Welfare – what does it really mean?

Welfare – what does it really mean?

The term ‘animal welfare’ seems to be tossed around a lot, but in reality, the definition of welfare can become extremely complex. 

Firstly, we must understand the meaning of sentience – check out our next blog post for a more detailed discussion about this, but in essence, sentience refers to the ability of an animal to experience suffering and the world subjectively. In order for an animal to qualify for any welfare definition, we accept the assumption that they are sentient. As Jeremy Bentham said, “the question is not, can they reason, can they talk, but can they suffer?” This is a whole debate in itself, but wouldn’t you love to hear his thoughts on the TV show Westworld?! In a nutshell, the most important factors to know about defining welfare are:  

  • it concerns individual animals, rather than species as a whole (this is known as conservation), 
  • we might consider the functionality, feelings, and natural living state of an animal,   
  • and we could also consider the 5 needs – again check out our blog post to find out what this means.   

That’s the technical bit out of the way. Stay with me, now it gets interesting. Here's a picture of a very excited Prem, our toy tester and biggest advocate for postive welfare. 


Welfare is a science. Yes, a hardcore, measurable, biological science. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. How can you measure it? Ask the animal of course! (Isn't that obvious??). I don’t mean seriously going up to your dog and asking if they’re happy with their dinner, although by all means, who am I to tell you not to? But there are several measurable tests that researchers use to objectively quantify animal welfare. 

Credit: Justin Paget/Corbis

The scientific equivalent of asking your dog what they want for dinner would be, what we call, a preference test. This involves measuring the response to specific stimuli, such as different food types. We look for welfare indicators to tell us the outcome of the experiment. Alternatively, if you’re not feeling particularly chatty with your animals to ask them a question, you can measure welfare indicators by direct observation. For example, you could carry out a body condition score which involves a checklist describing what a healthy animal should look like (think shiny coat, obesity diagrams, absence of skin lesions etc.). Even recording an animal’s environment could act as a welfare indicator. Do they have the correct type of shelter? Do they have appropriate food and water? The 5 needs should be sounding familiar again...

Hopefully, you’ve noticed that there is a heap of welfare indicators you could measure that build up a picture of an animal’s welfare state, ranging from physical to mental health.  Stay tuned for another post to discuss this further soon – animal mental health is something that particularly fascinates me.