Animal Welfare

Most animals raised for food in the United States live in confinement systems, colloquially called “factory farms.” As judged by widely accepted standards of animal welfare, these animals do not have good lives. 

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Most animals raised for food in the United States (as well as many around the world) live in confinement systems, colloquially called “factory farms.” As judged by widely accepted standards of animal welfare, many animals raised under conditions of confinement do not have good lives. This includes swine, egg laying chickens, meat chickens, dairy cows, and, to a lesser extent, beef cattle raised in feedlots, as well as some farmed fish. These animals may be biologically productive in the sense that they grow quickly and reproduce abundantly, but biological productivity and animal welfare are not the same thing.

In confinement systems, animals typically live in cages, pens, or stalls, or in open areas with a high density of animals. In these conditions, they cannot express certain species-typical behavior, such as pecking in chickens, rooting in pigs, or migrating in fish.1 Animals have been bred to put on weight more quickly, which has resulted in high rates of physical abnormalities in some species, for example a high rate of poor locomotion and poor leg health in broiler chickens.2 Animals’ bodies are altered, in some cases without relief of the pain these alterations likely cause: for example, chickens’ beaks are trimmed and pigs’ tails are docked in order to prevent potentially harmful behaviors such as pecking and tail biting that arise when these animals are raised in crowded conditions. Pasture-based systems, in which animals spend much of their time outdoors, at lower density, have inherent welfare advantages over confinement systems, though pasture-based systems also have some vulnerabilities for animals because of increased exposure to the elements and to predators.

Views about how humans should relate to animals, and views about what is a good life for animals, vary widely within and across societies and over time, and are rooted in religious and secular ethical beliefs. Some people attribute moral rights to animals, and consider many of our uses of animals — for food, clothing, research, companionship — contrary to these moral rights, and thus morally wrong. Others believe that it can be ethical for humans to use animals, but this use comes with a responsibility to take care of the animals, perhaps as a result of an “implicit contract” with animals: they give us food, clothing, and other goods, and in exchange we care for them and give them good lives.

In animal agriculture, this responsibility historically manifested as husbandry. The essence of husbandry was good care. Humans put animals into the most optimal environment congenial to the animals not only surviving but also thriving. The better off the animals were, the better off humans were. Humans provided farm animals with sustenance, water, shelter, protection from predation, such medical attention as was available, help in birthing, food during famine, water during drought, safe surroundings, and comfortable appointments. Since husbandry was grounded in human self-interest, very few additional ethical rules or laws for animal treatment were required.

Industrial-scale production departs from the practices and values of husbandry in morally important ways. Despite underlying diversity of values and worldviews about the moral status of non-human animals and our obligations to them, there is increasing concern among the public for the welfare of farm animals in many countries. In addition, laws prohibiting cruelty to animals, traditionally the only social consensus ethic pertaining to animals, have been elevated to felony status in most U.S. states.

There is debate about how animal welfare should be understood, including what it means for an animal to have a good life, or to have a sufficient level of well-being. Animal welfare expert David Fraser charts the historical development of conceptions of animal welfare:

“In summary, then, as people formulated and debated various proposals about what constitutes a satisfactory life for animals in human care, three main concerns emerged: (1) that animals should feel well by being spared negative affect (pain, fear, hunger etc.) as much as possible, and by experiencing positive affect in the form of contentment and normal pleasures; (2) that animals should be able to lead reasonably natural lives by being able to perform important types of normal behavior and by having some natural elements in their environment such as fresh air and the ability to socialize with other animals in normal ways; and (3) that animals should function well in the sense of good health, normal growth and development, and normal functioning of the body.”3

Fraser identifies three concerns, which ground three components of animal welfare: concern with animals’ subjective experience, concern with animals’ biological health, and concern that animals be able to engage in normal/natural behaviors.

As Fraser notes, some who embrace natural behaviors and natural lives as a component of animal welfare do so because they believe this is inherently good for animals. The idea here is that for an animal to have a good life, it must be able to engage in behaviors typical of its species — a good life for a chicken requires ample and regular opportunity to do chicken-like things. We might also think of this as the ability of the animal to express its innate animalness. For example, Bernard Rollin uses the philosophical concept of “telos” to capture this — the telos of an animal is “the set of interests constitutive of its unique form of life — the ‘pigness’ of the pig, the ‘dogness’ of the dog.” Rollin argues that violations of telos may be more significantly harmful to animals than physical pain.4 Others who embrace natural behaviors as a component of animal welfare do so for a different reason: because they believe the ability to engage in natural behaviors improves the animals’ subjective experience. That is, it reduces animals’ negative affect and causes positive affect.

