The welfare of animals who are dependent on humans – farm animals, pets, animals used for scientific purposes and zoo animals – is becoming increasingly important in our society. Animal welfare, which is a fundamental topic for ANSES, is at the crossroads of numerous philosophical, moral, scientific, technological, economic, regulatory and social influences that are sometimes conflicting. These multiple approaches colour our views of animal welfare. Because of this, the Agency considered it was necessary to undertake an in-depth analysis of the definition of animal welfare, which will serve as a framework for its future research and expert appraisal work.
In the Opinion it is publishing today, special attention has been given to the scientific foundations for the notion of welfare, based on the mental characteristics of animals, which are sentient beings with various levels of consciousness.
The Agency proposes the following definition of animal welfare that takes into account changes in scientific knowledge based on a multidisciplinary approach, and summarises the analyses of the experts it asked to examine the methods required for its assessment:
The welfare of an animal is its positive mental and physical state as related to the fulfilment of its physiological and behavioural needs in addition to its expectations. This state can vary depending on the animal's perception of a given situation.
- The concept of welfare applies to the mental aspect of an animal's perception within its environment. The concept is mainly individual, as opposed to group, and contextual, with every environment having a different impact on the individual. This means that a level of welfare is determined for a particular individual in a given environment. This positioning is not intended to minimise the importance of the group, which is part of the individual's environment on which welfare is assessed.
- The mental aspect draws attention to the fact that good health, an adequate level of production or a lack of stress is not sufficient. It is also necessary to consider what the animal feels by determining subjective unpleasant perceptions such as pain and suffering and also looking for signs that express positive emotions (satisfaction, pleasure, etc.). The analysis of an animal's behaviour and its physiological and health status can provide an integrated view of how it has adapted to its environment and of its general well-being.
- A need is a requirement for survival and quality of life related to the maintenance of homeostasis and behavioural motivations. Some examples are thirst, bedding, exploration of the environment and interactions with other animals. The non-fulfilment of a need generates a state of unease and/or frustration that can induce behavioural and/or physiological disturbances (state of chronic stress, for example) and increase the risk of disease.
- An expectation is a mental process generated by the anticipation of an event, to which the animal will refer to assess the valence of that event, from pleasant to unpleasant. Expectations are reflected in anticipatory behavioural and physiological responses. Depending on the level of fulfilment of its expectations, the individual feels positive or negative emotions. Negative emotions can be manifested through behaviour of frustration or redirection. This notion of expectation in animals, while well characterised in experimental psychology, is still difficult to determine in practice.
While positive human actions towards animals (well-treatment) are an essential prerequisite for animal welfare, it is nonetheless necessary to focus on the animal itself to ascertain that these actions are effective in ensuring its welfare. Thus, the proposed definition recognises that an animal's mental state can change depending on its perception of the situation, which leaves room for revisions taking into account new knowledge on the mental states of animals, especially regarding their level of consciousness.
The content of this definition is thus subject to change with advances in knowledge, in particular relating to the mental capacities of animals, which determine their perceptions and interpretations of situations.
Measurements taken on animals are fundamental to both the scientific and practical approaches to assessing welfare.
The Opinion also underlines that the assessment of animal welfare requires a solid understanding, not only of the biology of the species involved, including its evolutionary history, but also of the suitable methods to be used for the assessment itself.
For practical field use, the experts have therefore developed numerous assessment grids with varying degrees of complexity. It is indeed essential that specific tools be developed for each species, development stage and set of environmental conditions. The increasingly widespread use of assessment tools in grid form provides a more objective and precise view of the animal welfare situation, which is dependent on the context of the animals’ relationship with humans.
This ANSES Opinion dedicated to animal welfare forms a foundation for defining the framework for the future research and expert appraisal work on which the Agency will rely for its subsequent Opinions in this area.