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How do we assess animal welfare?

Written by Ana Bugueiro Domingo

Introduction to the concept of Animal Welfare

The two researchers Ohl & Van der Staay en 2012 stated that animal welfare issues cannot be addressed without due consideration of the public moral values alongside the more objective analysis of the animals’ biological functioning. In general animal scientists’ contributions along animal welfare concepts states this as an evolutioning concept in line with society animals’ concerns. For this reason, nowadays we don’t accept unnecessary animal suffering that was accepted time ago. Thus since the publication of Animal machines by Harrison in 1964 the animal welfare conversation translates on animal freedom, suffering, animal rights, to find a global scientific consensus to be animal welfare by today widely studied and recognized as a science. But, how did we arrive at that consensus? Could we always assess animal welfare? We may say no, the story of this science is kind of recent and it needs an integrative approach. 

The WHO defines an animal is in a good state of welfare if (as indicated by scientific evidence) it is healthy, comfortable, well nourished,safe, able to express innate behaviour, and if it is not suffering from unpleasant states such as pain, fear, and distress. This requires that for assesment animal welfare we have to take into account measurable factors included in health, affective state, natural life, so makes it as complicated as its definition. How do we measure positive or negative welfare? Some protocols give us the answer. 

Animal Welfare Indicators

The animal welfare indicators in a farm can be taken in different ways. On one hand, there are animal-based indicators, as can be to measure the dirtiness on an animal. We extrapolate that if an animal is dirty the facilities are not well adapted to the animal to maintain its hygienic needs. On the other hand there are the environmental-based indicators. An example of this is when we measure the troughs availability to check if the animals have enough water to drink. Finally there are other kinds of indicators, that are called management-based indicators, where we take into account some farmer habits, to measure for example the drug regularly used in the farm.

An animal welfare protocol usually includes many types of indicators, but always trying that the highest number is the animal-based ranked, as they give the actual information of how the animal is now. I mean, if we want to check if the animals are resting O.K. in a farm, we can observe the farm facilities and measure how the beds are, but we are not seeing further if these beds that look uncomfortable are provoking lack of comfort to the animals. On the contrary if we can take an animal-based indicator instead, we would check if the animals have hairless or injuries that means that the animal is not resting appropriately and there is a lack of comfort at that farm. 

Every food in Europe is evaluated under strict legislative controls, normally food that comes from animal lives expands the official obligatory regulations with internal controls and certifications and seals. An animal welfare certificate food, means that it succeeds an auditory where we identificated a wide number of animal welfare indicators as positive. In Europe there are many certifications, all to identify indicators that tell us how the animal is. We can measure more or less but it must give us a global status of how the animal is in terms of health, feeding, behaviour and environment. This means we are evaluating a wide range of indicators as mortality, diseases, water provision, body condition (are they fat or thin?), cleaning measures, resting time, social behaviour, human-animal interactions,etc. 

This science has fastly advanced, always supported by the farming sector that is implementing all necessities for their animals. Nowadays we are doing many more controls than in the past, even more we are redefining these animal welfare indicators thanks to technological advances. Digitanimal and sensowave participate in some european research projects that are implementing technologies for helping animal welfare assessment. The purpose is to provide IoT technologies to farms to facilitate management and to monitor animal welfare daily. 

Some use cases

To bring some examples that we understand better this evolution, thanks to IoT technology we are adjusting and widing the indicators in a farm. In case of grazins, we know it is very beneficial for the cows to develop its natural behaviours, so we implement GPS collars to the animals that we continuously monitor its grazing behaviour. As other example, for drinking behaviour indicators, until now we are only able to measure the length and the water flow, but with the appropriate technology and post data analysis we can measure the exact litres of water an animal is drinking. This means we are taking indicators in this exact moment, that give us much more information for animal welfare audits, that help us to find a problem (in case of), and give us much more peace knowing our animals are in plenty of comfort.

 Ohl F and Van der Staay F.J. (2012) Animal welfare: At the interface between science and society. The Veterinary Journal, 192 (2012) 13–19.

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