What Is Animal Welfare?

Public opinion polls find strong levels of support for animal welfare laws aimed at improving the treatment of farm animals.

what is animal welfare

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Polling suggests U.S. voters care about animal welfare. Almost half of all Americans believe animal cruelty laws in the U.S. are not strict enough for example, with one in three saying legal rights for animals should be strengthened. A 2022 survey conducted by Data for Progress found 80 percent of likely U.S. voters identified preventing farm animal cruelty as a matter of personal moral concern. But just what is animal welfare?

What Is Animal Welfare?

Animal welfare centers around the belief that nonhuman animals should be treated well, even if we are using and commodifying them. We use animals for everything from food production to entertainment. Having high animal welfare standards means ensuring that every animal has a life worth living. 

What Are the Three Main Concepts of Animal Welfare?

The three main concepts of animal welfare, or the three circle model, was first proposed as recently as 1997 by academics at the University of British Columbia. Researchers identified three main areas: 

  1. Animals should be able to live natural lives. In many zoos and animal exhibitions, animals are housed in barren cages in which they are not able to express their natural behaviors. The move toward more natural-looking enclosures in zoos is intended to allow animals to demonstrate more of these behaviors, and yet zoos still often fall short of their goals.  
  2. Animals should enjoy health and be free of suffering. Animals are used as test subjects in research labs across the U.S. and throughout the world. Oftentimes this means that suffering is purposefully inflicted upon them. 
  3. Animals should function well. Most of the animals raised on farms to produce food have been bred in ways that interfere with their ability to function. Chickens raised for meat, for example, are often unable to stand or walk normally due to their swift growth. 

What Is the Difference Between Animal Rights and Animal Welfare?

The terms “animal welfare” and “animal rights” are sometimes used interchangeably, but this is technically incorrect. Animal welfare centers around the idea that animals should be treated well even though they will still be used for human purposes. Animal rights, on the other hand, properly refers to the belief that animals are autonomous sentient beings that should not be used for human purposes but allowed to pursue their own ends.

An animal welfarist might argue that chickens raised for meat should be slow-growing breeds so that they don’t experience as much physical pain as the fast-growing breeds currently used in the industry. But an animal rights ethicist or advocate would argue that chickens should not be raised for meat at all, as they are sentient beings with rights. 

The arguments made by animal welfarists and those who advocate animal rights can be very similar, or even the same. This is because both regard industrial agriculture and other uses of animals as hugely harmful in their current forms, and because animal rights activists may seek incremental change toward their end goal of abolishing the use of animals for human ends. 

What Are the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare?

The Five Freedoms of animal welfare serve as indicators of whether an animal is having their physical and mental needs met. They are:

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst
  2. Freedom from discomfort
  3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease
  4. Freedom to express normal behavior
  5. Freedom from fear and distress

What Is the Importance of Animal Welfare?

Every day, humans are learning more and more about an ever-expanding range of species, causing the list of animals we consider to be sentient to grow. Yet despite all we know abouut how capable, sensitive and intelligent animals are, they are still used heavily by humans. The relationships we have with animals leave animals vulnerable to being mistreated heavily as we raise them for companionship, entertainment and food. Animal welfare is important because it is the lens through which we evaluate the relationship between human and nonhuman animals and improve the well-being of nonhuman animals within that relationship. Even from an animal rights perspective, animal welfare is arguably important, as welfare initiatives can be steps in the right direction and often accompany increasing awareness of animals’ plights. 

What Is an Example of Animal Welfare?

Animal welfare encompasses the quality of life of any animal, especially when in human care. One example of animal welfare can be seen in our homes and the companion animals who share them. Ensuring that they have adequate exercise to meet their physical and mental needs and are provided fresh water and a nutritious diet are aspects of good welfare. 

What Are the Main Animal Welfare Issues?

Issues of animal welfare can be found in virtually any situation in which human and nonhuman animals interact. Whether animals are being used for food, entertainment or research, there are welfare considerations and likely also ways that welfare can be improved. 

Farmed Animals

Whether farmed for their meat, milk or fibers, animals who spend their lives on farms face a myriad of welfare issues ranging from unnatural housing to brutal treatment. 

