Animal Welfare: Why Incremental Improvements for Animals Are Necessary

animal welfare

Animal welfare is a concept which is embedded in the idea that humans can, and should, use animals. Though at times helpful in protecting animals from intentional cruelty at the hands of abusers, animal welfare gives license to exploiters to use animals for the benefit of people, be it on farms, in zoos and aquariums, or laboratories. This article will explore what animal welfare is, how it is enforced, and outline some animal welfare issues animals regularly face.

What is animal welfare?

Animal welfare is only applicable in situations where animals are under human control. From pets to livestock to those locked in laboratory cages, animal welfare is the measure of how an animal is coping while under human control, and can also account for the way a wild animal is killed, for example during hunting. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), welfare is supposed to ensure that an animal is safe, healthy, able to express natural behaviors, and is not experiencing physical or psychological discomfort (such as bodily pain or fear). Through veterinary and husbandry practices, these standards are meant to ensure animal health, appropriate sheltering, and humane management and killing. 

Although the intention may be good, the sad reality is that animal welfare and animal abuse are intimately linked -and grow even more closely bonded as the years go on, particularly with the proliferation of industrial animal agriculture. 

Animal welfare issues

Animal welfare issues tend to be common in the United States and across the world. Below are some of the most frequent issues arising across a range of industries and practices. 

Farm animals

The vast majority of animals living under human care in the United States are forced to endure conditions where their needs are generally not met. Despite the fact that farmed animals routinely experience the greatest impingements on their welfare, they are given the fewest protections – which illustrates how welfare standards can be established, and then ignored, by profiteers who care little for the actual well-being of the animals they are exploiting. 

This is because, particularly within industrial agriculture, neoliberal ideals of profits above all else have spawned the rise of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), also known as factory farms. These places violate animal welfare by design. Breeding pigs are locked into cages no bigger than their own bodies for much of their lives, preventing them from even turning around. Egg-laying hens in battery cages have an area roughly the size of a sheet of paper in which to spend their lives. At feedlots, cattle are crammed tightly into pens and stand in their own excrement. Mother cows can cry in agony as their infants are taken from them within minutes of being born, year after year. 

Although farmed animals in CAFOs remain alive and grow at rapid rates, this is thanks in large part to the heavy use of antibiotics and growth hormones. This can give the illusion that factory-farmed animals are healthy, and that their welfare is being accommodated for. Yet CAFOs often fail to meet many of the standards of welfare set out by the AVMA.  

Animal testing

Animals who live and die in laboratories are deemed to experience “necessary”  and “justifiable” suffering, which exempts people from ensuring many aspects of their welfare. This is also the case with farmed animals

No amount of welfare will prevent an animal from experiencing fear while being vivisected (dissected while still alive), or having products dropped into their eyes until they blister. Yet in the name of profit and science, these activities are considered necessary cruelties. 

Abandoned pets

Abandoned pets endure not only the trauma of being left behind by loved ones but also the uncertainties and fear of living in a shelter, which is likely to result in death. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that around 6.5 million animals enter the shelter system across the U.S. each year, with roughly 1.5 million euthanized annually.  

Behavioral enrichment

Behavioral enrichment attempts to alleviate boredom and stimulate mental activity in captive animals. Common environments that require enrichment are public display facilities such as zoos and aquariums. One example of enrichment is a puzzle feeder, where food of some kind is placed inside a container that an animal has to spend time figuring out how to open. 

However, these enrichments can fall far short of providing the type of stimulation an animal would experience in the wild. Dolphins, who in the wild can travel for hundreds of miles each day, are given objects such as hula hoops in their tanks. For animals whose brains are larger and more complex than human beings, these enrichments are likely woefully inadequate. Even with behavioral enrichments, dolphins and other animals can begin to exhibit stereotypic behaviors, such as endlessly chewing bars or grates of the enclosure. Stereotypic behaviors are associated with boredom and chronic stress. 


Bloodsports are forms of entertainment that involve the bloodletting of animals in some form. Bloodsports include bullfighting, where people plunge knives and harpoon-like weapons into the back and necks of bulls or cows; dogfighting, where dogs are pit against one another, and cockfighting, involving roosters who are compelled to fight often to the death. In all blood sports, generally, animals can be raised in questionable conditions and exposed to violent, painful deaths at the hands of people or other animals. 

Cruelty to animals

Intentionally causing unnecessary harm to animals is considered animal cruelty. Whether killing for entertainment, as in the blood sports mentioned above or hitting or kicking animals on farms, these acts of violence are deemed to cause “unnecessary”  or “unjustifiable” suffering. Since these types of violence clearly violate welfare standards, they are considered cruelty. 

