Eight questions on animal welfare
The concept of animal welfare is at the crossroads of numerous philosophical, moral, scientific, technological, economic, regulatory and social influences that are sometimes conflicting. The welfare of animals dependent on humans – livestock, pets, animals used for scientific purposes and zoo animals – is playing an increasingly important role in our society. What is animal welfare? Is it enough just to treat an animal well? How is animal welfare objectively measured? Is it possible to redefine animal husbandry in order to improve it? And what is ANSES doing about it? You will find the answers to all these questions in our article.
What is animal welfare?
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 (ANSES, 2018). Good health, a satisfactory level of production for livestock and a lack of stress are not enough to justify adequate welfare, it is also necessary to consider what the animal feels, by determining subjective unpleasant perceptions such as pain and fear, and looking for signs that express positive emotions (satisfaction, pleasure, etc.).
Welfare should be assessed from the animal's perspective. We should stop trying to adapt the animal to its environment and rather adapt the animal's environment (breeding, transport, etc.) to its needs.
Animal welfare is an animal-centric approach, in contrast with humane treatment (see box).
Animal welfare is not the same thing as humane treatment
Humane treatment refers to actions that humans take or perform with the intention of meeting animals' needs as they interpret them, such as feeding, housing and tending to them. This is an anthropocentric approach that does not take into account the animal's feelings or positive emotions.
How is animal welfare measured?
Behavioural changes are often the first indicators of unease. The study of animal behaviour is therefore essential and is one of the tools used by researchers to assess animal welfare. Studying the animals' physiology, health status and, to a lesser degree, their productivity can also contribute to the assessment of welfare. For example, while a drop in yield may well indicate a state of unease or a health problem, adequate production should in no way be taken as synonymous with optimal welfare.
Did you know ?
Ethology, from the Greek word "ethos" denoting fundamental values, is the science that studies animal behaviour.
The increasingly widespread use of assessment tools provides a more objective and precise view of the situation in relation to animal welfare. For example, the Welfare Quality® Protocols offer a comprehensive assessment of animal welfare. These protocols have been developed, tested and validated for several species (pigs, cattle, poultry).
What are the National Reference Centre and the European Union Reference Centre for the welfare of poultry and other small farmed animals?
The National Reference Centre for animal welfare brings together stakeholders in research, development and training to promote and disseminate knowledge, innovations and know-how and to facilitate the integration of animal welfare into the design of sustainable farming systems (farm animals, pets, captive wildlife).
The European Union Reference Centre for animal welfare contributes to assisting Member States and the European Commission in the implementation of EU rules on animal welfare and protection. There are currently three centres (for pigs; for poultry, rabbits and other small farmed animals; and for equines and ruminants). They are tasked with developing and disseminating knowledge and tools for optimising the official animal welfare controls carried out at all stages of production by the competent authorities of each of the Member States.
ANSES is a member of the National Reference Centre and has been coordinator of the European Union Reference Centre for poultry, rabbits and other small farmed animals since 1 February 2020, a role it will fulfil for the next five years.
What framework is in place to regulate animal welfare?
Animal welfare is governed by European laws, which are either transposed into national law (directives) or applicable as they stand (regulations). These govern the rearing of certain livestock species – calves, pigs, laying hens and broilers – and the slaughter and transport of animals.
A European directive from 1998 provides a framework for livestock welfare, but lacks the precision of specific texts. European Union countries are free to take specific, more restrictive regulatory decisions, but must at least comply with the European texts.
There are certain specifications such as organic or Label Rouge. But while they give animals access to the outdoors in most cases, they do not have specific animal welfare standards. Lastly, there are also private labels, but these are only binding on those who issue them, and there is no particular validation of the criteria used to characterise animal welfare.
How can we redefine animal husbandry to improve animal welfare?
The living conditions and environment of livestock animals determine their well-being, health and performance and are therefore vitally important.
ANSES is working on:
- existing livestock systems, by trying to improve the animals’ living conditions, especially through their housing facilities. For example, it has been shown that enriching the living environment of laying hens by providing them with regularly renewed pecking objects from a young age reduces injurious pecking, even with birds kept in cages. Reducing bird density is also an important factor in improving their welfare, as it leads to fewer problems with lameness and leg injuries;
- the development of innovative systems offering alternative husbandry conditions. The aim is to place animals in living conditions that improve their welfare by allowing them to express their natural behaviours in terms of comfort, rest, exploration and play, in order to limit stress, reduce abnormal behaviour, improve health and thus reduce the need for medication. The Agency aims to try out the use of sheltered outdoor runs for poultry, for example. These hybrid spaces provide animals with protected access to the outdoors, natural light, more space and a substrate for exploration and comfort behaviours, while limiting the hazards of the outside world, such as interactions with wildlife potentially carrying pathogens.
Lastly, the Agency assesses the impact of husbandry systems on product quality, animal health and human health.
How can we improve the welfare of animals used in experiments?
While the living conditions of farm animals determine their health and welfare, the same is true for animals used for experimental purposes. Numerous scientific publications indicate lower variability in the results obtained when the living conditions of the animals in experiments are improved. Beyond simply complying with the regulations, providing animals with better living conditions may therefore contribute to improving research results. This could be achieved by optimising the living conditions in the experimental environment, for example by incorporating environmental enrichment more often. In experiments on infectious diseases, where the experimental protocol allows, it is preferable to house animals on bedding on the floor, rather than in cages. Good quality, friable litter allows birds to express their scratching and exploring behaviour. The animals can also be provided with manipulable objects: various pecking/scratching materials for poultry, hiding places for rabbits, etc.
What is the "One Welfare" concept?
Inspired by the concept of "One Health", "One Welfare" recognises the direct links between animal welfare and human well-being.
For example, this concept can be expressed as:
- a link between animal welfare and farmer well-being: farmers share their working conditions with their animals. For example, installing windows in buildings to allow access to natural light for the animals is also highly valued by the farmer, and the animals' state of welfare can also have an impact on the farmer's job satisfaction;
- the well-being of consumers, who show their satisfaction with the farming systems they support by buying their food;
- the well-being of slaughterhouse staff, where improved slaughter tool design and animal protection leads to better working conditions and satisfaction, and in turn to better treatment of the animals.
ANSES is part of the One Welfare joint technology network, which fosters the development of multidisciplinary studies on this subject.
What other work is ANSES carrying out on animal welfare?
- studying the impact of perinatal and early life experience on the subsequent living conditions of animals: e.g. waiting and transport conditions of chicks after hatching until they are placed on a farm;
- studying the impact of environmental enrichment on animal welfare and health, especially in the context of the cessation of mutilations (beak trimming in birds, tail docking in pigs, castration of piglets without anaesthesia, etc.);
- identifying practices that have already been adopted or need to be developed to improve goat welfare and the development of welfare assessment indicators: both for young goats and adults, and for goats with and without access to pasture.
ANSES has published several pivotal opinions:
> Animal welfare: context, definition and assessment
> Recommendations for the drafting of a good practice guide to ensure animal welfare
> Sampling protocols for monitoring good animal stunning practices at the slaughterhouse (PDF)