What Is the Difference Between Animal Rights and Animal Welfare?

Animal welfare advocates and animal rights groups are sometimes at odds. In this explainer, we dig into where the two approaches diverge.

image of two defendants Animal advocates Amy Soranno and Nick Schafer, what is the difference between animal welfare and animal rights

Explainer Law & Policy Policy

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Many people call themselves animal lovers and say they want animals to be treated well. But not every animal lover opposes using animals for human purposes, whether that be food, textiles or laboratory experiments. That contrast illustrates the basic difference between animal rights and animal welfare, both of which have long been a subject of philosophical and often emotional public debate.

What Is Animal Welfare?

Animal welfare is concerned with animals’ physical condition, mental well-being and ability to express their natural behaviors. To ensure good welfare, an animal must be healthy and well-nourished, free of discomfort, pain and distress, and able to behave naturally, such as by interacting with other animals or nursing their young.

The “five freedoms” are an internationally recognized framework for meeting the welfare needs of animals, first developed by the U.K.’s Farm Animal Welfare Council in 1965. They are:

  • The animal is free from hunger, thirst and malnutrition, because it has ready access to drinking water and a suitable diet.
  • The animal is free from physical and thermal discomfort, because it has access to shelter from the elements and a comfortable resting area.
  • The animal is free from pain, injury and disease, thanks to suitable prevention and/or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  • The animal is able to express most of its normal behavioral patterns, because it has sufficient space, proper facilities and the company of other animals of its kind.
  • The animal does not experience fear or distress, because the conditions needed to prevent mental suffering have been ensured.

The position has since evolved to add that “all farm animals should have a life worth living, from their point of view and that an increasing proportion should have a good life.”

Many countries have some form of animal welfare legislation to protect the basic needs of certain animals in specific contexts, such as on farms. But these protections are often narrow in scope and poorly enforced.

What Are Animal Rights?

If animals had legal rights they would, at minimum, be free of human exploitation and oppression. In most countries, farmed and companion animals are legally considered property, with their interests subordinated to humans. Animal rights would not be exactly the same as human rights since not all human rights, such as a right to education or to freedom of religion, would be relevant for animals. But animal rights would include the right not to be farmed or used in laboratories.

There are ongoing debates about what animal rights would look like in practice, with some theorists arguing that animals could even be granted political rights so that they could participate, probably through human representatives, in political decision-making. 

What Are Animal Ethics?

Animal ethics is an area of philosophy that focuses on the moral status of animals. Ethicists have long debated what makes an animal deserving of moral consideration. Being sentient — having the ability to experience sensations and feelings, including suffering — was first proposed as the basis of moral consideration by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham in 1780. 

The most well-known modern thinkers on animal ethics are Peter Singer and Tom Regan. Singer’s 1975 book, “Animal Liberation,” reissued earlier this year, argues for giving animal and human interests equal consideration. His utilitarian position is that the right action is that which maximizes well-being and happiness for the greatest number of individuals. In 1983, Regan published “The Case for Animal Rights,” in which he argued for understanding animals as having intrinsic value and therefore deserving moral consideration. Under this view, it is inherently wrong to kill an animal or treat them cruelly.

Though in theory sentience or intrinsic value may provide sound guides for how to treat animals, in practice how people think animals should be treated often depends on their perceived intelligence and likeness to human beings. A survey of more than 1,000 Americans by the group Faunalytics found that people are more likely to want to help an animal, by eating fewer of their species or by signing petitions, when they believe that animal to be intelligent. The problem is that we might not recognize all nonhuman intelligence, making it a dubious means of determining which animals are morally considerable.

What Is the Difference Between Animal Rights and Animal Welfare?

Animal welfare is distinct from animal rights in that it does not preclude the use and ownership of animals. In policy and legislation, animal welfarists are focused on incremental improvements to the living conditions of animals in contexts such as farming and zoos. For example, animal welfare reforms have secured bans on barren battery cages for laying hens in the U.K. and gestation crates in California, and slightly improved living conditions for nonhuman primates and dogs used in laboratory research in the U.S. 

By contrast, the animal rights movement seeks to abolish the systems that keep animals captive for human use. It would be possible to support incremental welfare reforms while simultaneously working toward the ultimate goal of ending human dominance over animals in all its forms. But some animal advocates and philosophers such as Tom Regan argue that the animal welfare approach does not go far enough to protect animals, and legitimizes their exploitation.

Animal Rights and Animal Welfare Organizations

There are a large number of organizations campaigning for animal rights or better animal welfare. Animal welfare advocates do not necessarily endorse an animal rights approach — some, such as the U.K.’s RSPCA, even provide intensive animal farms with welfare certifications. As a result, there is a long history of tension between welfare-oriented organizations and animal rights advocates. On the other hand, most animal agriculture groups see no distinction, lumping them together as animal rights activists. 

Other groups are working toward rights for animals, but accept the necessity of incremental welfare reforms in the meantime.

Animal rights groups include:

  • Mercy for Animals, a U.S.-based group that works to eradicate industrial animal agriculture, aquaculture and fishing, and shift food production to a plant-based system
  • Animal Justice Project, based in the U.K., conducts undercover investigations on farms and campaigns for an end to animal agriculture and experimentation
  • Anonymous for the Voiceless, a grassroots activist group in Australia that specializes in using conversation and footage of standard farming practices to teach the public about the lives of animals in the food system
  • Cruelty Free International, which aims to abolish experimentation on animals

Animal welfare groups include:

  • Compassion in World Farming, an international organization campaigning for better welfare for animals in the food system
  • Societies for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), in various countries, these societies rescue animals, campaign for better welfare and have the power to enforce animal protection laws
  • Animal Welfare Institute, a U.S.-based organization that campaigns for better welfare for animals on farms, in labs and in the wild, as well as companion animals

The Bottom Line

Everyone has the power to improve the lives of animals. Switching to a plant-based diet and buying certified cruelty-free and vegan products are among the most effective ways to make a difference. You can also support organizations that pursue animal welfare improvements or animal rights, or both, whether it’s through volunteering as a campaigner or activist, helping at an animal sanctuary or pledging your dollars.

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