Animal Welfare

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Editor: J. Britt Holbrook
Date: 2015
Ethics, Science, Technology, and Engineering: A Global Resource
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 5
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Page 83

Animal Welfare

The concept of animal welfare was essentially unexamined until the 1970s. This is the case because, historically, the major use of animals in society was agriculture—that is, for food, fiber, locomotion, and power. From the beginning of animal domestication some ten thousand years ago, the key to success in animal agriculture, in turn, was good husbandry (Rollin 1995 ). (The term husbandry is derived from the Old Norseis derived from the Old Norse words hus bond, “bonded to the household.”)

The Husbandry Ideal

Husbandry involved putting animals into the best possible environment fitting their biological natures and needs, and then augmenting that environment with the provision by the agriculturalist of food during famine, water during drought, protection from predation, help in birthing, and medical attention. The resulting symbiotic relationships between farmers and their animals represented what has been called “a fair and ancient contract,” with both animals and humans better off in the relationship than they would be outside it. Animals benefited from the care provided by humans; humans benefited from the animals’ toil, products, and sometimes their lives, but while they lived, they lived decent lives. Proper animal treatment was assured by human self-interest; if the animals were made to suffer, their productivity was diminished. The only social ethic regarding animal treatment for most of human history was the prohibition of deliberate, sadistic, overt, willful, intentional cruelty, as eventually encoded in anticruelty laws beginning in England in the late eighteenth century, to sanction sadists, psychopaths, and others not motivated by self-interest and, as St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274) affirmed, likely to abuse humans as well as animals.

Thus animal welfare was not a conceptually problematic notion occasioning much reflection. If the animal was growing, reproducing, giving milk or eggs, or pulling the plow, it was surely enjoying good welfare. So powerful was the husbandry notion, in fact, that when the Psalmist looks for a metaphor for God’s ideal relationship to humans, he chooses the shepherd in the Twenty-Third Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He leadeth me to green pastures; he maketh me to lie down beside still water; he restoreth my soul.” Humans want no more from God than what the good husbandman provides to animals.

From Husbandry to Industrialized Agriculture

Beginning in the 1940s, changes in agricultural animal production systems were catastrophic for animal husbandry. In agriculture, this period saw the rise of the application of industrial methods to the production of animals to greatly increase efficiency and productivity, and academic departments of animal husbandry symbolically changed their names to animal science, with the values of efficiency and productivity eclipsing the traditional values of husbandry and way of life. In the industrialized confinement of “factory farming,” technoscientific developments, such as antibiotics, vaccines, hormones, and airhandling systems, allowed human beings to force animals into environments not fitting their natures; these animals continued to be economically productive, while their wellbeing was impaired. Animals thus suffered in four major ways (Rollin 2004).

First, probably the major new source of suffering in confinement agriculture resulted from physical and psychological deprivation for animals in confinement: lack of space, lack of companionship for social animals, inability to move freely, boredom, austerity of environments. Breeding sows in confinement systems, for example, spend their entire productive lives in stalls measuring 7 feet by 2 feet by 3 feet (about 2 by 0.6 by 0.9 meters), so small that the animals cannot turn around or sometimes even stretch out. Because the animals evolved for adaptation to extensive environments but are now placed in truncated environments, such deprivation is inevitably abusive.

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Friesian cows stand on a rotary milking parlor at a farm in New South Wales, Australia.

Friesian cows stand on a rotary milking parlor at a farm in New South Wales, Australia. The concept of animal welfare, which was essentially unexamined until the 1970s, considers the treatment of animals since the development of industrial farming, when values of efficiency and productivity eclipsed the traditional values of animal husbandry. CARLA GOTTGENS/BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES.

Second, in confinement systems, workers may not be “animal smart”; the “intelligence,” such as it is, is built into the mechanized system. Instead of husbandmen, workers in swine factories are minimum-wage, often illegal immigrant labor. These workers often have no empathy with, or concern for, the animals. The biblical shepherds have become detached (and often themselves oppressed) factory assembly-line workers.