Animal Testing

Monkeys, rats and guinea pigs are just some of the animals used in laboratory testing. Whether cosmetic or pharmaceutical, animal testing often entails exposing animals to physically and mentally painful situations. 

Abandoned Pets

In September 2022, 35 percent of people with companion animals expressed concern about the expenses associated with their pet. As inflation continues to rise, shelters are struggling with an influx of animals being surrendered or left on the streets by the people who love them. 

Behavioral Enrichment

Behavioral enrichment, or providing animals with activities and toys, is one method that can be used to improve the welfare of animals living in captivity. Yet while giving them pumpkins to play with around Halloween and large popsicles during the summer provides some mental stimulation and enrichment, there are still many welfare issues with keeping animals in captivity.  


Bloodsports include dogfighting, cockfighting and bull baiting. Bloodsports always represent animal welfare issues, as they inherently result in the physical harm of animals for human entertainment. 

Cruelty to Animals

Cruelty to animals occurs in many situations. Dogs are left outside in freezing temperatures without shelter. Pigs have their tails docked without anesthesia. Geese are force-fed. All of these are examples of animal cruelty. 

Feral Cats

Feral cats represent an animal welfare issue both for the cats themselves and for wild animals. The cats may develop diseases and run the risk of getting hit by a car or otherwise injured. They are also extremely adept hunters who have driven several species to extinction. 


Most hunting involves animal welfare concerns, because animals are not always killed with the first shot, meaning that they are likely to die slowly and endure a large amount of pain. 

Overpopulation in Companion Animals

Companion animal overpopulation causes animals to be surrendered to animal shelters. Every year over 900,000 animals are euthanized in shelters in the United States. 

Oversight of Discretionary Invasive Procedures on Animals

Discretionary invasive procedures are surgeries performed on animals that are more invasive than simple cosmetic procedures, but without any express medical purpose. Many of these procedures are classified as mutilations in the United Kingdom and are illegal for companion animals. Some surgeries that fall under the category of discretionary invasive are tail docking, declawing, nose ringing and beak trimming. 


Poaching is hunting that involves illegally killing animals without the proper licensing. Poaching, like hunting, is an animal welfare issue because many of the poached animals are not killed swiftly. Poaching also compromises populations of animals and risks creating imbalances among the survivors (of age or sex, for example). 

Puppy Mills

Though many states have passed laws banning puppy mills, or large-scale dog breeding facilities, they still persist in many areas. Often the dogs kept by puppy mills experience poor welfare. 


The two primary countries still carrying out whaling are Norway and Japan. Norway hunts minke whales for their meat and Japan condones hunting whales for research. 


Cetaceans include whales, dolphins and porpoises. Animals within this classification suffer immensely for the sake of human entertainment. Often they are caught from the wild to be placed into aquariums and live out their lives on display. 

Sport Hunting

Sport hunting is a uniquely cruel type of hunting. In sport hunting animals are killed simply for entertainment; they are not eaten. Sport hunting is most often practiced as a means of gaining attention and a sense of accomplishment. 

What Is the Animal Welfare Act?

The Animal Welfare Act is the most significant piece of legislation aimed at protecting the welfare of animals in the United States. It was originally signed into law in 1966 and since then has been amended several times, most recently in 2019. 

Is the Animal Welfare Act Effective?

While the Animal Welfare Act has been effective in ending some animal suffering in labs and exhibitions, the act also exempts several species, including rats used for scientific research and farmed animals. These exemptions leave some of the greatest and most ingrained problems of animal welfare untouched. They severely limit the efficacy of the law and prevent enforcement personnel from stepping in when these animals are being harmed. 

What Are Animal Welfare Organizations?

Animal welfare organizations seek to improve the lives of animals being used by people. These organizations come in many different forms ranging from direct rescues that house dogs, cats and other animals as they search for new homes, to organizations that provide certification for farms that raise animals in conditions aimed at reducing suffering. 

What You Can Do

There are many things that you can do to improve the welfare of animals. Adopting a plant-rich diet helps decrease the number of animals suffering on factory farms. Opting to adopt your next companion animal rather than purchase them from a pet store helps to end the suffering of puppy mills. Choosing to visit attractions that don’t depend on animals for entertainment ensures that your money isn’t going to support the suffering of captive wild animals. For more information on any of these efforts, see our Take Action page

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