 4. Freedom to express normal behavior; and 5. Freedom from fear and distress. These have been widely used by veterinarians and other professionals when designing animal care protocols and expectations around the world.

Most animal welfare audit systems are designed using this framework.

Another animal welfare assessment model is the Three Spheres model, which gives a more layered view of the areas contributing to animal welfare. The three spheres are: basic health and functioning, which includes the health and physical condition of the animal (such as freedoms 1, 2 and 3); Natural Living, where animals can engage in normal natural behaviors in an enabling environment (similar to Freedom 4); and Affective States, which considers the mental state of the animal to avoid negative states (i.e. pain, hunger, distress) and experience positive states (i.e. the social contact, play) (linked to freedoms 1, 3 and 5).

Image courtesy of Michigan State University

A new method for assessing animal welfare, which was updated in 2020, is the Five Domains. It includes: 1. Food; 2. Physical environment; 3. Health; and 4. Behavioral interactions; in the updated version, it not only includes the environment and other animals, but also interactions with humans. The first four domains influence Domain 5, Mental State, which in turn influences the welfare state of the animal.

Farmers, ranchers, veterinarians, welfare auditors and zootechnicians all assess animal welfare. Students can also learn and compete in animal welfare assessment competitions to better prepare them for work in their future fields. It is a multidimensional process with many factors and contexts to consider. Assessments should be context-specific and consider individual, species, environment and management.

Animal welfare is assessed per animal. We look at environment-based measures, such as facility design, management, space, air quality, operating procedures, handling, and more. injury and disease, response to handling, growth rate (i.e. average daily gain), reproductive/fertility measures, morbidity (disease rate), mortality (death rate), longevity, etc. Scientifically we can measure if an animal is stressed using heart rate, cortisol levels, body position, ear position and pupil dilation, with more being developed and verified .

Animal behavior (ethology) is particularly important in assessing animal welfare. We observe the animal’s movements, social interactions, cognition, learning and any abnormal behavior. Behaviors are linked to the biology of the animal. A better understanding of an animal’s behavior can help us improve welfare and adjust management practices to meet the animal’s needs. Understanding animal behavior also improves worker safety, reduces animal stress, increases detection of disease and other negative conditions, and improves production parameters. It is important to remember that what is best for an animal is not always what we humans perceive to be best.

Image courtesy of USDA

Animal welfare is strongly based on science and rationality with measures and frameworks with a biological context.

Animal rights, on the other hand, is a philosophy. Animal rights activists oppose the use of animals in any setting. Animal rights activists often work for legislation and social change to improve humane care for animals until all animals are no longer owned or used by humans. They often employ anthropomorphism, which is when human characteristics are given to an animal, to create an emotional response and work to give animals a legal “personhood”. Unfortunately, anthropomorphism can cause animal welfare issues when people expect animals to behave and have the same needs as humans.

Extreme animal rights activists often employ illegal and dangerous tactics that endanger human and animal welfare, such as trespassing and stealing animals from farms. Some of these organizations are classified as domestic terrorists by the US government. Other animal rights organizations employ more subtle tactics such as protests, disinformation campaigns (including anti-farm “documentaries”), lobbying, campaigns targeting children, pressure on investors and food companies, promoting alternative/plant proteins, lying to people to get them. donate while embezzling funds, and more.

Image by a katz, Shutterstock

Organizations such as HumaneWatch, Animal Ag Alliance, and Protect the Harvest monitor and share information regarding these organizations and their tactics.

So why is it important? We can all agree that animals are a vital part of our world and should have a good life. Animal welfare is an interesting science with a lot of back and forth between different stakeholders, including experts such as animal scientists, farmers, breeders and veterinarians, and the public. It’s important for those of us who work in agriculture to communicate on hot topics like animal welfare. It is difficult to address animal welfare without confronting the misconceptions propagated by animal rights activists. Animal welfare and animal rights are distinct concepts that both influence how people view animals and agriculture. The confusion between them presents a challenge for agricultural communicators.

Ultimately, we must work to bridge the gap between agriculture experts and the public using shared beliefs, active listening, and increased transparency of practices and the practicalities behind them. Animal welfare is a pillar of animal husbandry. High quality animal welfare is important because it is the right thing to do ethically and ensures sustainability and profitability. If we don’t step in to communicate, we know who will.

Michelle Miller, the Farm Babe, is a farmer, speaker and writer who has worked for years with row crops, beef cattle and sheep. She believes education is key to bridging the gap between farmers and consumers.

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