Animal Welfare and the Veterinary Profession: 50 Years of Change

In his paper to this year's International Pig Veterinarian's Society (IPVS) Congress in Vancouver, Canada, Dr David Fraser of the University of British Columbia described the changing reality and perceptions of animal welfare, writes Jackie Linden, editor of ThePigSite.
calendar icon 8 October 2010
clock icon 9 minute read

Dr Fraser opened his presentation by highlighting the recent development of animal welfare, by saying that, just nine years ago, he was involved for the first time in the development of a programme to assure their customers about the welfare of the animals in their supply chain. The company was Burger King and he was invited to serve on the advisory committee.

After a little initial scepticism, he was pleased to be involved in the discussions about maintaining public trust and 'doing the right thing' for animals. Since those early beginnings, "Burger King has done some very good things regarding animal welfare," he said.

Since then, many other organisations have become involved in animal welfare, including the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), the International Finance Corporation (the investment arm of the World Bank) and the FAO. Furthermore, it is expected that a 'Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare' will soon be presented to the United Nations with the expressed support of many of the world's countries.

All these organisations and the regulatory authorities are working on science-based solutions, they say. When Dr Fraser began doing research on the welfare of pigs 40 years ago, welfare was on the outermost fringe of science,he said.

Growing Focus on Animal Welfare

Every culture has an 'animal mythology' – a set of fundamental beliefs and values regarding animals – which we can often perceive through the art and stories of the culture, explained Dr Fraser. He went on to give examples from the creation story of the Ojibway culture of central Canada and from the Bible. These demonstrate both empirical beliefs – about what animals are like and the history of our involvement with them – and evaluative or ethical beliefs about how important animals are and how they should be treated.

There were three empirical beliefs – about different appearance, different origin, and different inner life – that reinforced the idea of humans as fundamentally different from animals and helped to justify the use of animals for human purposes. But in modern culture, empirical beliefs are not fixed by the constant re-telling of traditional stories, but rather are subject to change in light of scientific discoveries and other developments, said Dr Fraser.

Over the centuries, these empirical beliefs were gradually chipped away, at least partly by science. The first breakthrough was the development of knowledge of anatomy, from which it became clear that humans are actually built on the same anatomical template as the other vertebrate animals. From this developed the proposal of evolutionary biology of the 1800s and the startling proposal that the reason why we and other species have the same anatomical structure is that we share a common evolutionary origin.

It was the study of animal behaviour in the late in the 1900s that Dr Fraser believes led to a further crucial revision in our view of animals, this one centred on their mental and emotional lives.

What is Animal Welfare?

As the current wave of concern about animal welfare began, roughly in the 1960s, a debate emerged over what animal welfare really involves and with growing globalisation, it has become a global issue, he said.

The first major criticism of confinement production systems came in the book 'Animal Machines' by the English animal advocate, Ruth Harrison in 1964, in which she described cages for laying hens and crates for veal calves, said Dr Fraser. She claimed that these systems are so unnatural that they cause animals to lead miserable and unhealthy lives.

Subsequently, key concerns centred on words such as 'pleasure', 'pain', 'suffering' and 'happiness', which may be described as affective states. In the UK, the emphasis was put more on confinement and how it restricted the animals' natural behaviour.

Dr Fraser highlighted that the central concern was for a degree of 'naturalness' in the lives of animals: that animals should be able to perform their natural behaviour, that there should be natural elements in their environment, and that we should respect the 'nature' of the animals themselves.

As he pointed out, however, farmers and veterinarians brought a different focus when they engaged in the debate. For them, animals must have freedom from disease and injury, plus food, water, shelter and other necessities of life – concerns that may be summed up as basic health and functioning of the animals.

These different aims of these groups may go hand in hand, for example, in allowing a pig to wallow in mud on a hot day because it will presumably feel more comfortable (an affective state), because it can perform its natural cooling behaviour (natural living) and because it will have less disruption of its body processes caused by heat stress (basic health).

However, the different criteria do not always go together, Dr Fraser said, citing the gestation stall, which is a way of promoting healthy weight gain and avoiding injuries from aggression but it is very unnatural and may create a life that is not very pleasurable.