Third, the huge scale of industrialized agricultural operations—and the small profit margin per animal— militate against the sort of individual attention that typified much of traditional agriculture. In traditional dairies as late as 1950, one could make a living with a herd of fifty cows, animals that were known to the farmer by name as individuals. By 2000, one needed literally thousands. In the United States, dairies may have more than ten thousand cows. In swine operations, sick piglets are sometimes killed, not treated. Agricultural veterinary medicine is far more concerned with “herd health” than with treating sick individuals.

Finally, “production diseases” arise from the new ways animals are produced. For example, liver abscesses in cattle are a function of certain animals’ responses to the high-concentrate, low-roughage diet that characterizes feedlot production. Although a certain percentage of the animals get sick and die, the overall economic efficiency of feedlots is maximized by the provision of such a diet. The idea of a method of production creating diseases that were “acceptable” would be anathema to a husbandry agriculturalist.

Thus, in industrialized agriculture, the tie between productivity and welfare was broken. The agriculture community nevertheless continued to insist that if animals were productive, they were well off, despite the fact that welfare applies to individual animals and productivity is an economic measure of an operation as a whole.

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The same historical moment also saw the rise of large amounts of animal research and animal testing. This again differed from husbandry in that the animals did not benefit from being in research. Indeed, research deliberately hurt animals, gave them diseases, burns, fractures, and so on, with no compensatory benefit to the animals— although there was undeniable benefit to humans and other animals from the knowledge and therapies produced.

Criticizing Animal Treatment

Since the 1960s, beginning in Great Britain, Western society has become increasingly concerned about animal treatment in agriculture that is industrial, not husbandrybased, and is dominant in research and testing. Initially, such uses were seen as “cruel.” Yet, as mentioned, the anticruelty ethic and laws were designed for deviant behavior, not common uses. In order to rationally capture concern about animal treatment that results from putatively decent motives, such as increasing productivity or studying disease, new conceptual tools were needed. First of all, a new ethic for animal treatment was needed to address suffering not resulting from intentional cruelty. Second, some notion of animal welfare or well-being was needed, given that productivity no longer assured welfare. In both cases, preserving or restoring the fairness inherent in husbandry served as an implicit standard.

Animal-using industries, however, continued to define animal welfare in terms of human goals for the animal. For example, the official agricultural industry response to burgeoning social concern for animal treatment, the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) Report of 1981 , defined farm animal welfare as follows: “The principle [sic] criteria used thus far as indexes of the welfare of animals in production systems have been rate of growth or production, efficiency of feed use, efficiency of reproduction, mortality and morbidity” (CAST 1981 ).

When dealing with adults and ethics, one does better to remind than teach. New ethical challenges are likely to be answered only by appeal to unnoticed implications of extant ethical principles, rather than by creation of a new ethic ex nihilo. Thus the civil rights movement did not invent a new ethic; rather, it reminded society that segregation violated basic ethical principles American society took as axiomatic. In the same way, society has looked to the ethic for the treatment of humans to derive an ethic for animals (Rollin 1981 ).

Specifically, every society faces a conflict between the good of the group and the good of individuals, as when a wealthy person is taxed to support social welfare. In totalitarian societies, the good of the individual is subordinated to the group. Democratic societies, however, build “protective fences” around individuals to protect basic aspects of human nature from being submerged for the general good. These fences protect freedom of speech, freedom of religion, property ownership, privacy, and so on. These are called rights, and are a morally based legal notion. Society has reasoned that if animal use for human benefit is no longer naturally constrained by the need for good husbandry, such proper treatment must be legally imposed. This concept is well-illustrated by the proliferation of laws in Western society to protect animal welfare in research, agriculture, zoos, shows, and elsewhere.

