Measuring animal welfare and applying scientific advances – Why is it still so difficult?
UFAW International Symposium 2017
27th-29th June 2017
Animal welfare science is a relatively young field but it is developing rapidly. A recent review noted that over the last two decades the number of scientific publications in this area has increased by 10-15% annually. This research has been used to make many real improvements to the welfare of animals throughout the world.
There seems to be a growing consensus that what matters to those animals that are presumed to experience feelings, and therefore what should matter most to those concerned about animal welfare, is how those animals feel. However, this raises difficult questions, some of which are fundamental to the development of animal welfare science as a rigorous scientific discipline and the assessment of animal welfare. For example:
- Will we ever be able to demonstrate sentience? Knowing where to draw the line about which animals to care for is important to, avoid wasting scarce resources on animals that are not sentient, and to ensure that animals that are sentient are protected. Are there new techniques that could help or is the problem insoluble? Where should the line be drawn?
- Are the techniques that we have to study emotional state (affect) adequate or are there new and better ways of assessing how animals feel about themselves and their environment? How should we best choose and interpret measures? Do technological advances offer us alternative approaches? Is it worth trying to put a numerical value on animal welfare or are qualitative measures more appropriate?
- How does time fit into the equation? Over what period of time should welfare be considered – what is meaningful and relevant to the animal? Do animals experience time as we do? How should we weigh up the challenges and good experiences to come so as to arrive at a view about the animals lifetime experience, and is this worth doing?
- How important is positive welfare? Should preventing suffering be our first priority or should we now be looking to maximise enjoyable experiences for animals in our care too? Is a permanent state of positive welfare possible, or do animals reset their emotional state so that attempts to achieve positive welfare are doomed to failure as the animal habituates to a better than adequate environment? What happens when those experiences preferred by an animal have a long-term negative impact on health?
How robust is the data collected on animal welfare? Are there lessons to be learnt from other areas of research with respect to e.g. blinding, randomization, pre-registration of hypotheses, null results, meta-analysis, clinical trials?