It is our aim at Animal Ask to support organisations with research in their ask prioritisation in order to improve the welfare of farmed animals.
A key component of this is evaluating and quantifying the effect of asks on the welfare of animals. Given this aim, we have spent the last few months researching the most reliable way to measure an animal’s welfare to support us in these efforts.
Our report provides a brief discussion surrounding the philosophical foundations of welfare and theories of well-being, an examination of the empirical research into the reliability and validity of indicators of animal welfare, and a review of existing overall welfare assessments.
This is a link post to https://www.animalask.org/research
In this report, I examine animal welfare through three stages of analysis. The first is a philosophical discussion surrounding the definition of what animal welfare is and how this definition could differ qualitatively between different animals. This provides the foundation for further research as the validity of practical measures can only be tested with a concrete understanding of the underlying construct. Overall, we accept the definition presented by Bracke and Hopster (2006) that ‘Animal welfare is the quality of life as perceived by the animal itself’* but recognise that this still leaves many open questions. In our analysis, we place the most weight on the hedonic and then desire theories of well-being; these value positive and negative experiences or preferences respectively. The relative weight each reader may place on different theories of well-being in non-human animals may vary and should be considered in subsequent sections.
Once the concept of animal welfare has been more clearly defined, I then investigate the strength of different welfare indicators used in the scientific literature. These are the on the ground, testable attributes that one can use to assess the welfare of an individual. In non-human animals, these can be categorised into four clusters: preference tests, physiological indicators, physical health, and behavioural indicators. Each indicator within each category has its own strengths and weaknesses. However, preference tests are the strongest indicators on the whole as they more directly reflect the mental state of the animal. Although they are the easiest to measure, psychological indicators are the weakest measures as they vary depending on numerous other factors or are associated with both positive and negative valence experiences. Therefore, these should be taken in the context of many other indicators to create a holistic picture of the welfare of the individual.
Finally, the report concludes with an examination of current attempts to synthesise these indicators into an overall evaluation of animal welfare. These systems attempt to gather information on various indicators to provide an overall assessment of welfare. These include both the animal-based indicators examined in this report and environmental conditions. Every measure examined has numerous flaws so the results of each system should always be considered in light of its limitations. I argue that rather than relying on any given assessment the best solution is to use a combination of methods that rely on different techniques. The ideal system would use a combination of qualitative measures, expert opinion based measures, an index of animal-based measures, and standalone measures such as preference testing or qualitative behavioural assessment. This combination would provide a variety of qualitative and quantitative perspectives using information for a wide variety of indicators to guide decision making. In practice, where time constraints limit the extensiveness of our research a more limited combination may have to be used.
*It is worth noting that although this is what we perceive to be valuable for an animal's well-being this does not constitute all we find morally valuable for prioritising asks. Other considerations include the probability of sentience (Open Philanthropy, 2018) the moral weight or the capacity for welfare of different species (Schukraft 2020). We are aware that given our moral uncertainty one ought to assign some value to other aspects of an animal’s life such as avoiding any violation of their rights. Although these are all important considerations in the wider debate about how we should treat animals, this is outside of the scope of this report.