Thus the notion that animals should have rights or legal protections for basic elements of their natures—a notion embraced by more than 80 percent of the US public (Parents Magazine 1989 )—represents a rational ethical response to the end of husbandry, as well as to other factors that have focused social concern on animal treatment. These factors include the urbanization of society and correlative shrinkage in numbers of people making a living from animals; the emergence of companion animals as a paradigm for all animals; the mass media focusing on animal issues as a way of garnering audiences; and the shining of a moral searchlight on the traditionally disenfranchised—minorities, women, and the disabled—out of which movements many of the leaders of animal activism emerged.

Thus “animal rights as a mainstream phenomenon” captures the social demand for legally codified animal protection and assurance of welfare. In this sense animal rights is simply the form that concern for animal welfare has taken when animal use is no longer constrained by husbandry. This sense should not be confused with the vernacular use of animal rights as referring to the view of some activists that no animals should ever be used by humans, a view better termed animal liberation. The two views are clearly distinguished by the fact that most people in society wish to see animals protected while used for human benefit, but do not wish such uses eliminated.

The Good of Animals

Any attempt to protect animals and their interests depends on some socially accepted view of animal welfare, some account of the good of animals themselves and what they are owed by humans to reach an acceptable quality of life, and on value notions implicit or explicit therein. Providing an account of welfare, therefore, is going to involve both factual and value judgments. The factual part involves empirical studies of animal natures—what has been called their telos—nutritional needs, social needs, health needs, psychological needs, exercise needs, and know n asneeds arising from species-specific behavior (Fraser and Broom 1990 ). This is the purview of an emerging field known as animal welfare science. The value judgment component in addressing animal welfare comes from the moral decision entailed by deciding which of these multiple needs ought to be met, and to what extent. For example, in zoos during the 1970s, tigers were typically kept in austere cell-like cages and fed horse meat. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, they may have 10 acres (about 4 hectares) to prowl. But the natural tiger range is miles, and tigers kill their food. Clearly, the situation now is better than the previous one, but major needs are still unmet, because the tigers are not allowed predation and their range has been truncated. Similarly, health is obviously fundamental to welfare, but analysis reveals that the concept of health includes significant value judgments (Rollin 1979 ). Indeed, the CAST Report definition of welfare as equating to productivity bespeaks a set of quite controversial value judgments based on seeing animals only as production units, a view that does not accord with societal ethics.

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One additional crucial component is essential to understanding animal welfare. In the early 1980s a number of philosophers and scientists (Rollin 1981 ; Duncan 1981 ; Dawkins 1980 ) pointed out that, ultimately, animal welfare is most crucially a matter of the animal’s subjective experience—how the animal feels, whether it is in pain or suffering in any way, a point that is obvious to ordinary people but which conflicted with the scientific ideology that dominated twentieth-century science (Rollin 1998 ). This ideology affirmed that all legitimate scientific judgments had to be empirically testable. Value judgments and statements about human or animal subjective awareness, thoughts, or feelings were ruled out by fiat. Because most scientists were indoctrinated with this ideology, the scientific community was illequipped to deal with ethical issues occasioned in the public mind by scientific activity, the first historically being the ethics of animal research. In any case, the failure to recognize the need for value judgments in general and ethical judgments in particular, as well as judgments about animal feelings, helps explain why the scientific community has not been a major contributor to public understanding of animal welfare.


There is no reason to believe that animal welfare issues will not continue to dominate the public imagination. Public fascination with animals, animal treatment, and animal thought and feeling is manifest in the many television programs, newspaper and magazine articles, books, and films devoted to these issues. Every area of human–animal interaction, be it agriculture, research, hunting, trapping, circuses, rodeos, zoos, horse and dog racing, product extraction, and even companion animals, is fraught with ethical and welfare issues. (Currently, a major social concern is elevating the monetary value of companion animals above mere market value.) As these issues are engaged, it is likely that human understanding of animal welfare will be deepened, as it must be to provide rational legislated protection for these fellow creatures.