Animal Welfare Science

"The single-minded pursuit of any one element of animal welfare does not guarantee a high level of welfare as judged by the others."

As this debate unfolded in the 1960s and 1970s, people began doing scientific research on animal welfare, explained Dr Fraser. The research aimed both to make production systems more efficient by making them better suited to the animals and partly because people expected science to resolve the disagreements over the interpretation of animal welfare, he contended.

Some of the research used the basic health and functioning of animals as an indicator of animal welfare. An example was the modification of the battery cage for laying hens in Sweden, which forms the basis of animal welfare standards for cage design, firstly in Sweden and then in the European Union. Meanwhile, other scientists tried to improve animal welfare by making living conditions more 'natural' for animals, such as the development of teat feeding systems for veal calves. The use of painkillers for debudding calves would be an example of another approach – that of reducing unpleasant affective states.

Dr Fraser summed up by saying: "All three views of animal welfare have a scientific basis, and that the single-minded pursuit of any one criterion of animal welfare may fail to promote animal welfare as judged by the other criteria.

"For standards and practices to be widely accepted as improving animal welfare, they need to make a reasonable accommodation to all three."

Role of Veterinarians

"The increased focus on animal welfare, and the emerging science of animal welfare, have created expanded opportunities for veterinarians"

What is the role of veterinarians in this world of changing values and emerging science?, Dr Fraser asked.

Firstly, he finds it important to recognise that animal welfare research is not a mature field of science. He explained that much of the research is still more conceptual than strategic, that has been carried out on research farms rather than a commercial scale and that multi-disciplinary teams are needed to look at all the implications of new ideas.

"There is a great opportunity for veterinarians to work with animal welfare scientists to refine and broaden the science, and to apply it in practical ways," he said.

Second, the increased public concern about the welfare of animals has created an expectation that veterinarians will provide leadership in promoting animal welfare, not just as technical specialists working to prevent and treat disease but also as champions of animal welfare in a broader sense that includes the different areas of concern, he said.

Dr Fraser stressed his belief that there is some urgency about fulfilling these roles. He said: "Unless scientists and veterinarians can deal with the problems, then legislators and referenda may do so instead, and the outcomes may be less than ideal for the animals and for producers."

He also expressed his concern that outdoor systems that are perceived by the public as high-welfare may in fact involve serious problems of basic health and functioning.

"There is a need for technical innovation and good standards to ensure that this well-intentioned development does lead to good welfare for the animals," he said.

Even in 2010, these basic problems as these still waiting to be solved, Dr Fraser said. He expressed his concern that some of the elements of 'animal husbandry' have been superseded by a small number of scientific specialities.

He said: "I think animal welfare science is finally restoring these missing elements of animal husbandry, but with a scientific basis that was not available a century ago. Here we see an educational role for veterinarians: to use animal welfare science as a way of restoring animal husbandry in veterinary education."


From his wide-ranging presentation, Dr Fraser said that five conclusions may be drawn.

Firstly, he said, the social concern about animal welfare that we see today has grown out of a long history of changing attitudes, driven to a large degree by scientific discoveries that narrowed the gap that we perceive between people and animals.

Social concern about animal welfare comprises three main elements: the basic health and functioning of animals; the affective states of animals, especially freedom from negative states such as pain and distress, and the ability to live in a way that suits the animals' natural behaviour and other adaptations.

Each of these elements of animal welfare has a scientific basis, said Dr Fraser, and all three have given rise to practical improvements and science-based standards. The science did not arbitrate among the different views of animal welfare. Instead, the different views of animal welfare influenced the science and contributed to the richness of its ideas and approaches.

The single-minded pursuit of any one element of animal welfare does not guarantee a high level of welfare as judged by the others. For practices and standards to be widely accepted as improving animal welfare, they need to strike a balance among all three, he said.

Finally, Dr Fraser said: "The increased focus on animal welfare, and the emerging science of animal welfare, have created expanded opportunities for veterinarians to take on new scientific and technical roles, new social leadership roles, and new educational roles in improving the lives of animals."

October 2010

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