Do you know what Animal Welfare really means?

In my 15 years studying, researching and being employed in agriculture I’ve had many discussions with urban and agricultural friends, family, colleagues and even strangers about the meaning of animal welfare.  Often this conversation begins with animal welfare and then diverges into other different and oftentimes unrelated topics.  One such discussion began with welfare of laying hens in cages then turned into a discussion of the nutritional benefits of eggs from hens fed different diets.  I suspect welfare is never a short discussion because in many people’s minds welfare is associated with so many other issues.

So, what is Animal Welfare?

Animal welfare is the belief that it is okay for humans to use animals for their own purpose (whether that be for meat, as entertainment such as in equine sports, or for research) but that they must be treated with dignity and respect and in the manner that the species requires.  Achieving optimal animal welfare requires extensive research, sound scientific principles and many years of practical experience.

Ok fine, but how you ask do we know if an animal has “good” animal welfare?   Many people would argue that to determine if an animal has good welfare we need to look at the 5 Freedoms (for more information go to http://www.fawc.org.uk/freedoms.htm):

  1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst – by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.
  2. Freedom from Discomfort – by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  3. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease – by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  4. Freedom to Express Normal Behaviour – by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
  5. Freedom from Fear and Distress – by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering

These are an excellent way to assess an animal’s welfare however improving welfare is never an easy or simple issue.  We find that to improve one element of animal welfare often means giving something else up.  For example layer cages were designed to keep chickens from being exposed to disease, to be able to supply proper nutrition to each hen and to prevent death from predation among other things.  Controlling those factors has resulted in a significant improvement in layer hen welfare.  However, it also means that hens have been restricted in their ability to perform normal behaviours, a certain negative for animal welfare.  This is where continual improvement based on research and science comes in.  Scientists are now working on modified cages that allow for these normal behaviours while still keeping all of the positives of the cage design.

In Canada, Codes of Practice for the Care and Handling of Livestock have been developed for all livestock animals that take into account the multiple factors which influence welfare.  The codes are based on science and practical knowledge and have been put together through collaboration between researchers, producers, industry, and welfare advocates.  They are being revised continually and this year alone 6 codes were updated to reflect changing societal opinions and new research that has a marked improvement on welfare.  This is something that often gets overlooked when discussing welfare – that Canadian producers and industry do a great job and are continually striving for improvement in animal welfare!  For more information on the Codes go to http://www.nfacc.ca/codes-of-practice.

If you would like more information on how farm animals are raised in Canada go to Virtualfarmtours.ca.

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