Significantly, more than 2,100 bills pertaining to animal welfare were proposed in 2004 in US federal, state, and municipal legislatures. The European Union has banned sow stalls and surgical castration of piglets without anesthesia and analgesia. Some countries have granted animals protections under their constitutions. Research on the great apes has been all but eliminated around the world. Nine states have banned sow stalls, battery cages for laying hens, and veal crates by referenda. Tail-docking of dairy cattle is being eliminated across the United States. Greyhound racing is virtually gone in the United States. It is reasonable to believe that major changes in animal welfare will be mandated as focus on these issues continues to sharpen and deepen across the world, and society actively attempts to restore the “ancient contract” with animals.


Benson, G. John, and Bernard E. Rollin, eds. 2004. The Well-Being of Farm Animals: Challenges and Solutions. Ames, IA: Blackwell.

An anthology with major experts addressing animal welfare issues in agriculture.

Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST). 1981. Scientific Aspects of the Welfare of Food Animals. Ames, IA: CAST .

Dawkins, Marian Stamp. 1980. Animal Suffering: The Science of Animal Welfare. London: Chapman and Hall .

Classic work defending the notion that animals can suffer and how this can be determined.

Duncan, Ian J. H. 1981. “Animal Rights–Animal Welfare: A Scientist’s Assessment.” Poultry Science 60 (3): 489–499 .

Classic paper defending the view that welfare is a function of animal consciousness.

Fraser, Andrew Ferguson, and Donald Broom. 1990. Farm Animal Behaviour and Welfare. 3rd ed. London: Bailliere Tindall .

Standard textbook of welfare and behavior.

McIlwraith, C. Wayne, and Bernard E. Rollin, eds. 2011. Equine Welfare. Oxford: Blackwell.

“Parents Poll on Animal Rights, Attractiveness, Television, and Abortion.” 1989. Parents Magazine (September–October) .

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Pond, Wilson G.; Fuller G. Bazer; and Bernard E. Rollin, eds. 2012. Animal Welfare in Animal Agriculture: Husbandry, Stewardship, and Sustainability in Animal Production. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Rollin, Bernard E. 1979. “On the Nature of Illness.” Man and Medicine 4 (3): 157–172 .

Rollin, Bernard E. 1981. Animal Rights and Human Morality. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus. Account of the emerging social ethic for animals. 2nd ed., 1992 .

Rollin, Bernard E. 1983. “The Concept of Illness in Veterinary Medicine.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 182 (2): 122–125.

Rollin, Bernard E. 1995. Farm Animal Welfare: Social, Bioethical, and Research Issues. Ames: Iowa State University Press .

A survey of issues in farm animal welfare.

Rollin, Bernard E. 1998. The Unheeded Cry: Animal Consciousness, Animal Pain, and Science. Expanded ed. Ames: Iowa State University Press .

Exhaustive defense of the legitimacy of talking about animal consciousness and animal pain.

Rollin, Bernard E. 2004. “Animal Agriculture and Emerging Social Ethics for Animals.” Journal of Animal Science 82 (3): 955–964.

Rollin, Bernard E. 2006. Science and Ethics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Rollin, Bernard E. 2011. Putting the Horse before Descartes: My Lifes Work on Behalf of Animals. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Webster, John 2013. Animal Husbandry Regained: The Place of Farm Animals in Sustainable Agriculture. London: Routledge.

Bernard E. Rollin Revised by Rollin

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3727600042

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  • Agriculture
    • animal welfare,
      • 1: 83-86
  • Animal experimentation,
    • animal welfare,
      • 1: 85
  • Animal rights,
    • animal welfare,
      • 1: 85
  • Animal welfare,
    • 1: 83-87
    • 1: 84
  • Civil rights and liberties
    • animal welfare,
      • 1: 85
  • Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (US),
    • 1: 85
    • 1: 86
  • Husbandry,
    • 1: 83
  • Individual vs. societal interests
    • animal welfare,
      • 1: 85
  • Industrial agriculture,
    • 1: 84
    • animal welfare,
      • 1: 83-86
  • International issues
    • animal welfare,
      • 1: 86
  • Productivity,
  • Regulation and regulatory agencies,
    • animal welfare,
      • 1: 86
  • Sentience
    • animal welfare,
      • 1: 86
  • Subjectivity
    • animal rights,