Measuring animal welfare: what, how and why?

Webster, J. (2016). Animal Welfare: Freedoms, Dominions and “A Life Worth Living”.  Animals 6(6), 35.  

This paper summarised the author’s appraisal and comparison of three concepts for evaluation of animal welfare; namely the Five Freedoms, the Five Domains, and Quality of Life.  The relative validity, strengths, and limitations of each were discussed, and suggestions offered for their use in practice.

As society becomes increasingly aware of animal welfare issues, there is continued incentive for those within the scientific community to strengthen the ability to reliably measure and evaluate welfare and to develop methodologies to enable this.  Since welfare status is dependent upon the animal’s subjective experience of their mental and physical states, which collectively comprise a vast array of potential variables, several frameworks have been proposed as a means of structuring these many variables to facilitate easier analysis.  Three such conceptual frameworks of animal welfare were the subject of this paper.

The Five Freedoms and Five Dominions have different but complementary aims 

The Five Freedoms describe a set of aspirational conditions proposed as integral for achieving good welfare.  Originally developed for application to animals in intensive farming systems, this framework comprises measures of welfare outcomes for the animal that are resultant from the provisions and opportunities provided to them.  John Webster, the author of this paper, originally created the Five Freedoms but here acknowledged a weakness in that they do not constitute a methodology for comprehensive assessment of physical and mental welfare status, yet he robustly defended their purpose as a means of categorising actions necessary for good welfare in a simple and memorable manner.  In contrast, the Five Domains concept is adapted to fulfil a different objective, to measure the mental impact on the animal of their environment and experiences.  This can be used as a foundation for developing protocols for welfare evaluation or tools for classifying or ranking different husbandry systems.  However, it was argued that this framework is deficient in its lack of guidance on action required to address the welfare issues it identifies, and therefore has limitations on application in practice.

The focus of the Quality of Life concept is on appraising the balance of positive and negative experiences impacting upon the animal, to identify the extent to which the animal has a ‘life worth living’, or otherwise.  Critique of this concept centred on it being intrinsically based on a subjective value judgement made by humans about animals, lacking inclusion of more objective information from the perspective of the animals themselves.  Accordingly, the author suggested this concept has little utility as a foundation from which to develop welfare standards or husbandry guidance, but acknowledged it may be pertinent when individual subjective judgements are warranted, such as euthanasia cases.

It was concluded that whilst each of the three conceptual frameworks have utility in different contexts and may also be usefully applied complementarily, the Five Freedoms present a simple yet sufficiently comprehensive method to direct those responsible for animal husbandry (and associated regulation) towards the actions necessary for promoting optimal welfare.  It was proposed that since welfare is dependent upon action rather than thought, the Five Freedoms framework is more likely to realise animal welfare impact than either of the others.

World Animal Protection’s view 

Methodologies for assessing animal welfare in various contexts are important to enable the collection of scientific evidence pertaining to animals’ welfare status, needs and experiences.  Such evidence can be a powerful catalyst for change, and can greatly support our global advocacy for creating a ‘life worth living’ for animals around the world. This involves providing animals with an environment and conditions that not only alleviate suffering, but which enable them to experience positive states too.  We welcome continued research and expert opinion on tools for welfare evaluation, and believe it is important to identify measures of positive emotional state, so that they can be brought into practice to improve welfare standards.