Feral cats

An estimated 60 to 100 million feral cats roam the United States. Abandoned cats appear to suffer from depression after separation from their human families; some argue cats require human touch and affection in order to thrive. Denied this, along with regular access to food, shelter, and water, the welfare of cats can be harmed when they are kept apart from human beings. 

An additional problem with feral cats is their impact on wild species. Estimates say that cats kill around 640 million birds and small mammals in North America every year. While these include cats who aren’t feral, the impact of cats on wildlife is undeniable. 


Hunting wild animals, whether with dogs, bow and arrows, or shotguns, is rife with welfare issues. It is rare that animals are killed outright at the first gun or arrow shot; many can run away, grievously injured, only to die alone and after a prolonged agonizing injury. Hunting with dogs prolongs a terrifying chase for animals such as foxes, deer, and birds. Sport hunting is unnecessary since there are billions of farmed animals killed each year for food and clothing – meaning there are more than enough animal products available for most anyone living within reasonable distance to a supermarket. 

Overpopulation in companion animals

Numerous welfare concerns arise in the overpopulation of companion animals. Unwanted animals can end up on the streets, where they suffer from a lack of food and affection and are susceptible to human violence. These animals may end up breeding, exacerbating the problem by creating more strays. When stray animals are picked up by shelters, those who aren’t adopted can be euthanized. 

Overview of discretionary invasive procedures on animals

Discretionary invasive procedures on animals are operations that humans decide to perform on animals for a variety of reasons, but generally which primarily benefit human beings. Castrations of farmed animals and dogs are common procedures. Cat de-clawing, ear-tagging of livestock, and cutting tails off of animals like pigs, sheep and dogs are routine, performed on millions of animals in the U.S. annually each year, and much of the time without any anesthesia. 


Poaching is a form of hunting where an animal is taken illegally from the wild. The animal themselves may belong to a protected, or endangered, species, or the habitat the animal resides in can be protected. Either way, poaching greatly impacts the welfare of targeted animals since it removes them from their natural habitat, or outright takes their lives. Pangolins are among the most-trafficked animals in the world. Elephants and rhinoceros are frequently poached for their ivory. In these cases, concern for the animals’ welfare is generally entirely ignored.

Puppy mills

What many people don’t realize about those adorable pet-store puppies is that they often begin their lives in heartbreaking conditions. In puppy mills, breeder dogs are kept in small cages for the duration of their lives, forced to produce generation after generation of puppies who are taken from them abruptly. Dogs in these cages do not get to run outside, enjoy the companionship of other dogs or humans, and sometimes live on wire-bottom cages for much of their lives. The welfare violations on puppy mills are usually quite flagrant. 


Whaling is a highly contentious issue for several reasons, among these being the long periods of time it takes for a whale to die. Modern-day whaling technology can include a harpoon tipped with what is essentially a grenade filled with shrapnel that is shot through a whales’ body upon impact. Still, at times it can take many minutes, and even many hours, for a whale to die. Humane slaughter methods are endorsed in many countries around the world, yet because of the logistical challenges of working at sea, coupled with the vast size of these animals, humane slaughters cannot always be guaranteed.

What are the 5 animal welfare needs?

While different people, companies, and organizations can have differing definitions of what the 5 animal welfare needs are, below is a generally-accepted list: 

  1. Sufficient living environment
  2. Sufficient food and water
  3. Meeting the social needs of animals (housed with, or apart, from others)
  4. Protection from disease, injury or chronic pain
  5. Ability to engage in natural behaviors

What is the difference between animal rights and animal welfare?

Because animal welfare is the measurement of how an animal is faring under human control, it inherently reinforces the notion that animals belong under human control. Animal rights, on the other hand, recognizes the inherent rights that animals possess to govern their own lives, fully exercise their own autonomy, and be free of bodily and psychological interference by human beings. Within animal rights is the abolitionist movement, which advocates for a permanent end to the use of animals by humans – essentially putting animals “beyond use” of human beings. 

Why is animal welfare important?

Those who exploit animals, such as executives at multinational animal agriculture companies, often say that animal welfare is important because poor welfare results in decreased production. Animals who can’t gain weight will bring in less money at slaughterhouses; hens who are ill will produce fewer eggs. However, these concerns do not align with the interests of the animals themselves, who would likely rather live a life outside of a cage, choosing how to spend their time. 