All three components — biological health, subjective experience, and the ability to express some normal/natural behaviors — are included in the Five Freedoms, which is perhaps the most widely accepted conception of animal welfare. The Five Freedoms was first developed in 1965 in the United Kingdom, by a committee of veterinarians, biologists, and animal scientists tasked to examine the welfare of farm animals. Underlying the Five Freedoms is a conception of animal welfare according to which: “The welfare of an animal includes its physical and mental state and we consider that good animal welfare implies both fitness and a sense of well-being. Any animal kept by man must, at least, be protected from unnecessary suffering.” According to their conception, “an animal’s welfare, whether on farm, in transit, at market or at a place of slaughter should be considered in terms of ‘five freedoms’.” These freedoms are:

  1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst — by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor.
  2. Freedom from Discomfort — by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  3. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease — by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  4. Freedom to Express Normal Behavior — by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
  5. Freedom from Fear and Distress — by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.5

The Core Ethical Commitments in this section assume that the Five Freedoms conception of animal welfare is substantially correct. These Core Ethical Commitments are also consonant with existing guidance on how animal production systems can meet the Five Freedoms.

Core Ethical Commitments

Biological and Psychological Nature

38. Animals are free to express behaviors that are normal and typical for their species and sufficient to reduce stress and enable coping.

When animals are not able to express behaviors that are normal and typical for their species, they experience a range of negative states including stress, frustration, anxiety, malaise, boredom, fear, anger, and helplessness.6 They are also less able to cope with the conditions unique to being bred and raised by humans in agricultural systems. This commitment calls upon producers to house animals in conditions and at a density that permit normal and typical behaviors for their species, which may include behaviors such as dust bathing, foraging, and rooting, provided that such behaviors do not create an unreasonable risk of harm to the animal engaging in the behavior or those housed in proximity. Where high stocking densities are the primary factor driving the riskiness of a normal or typical behavior, animals should be given sufficient space to engage safely in the behavior. An animal’s freedom to express species-typical behaviors may need to be balanced against countervailing concerns for environmental impact, food safety, and worker safety. However, when such concerns are used to justify curtailing an animal’s ability to engage in species-typical behavior, additional efforts should be made to reduce stress and enable coping.

39. Breeding and genetics do not adversely affect the animal’s well-being and, where possible, improve it.

Selective breeding of animals used in animal agriculture has resulted in an increased rate of certain pathogenic conditions, such as skeletal abnormalities and lameness in broiler chickens. Breeding practices should not produce or exacerbate pathogenic conditions and, where possible, they should improve them. Breeding practices should be also be directed towards changes that result in other improvements in welfare, provided these changes do not diminish the well-being of animals in other ways. An example is selective breeding of pigs to reduce their aggression, in order to reduce injury rates among pigs.7

40. Living environments are respectful of the animal’s health and well-being.

The welfare of all farm animals raised under industrial confinement conditions is severely compromised, including swine, egg laying chickens, meat chickens, dairy cows, and, to a lesser extent, beef cattle raised in feedlots, as well as fish grown in a range of aquaculture facilities. This commitment requires living environments to promote the health and experiential well-being of animals. Indoor environments should replicate the benefits of a healthy environment. Outdoor access should be provided whenever possible. Minimum space requirements should be set and complied with to prevent crowding, the spread of diseases, and the need to perform physical alterations of the animals. Routine confinement, caging, crating, or tethering practices are not acceptable. Animals’ living environments should not be too hot or too cold.

41. Feed is appropriate in quantity and type.

Feed should be selected that is appropriate for the animal species and age, and meets the animal’s nutritional needs. Feeding practices should be designed to avoid prolonged hunger and thirst, and the physical discomfort and stress associated therewith. Feeding practices that aim to reduce grow-out time at the expense of the animals’ comfort or health are also an anathema to this commitment.

Pain and Distress

42. Pain and distress are avoided. Where possible, animals are free of discomfort.

This commitment, and commitments #45-47, are focused on animals’ experiential well-being and the importance of minimizing animals’ pain and distress. Animals can be caused pain and distress by the ways they are housed, by hunger or thirst, by heat or cold, by disease or injury, by surgical procedures, by their interactions with other animals, by the way they’re handled by humans, and by the conditions of their transport and slaughter. This commitment requires that in designing their living conditions and throughout their care, efforts are made to prevent animals from feeling pain and distress and to promote their comfort.

