How Do We Assess Animal Welfare?

In 2012, researchers Ohl & Van der Staay (1) stated that animal welfare issues cannot be addressed without the consideration of public moral values alongside the more objective analysis of animals’ biological functioning. In general, animal scientists’ contributions toward animal welfare concepts state this as an evolutioning concept in line with animal concerns. For this reason, we have seen a significant decrease in the acceptance of unnecessary animal suffering. Since the publication of Animal Machines by Harrison in 1964, the animal welfare conversation has seen a shift towards animal freedom, suffering, and animal rights, which has, in turn, lead to animal welfare being recognized as a science and widely studied today. But, how did we arrive here? Has it always been possible to assess animal welfare? We may say no, as the story of this science is more recent and it needs an integrative approach.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines that an animal is in a good state of welfare if (as indicated by scientific evidence) it is healthy, comfortable, well-nourished, safe, able to express innate behavior, and if it is not suffering from physical and emotional strains such as pain, fear, and distress. This means that in order to assess animal welfare we have to take into account measurable factors related to health, affective state, and natural life. So, how do we measure positive or negative welfare? Some protocols lead us to the answer.

The animal welfare indicators on a farm can be represented in different ways. On the one hand, there are animal-based indicators, for instance, to measure the dirtiness of an animal. We extrapolate that if an animal is dirty, the facilities are not well adapted to the animal to maintain its hygienic needs. On the other hand, there are environmental-based indicators. An example of this is when we measure the troughs’ availability to check if the animals have enough water to drink. Finally, there are management-based indicators. These take into account other factors, for instance, to assess the medication that is regularly used on the farm

An animal welfare protocol usually includes a variety of indicators, with the emphasis put on animal-based indicators, as they provide actual information on how an animal is doing. We can, for example, estimate if animals are resting OK by observing the farm’s animal sleeping facilities. However, we cannot conclude if these facilities are indeed providing the animals with comfort (or lack thereof). On the contrary, if we take an animal-based indicator instead, we would check if the animals have injuries that could indicate that the animal is not resting appropriately.

Food in Europe is evaluated under strict legislative controls. Normally, food that comes from animals goes beyond the official obligatory regulations with internal controls, certifications, and seals. Food that receives animal welfare certification succeeds an auditory where a wide number of animal welfare indicators are identified as positive. In Europe, there are many certifications, all to identify indicators that tell us something about the state of the animal. Information about the overall state of the animal in terms of health, feeding, behavior, and environment is hereby of high importance. This means that the evaluation of a wide range of indicators is taking place, including mortality, diseases, water provision, body condition (are they fat or too thin?), cleaning measures, resting time, social behavior, human-animal interactions, and more.

This science is rapidly advancing, always supported by the farming sector that is implementing all the necessary elements to ensure the welfare of its animals. Nowadays, a significant amount of controls take place, many more in comparison to the past. In addition, technological advances are redefining animal welfare indicators. Digitanimal and Sensowave participate in several European research projects, such as Cattlechain, that are implementing technologies to aid animal welfare assessment. Here, the aim is to provide IoT technologies to farms to facilitate the management and monitoring of animal welfare on a daily basis. 

IoT technology, for example, allows us to adjust and widen the indicators on a farm. In the case of grazing, we know that it is very beneficial for cows in order to develop their natural behaviors. In this case, GPS collars for the animals are implemented to allow us to continuously monitor grazing behavior. With regards to drinking behavior indicators, we have until now only been able to measure the drinking time and water flow. However, with the appropriate technology and post-date analysis, we can measure the exact liters of water an animal is consuming. This means we can look at indicators in real-time, which gives us much more concise information for animal welfare audits. In addition, it allows us to identify potential problems and if animal welfare standards are indeed being met.

(1) Ohl F and Van der Staay F.J. (2012) Animal welfare: At the interface between science and society. The Veterinary Journal 192 (2012) 13–19

This article is an adaptation of a Spanish publication written by Ana Bugueiro Domingo for Digitanimal/Cattlechain published in December 2020.

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