Despite this, welfare does play an important role in animal protection. Without the bare minimum welfare standards that exist today, more abuse would likely take place. For example, it was welfare concerns that spurred California to pass Proposition 12, otherwise known as the Cage-Free Egg Act which banned battery cages throughout the state. Without this act, millions of more hens would be forced to endure the cruelty of battery cages. Welfare concerns can help raise the profile of animal suffering and inform important actions and legislation to reduce animal suffering. 

What are the three sectors of animal welfare?

  1. The physical state (all biological functions working normally, which involves appropriate feeding and disease or illness prevention).
  2. The emotional state (absence of chronic pain or fear).
  3. Ability to express natural behaviors.

Who started animal welfare?

People have cared about the fair treatment of animals for thousands of years, so it cannot be said that any one individual started the movement. However, there were some important figures along the way in Western culture’s history. 

The first animal welfare organization to come into existence, now known as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, was founded in 1824. Among the founding members was Richard Martin, also known as “humanity dick”, who passed a law to prevent cruelty towards cattle. Martin is noted for his significant contributions to the modern-day animal welfare movement. 

Is the Animal Welfare Act effective?

While effective in some ways, the Animal Welfare Act leaves much to be desired. Enacted in 1966 by the U.S. federal government and enforced by the United States Department of Agriculture, the Animal Welfare Act was primarily concerned with the abuses occurring in the nations’ laboratories. The Act’s mandate has since been expanded to address the welfare of animal entertainment industries and captive breeding. However, the Animal Welfare Act has many critics, not least due to the fact that it excludes human activities and industries that cause the most harm to animals. Hunting, fishing, and trapping are all beyond its purview, as are farmed animals of any kind. Laboratory animals such as mice, birds, and rats are also excluded. If these animals were included within the purview of the Animal Welfare Act, it would become far more effective.

One example of how the Animal Welfare Act fails animals came with the undercover investigation of Fair Oaks Farm, which produces the ironically-named Fairlife line of dairy products. Videos depicted workers hitting calves in the face, kicking them, stabbing them with metal objects, and burning them with branding irons, among other abuses. However, cows on farms are not within the jurisdiction of the Animal Welfare Act, so no actions could be taken under its purview. 

Why are animal lives important?

Animal lives matter because their lives matter to them. No animal wants to die or become injured. Contrary to what people in Western culture have long been conditioned to believe, animals possess sufficient intelligence and emotional capacities that enable them to reflect upon their own lives. This means that, most likely, animals know they don’t want to die.

They are aware of the painful conditions that arise when their welfare is abused and when they are cruelly dominated by people. Love, grief, despair, joy – animals experience these things in much the same ways as people do. Even those species who frequently fall below the radar of human compassion, such as fish, are proven as having emotional states. Crayfish can experience anxiety. In mammals, including cows, pigs, and goats, it is increasingly difficult to deny the fact that animals are sentient beings. Even chickens have been proven as possessing cognitive complexity, emotional sophistication, and unique, varied personalities.

Animal Welfare Legislation in the United States

There are some important pieces of legislation in the United States relating to animal welfare. The Humane Slaughter Act of 1958 attempts to ensure animals experience as painless a death as possible in slaughterhouses, though the Act does not apply to birds. In 2020, the federal government passed the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act to ban intentional cruelty. However, as with the Animal Welfare Act, farmed animals are excluded from its purview, along with those abused through hunting fishing, medical research, and other activities. 

State legislation has been growing over the years. One example of progressive legislation came in 2016 with the passing of the California Orca Protection Act that bans the keeping of orcas captive, in recognition that captivity irrevocably harms their welfare. 

For a more detailed resource on U.S. animal welfare legislation, click here. 

Animal welfare organizations

There are hundreds of animal welfare organizations around the world. Below is a short list of some of the bigger players. 

  • Animal Welfare Institute
  • Compassion in World Farming
  • National Institute of Animal Welfare
  • Pakistan Animal Welfare Society
  • Sarawak Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
  • Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT)
  • Wildlife Institute of India
  • World Animal Protection 
  • Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary

How can I help animal welfare?

There are many ways you can get involved with animal welfare. Learning about the issues, and spreading the word to your friends, family, and community is always helpful. Here is a list of resources you can browse. 

Other ways to become involved in the animal welfare movement include watching out for local legislation you can support or volunteering with one of the many animal welfare organizations. 


Animal welfare can at times be synonymous with animal exploitation. However, welfare concerns, enforcement, and legislation do make a difference in some animals’ lives. While there is still a far way to go before animals are not abused in CAFOs, laboratories, or other places, awareness appears to be growing about the plight some animals face. Animal welfare can help lead the way towards a more peaceful and fair world for animals under human care.