A review of animal welfare assessment, focusing on ‘positive’ welfare

Mellor, D.J. (2015) Positive animal welfare states and reference standards for welfare assessment. New Zealand Veterinary Journal, 63, 17–23.

This paper reviews the current reference standards used in animal welfare science, primarily ‘what animals want’, ‘natural living’, and ‘baseline welfare standards’. The author analyses how effective these are, not only in assessing the absence of negative welfare states (i.e. pain and suffering), but also in assessing positive welfare states (i.e. enjoyment and pleasure).

This review is the third, and final paper in a series which has been compiled by Professor David Mellor to inform vets, scientists and others working within the animal industry, on updated animal welfare science and positive animal welfare states. It evaluates current reference standards of animal welfare (natural living, baseline standards and what animal want), and discusses what are the acceptable and unacceptable limits set by each of these welfare assessments.

Natural living, baseline and what animals want reference standards

Firstly, the review examined the ‘natural living’ reference standard, which seeks to replicate the environment that the animal would have if it were in the wild. This standard emphasises behavioural freedom as the main component of good welfare. However, it doesn’t account for the poor welfare caused by the likes of nutritional difficulties, disease and natural disasters - all of which can be aided through human intervention, and perhaps at the cost of less behavioural freedom. Next, the author looked at the ‘baseline’ reference standard. This is where there is an ‘acceptable minimum’ standard of welfare - for example in terms of space allowance per animal. The main benefit of this approach is that improvements are usually small and relatively easy to implement - meaning that animal welfare will improve slightly on an individual level, but multiplied across a large number of animals, this benefit will be significant. The main down-side is that focusing on the bare minimum standard is likely to focus on alleviating pain and suffering, and will do little to promote positive welfare states in animals. Finally, the ‘what animals want’ reference standard was discussed. This reference standard seeks to allow animals to have choice over their environment. Although it may be difficult to know what choices to give animals, this can be established through experiments such as preference tests. The potential negative of this standard is that, like humans, animals may choose things which give them short-term benefit but have negative consequences for their long-term welfare.

The author concluded that a combination of welfare standards should be used to complement each other. By doing this, a holistic view on welfare can be achieved, where focus is spread between eliminating negative welfare and promoting positive welfare.

World Animal Protection’s view

This review is really important as it addresses the fact that as sentient beings, animals can feel different emotions, both positive and negative. We need to provide animals with environments and conditions that not only alleviate suffering, but which enable them to experience positive states too. It is important that we identify measures of positive emotional state, so that they can be brought into practice to improve welfare standards.