Animal Rights vs. Animal Welfare - what's the difference?

Posted by Nancy Cooper on Feb 15, 2019 12:35:55 PM

Protecting animals has become a passion for many as humans continue interact with animals on personal and professional levels.

Connecting with other species is vitally important, as it’s through education that we are better able to understand animals and the threats that they face. This knowledge allows us to reevaluate how we as humans treat the other organisms that share the planet, and perhaps make positive and proactive changes in our lifestyles to better protect ecosystems (such as recycling).

Through the selective breeding of wolves to create the domesticated dog thousands of years ago to our more recent attempts to save endangered species through zoological facility intervention, we have become very involved in the health and survival of certain species. It is likely because of the domestication of animals like dogs and cats, and the use of cattle and horses as a means for food and locomotion, that we became aware of the inner workings of these animals, and that how we once treated animals needed to change.

photo 1-animal-rights-cows-in-pastureHow we treat farm animals, such as cows, has dramatically changed over the past few decades.

Photo credit:

For a long time, humans viewed animals as being unable to experience pain. This seems like a silly (and slightly scary!) notion now, but it was through our interactions with animals in personal and industry settings that we noticed that animals are quite capable of feeling pain. Now the realization that animals are sentient beings (e.g. they can experience pain) is widely accepted (Authors note: The terms sentient and sapient mean different things. Sapient beings are those that can reason, i.e. humans). This realization motivated people to change, and led governments to adopt Animal Welfare Legislation, which are laws that dictate how animals are to be treated by humans.

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The United States Department of Agriculture is responsible for maintaining the laws put forth in the Animal Welfare Act

From a scientific standpoint, researchers have focused on animal welfare as a way to assess an animal’s current physiological and psychological state. In the U.S. the Animal Welfare Act (1966) regulates how animals are used in research and exhibition. However, you have also probably heard the terms “Animal Rights” just as often as “Animal Welfare.” Are these terms synonyms?

The short answer is, “no.”

But, for the long answer, let’s discuss what exactly makes these two terms different.

Welfare is focused on the state of the animal in its environment. The American Veterinary Medical Association defines animal welfare as “a human responsibility that encompasses all aspects of animal well-being, including proper housing, management, disease prevention and treatment, responsible care, humane handling, and, when necessary, humane euthanasia.”

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By training animals to participate in important medical procedures, we are able to minimize stress on the animal while allowing for important diagnostics to be collected to uphold high welfare standards. Various, voluntary husbandry procedures, including from left to right: ophthalmic examination, Doppler echocardiography, and dental radiography

Photo Credit: Dolphins Plus/DPMMR

Proponents of animal welfare support the use of animals in situations as long as the animals are properly cared for based on guidelines founded through empirical investigations. Those that advocate animal welfare support animals residing in zoos and aquariums as well as household pets and may support the use of animals in humane scientific testing and industry. One common measure of animal welfare is the use of the “Five Freedoms,” a model first proposed in the use of livestock, such as cattle, sheep and chickens. This model asserts that animals should always have five freedoms:

  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

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A description of each of the Five Freedoms, taken from

Moreover, welfare is an area that is continually evolving based on scientific inquiry and reputable research. Welfare scientists empirically focus on the physical state of the animal, as well as the psychological state (e.g. the animal not showing fear or maladaptive behaviors), conducting investigations to assess variables such as positive interactions with humans and the animal’s body condition.

Assessing an animal’s body condition is an accepted measure of the overall health of an animal and is used by animal care professionals, veterinarians, and wildlife researchers to project the overall health of the animal without removing it from the population.

Dolphin researchers look for indicators of malnourishment by examining the amount of blubber around the blowhole of the dolphin. There should be no indentation, or “peanut head”, which would indicate the animal is not eating enough.

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As you can see in this photo, this dolphin has a good body condition.

From these studies, specific welfare standards have been adopted for several species (e.g., foxes, cows, pigs, dolphins), and have further identified that what is good welfare for a chicken may not be the same for a cow.

Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder (DPMMR) and Dolphins Plus (DP) published a study expanding upon these factors in a welfare assessment for bottlenose dolphins living under managed care, evaluating important features that pertain to the health of these animals. DPMMR and DP continue to assess the parameters set forth in this study as a means to validate and build upon the research. This work represented a first step in quantifying and systematically measuring welfare among captive cetaceans and can be used as a model for future development in zoos and aquariums, as well as a means to support benchmarking, industry best practices, and certification.

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This study was the first scientific publication creating a welfare assessment for bottlenose dolphins.

The premise of Animal Rights differs. Those that support animal rights typically do not advocate the use of animals for any means, regardless of the type of care that the animal is provided. Even with advanced scientific inquiry, animal rights proponents often do not believe that animals and humans should interact in any way that causes benefit to the human.

There are many instances where animals and humans interact for the benefit of humans, while the animal is treated following high standards of animal welfare. For example, many animals are used for services that aid humans in everyday life. Dogs that detect weapons and drugs keep shipping ports and airports safe, and others that are trained to be medical alert dogs or seeing-eye dogs can change the lives of those living with an illness or disability.

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Seeing eye dogs go through extensive training in order to improve the quality of life of those with vision disabilities.

The animal welfare standpoint is that this is okay, as long as the animals are treated well.

Animal rights proponents often disagree. Many maintain that animals should not be used for human benefit. 

Just as parenting styles change over generations based on new research, so does the types of medical treatment and healthcare we can provide animals living with humans. It is because of the knowledge we have gained through working with animals in zoological settings that we are able to rehabilitate sick or injured wild animals, and even provide homes for those animals if they are unable to be re-released. 

Throughout it all, the professionals are always asking themselves, Does this animal have good welfare? And, What can I do to improve it?

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Animal Welfare is vital to the mission of DPMMR, not only for the resident animals under our care but also for the wild whales and dolphins that strand and are in need of rehabilitation. Our continued efforts to advance marine mammal welfare science ensure that these incredible animals will be appropriately taken care of.

Topics: Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins, Animal Welfare, Animal Rights

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