43. Surgical procedures are designed to minimize pain and to support animal welfare.

In some production systems, surgical modifications and mutilations, for example castration, branding, dehorning, debeaking, and tail amputation, are done for routine management of animals. To comply with this commitment, such surgical procedures should only be done when there is compelling evidence that it is necessary to support animal welfare and less painful and less mutilating methods are unavailable, or when such procedures are legally mandated in the jurisdiction where the animal is raised. If local law requires physical modifications of an animal (such as de-horning or branding requirements) that are in conflict with this commitment, producers and animal welfare groups should collaborate to work for reform. When surgery is necessary, anesthesia and post-procedural analgesia should be used as appropriate.

44. The conditions and practices of animal transfers are designed to minimize pain and fear. Transport and transition conditions are humane and conducive to coping.

Animals are often transported to slaughter at the end of their lives, and may also be transported between locations during their lives. Transfer is an unfamiliar and stressful experience which can distress animals and threaten their health.8 Humane handling practices should be used when animals are moved from one area to another, loaded and unloaded onto transport conveyors or vehicles, and transports should be designed to minimize stress and injury to animals (i.e. through jostling). Animals should have appropriate protection from heat and cold during transport, and receive feed and water as appropriate.

45. Animal injury and disease are minimized. If injury or disease occurs, prompt, effective, humane and judicious treatment is administered.

To prevent disease, animals should be maintained in hygienic conditions and given adequate veterinary care.9 When animals are sick, prompt and effective treatment should be given, including antibiotics when appropriate. Humane and judicious treatment may include euthanizing an animal when (1) it is ill or injured in a manner that is causing significant suffering that is not expected to abate with reasonable time or treatment or (2) when a diseased animal poses an infectious risk to other living beings that cannot be safely managed through other means (i.e., quarantine).10 When a pattern of animals experiencing illness or injury emerges, producers should investigate whether the animals’ living conditions or production practices could be modified to reduce the incidence of illness and injury.

46. The conditions and practices of slaughter function to minimize pain and distress.

Although how an animals’ life is ended comprises a small portion of an animal’s entire lived experience, the killing of any animals is nevertheless an event with tremendous ethical significance. When humans terminate the lives of animals, whether via euthanasia or slaughter for food, they should take care to avoid a final experience that is dominated by fear, horror, pain, or suffering.

Killing of livestock animals in any context should always proceed with special care to avoid distress or suffering. Slaughter facilities should be designed to provide physical surroundings that minimize animals’ distress and prevent injury. Animals should have appropriate access to feed and water at the end of their lives. They should be handled humanely so as to minimize their distress.

While morally concerned people may differ on the precise set of practices that produce a humane death, achieving an ethically acceptable end to an animal’s life is a function of knowledge, skill, respect for the animal, and deliberate selection of killing method. Humane slaughter procedures should provide for extremely rapid (ideally, immediate) unconsciousness or insensibility and a death that occurs very shortly thereafter.11,12 Workers should be properly trained on and must use humane slaughter practices that minimize the animals’ distress and suffering. Humane practices should also be used when animals are euthanized.

47. Workers interact with and handle animals in ways that minimize pain and fear and support coping.

The degree to which human interaction with and handling of animals produces fear and stress in the animals depends significantly on the attitudes, demeanor, and practices of those handling them. All workers who interact with live animals should be trained in humane animal handling practices that minimize the animals’ pain and fear and support coping. This includes workers handling animals at all stages of the animals’ lives, and in all environments, including production facilities, slaughter facilities, and transport.13


1 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rural structures in the tropics: Design and development (Rome: FAO, 2011), 225-298,

2 Toby G. Knowles et al., “Leg Disorders in Broiler Chickens: Prevalence, Risk Factors and Prevention,” PloS One 3, no. 2 (February 2008): e1545.

3 David Fraser, Understanding Animal Welfare: The Science in its Cultural Context (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008).

4 Bernard E. Rollin, “Telos,” in Veterinary & Animal Ethics, ed. Christopher M. Wathes et al., vol. 25 (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2012), 75-83.

5 Farm Animal Welfare Council, “Farm Animal Welfare Council Press Statement,” news release, December 5, 1979,

6 See, Bernard E. Rollin, Animal Rights and Human Morality (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006); Françoise Wemelsfelder, “Boredom and Laboratory Animal Welfare,” in The Experimental Animal in Biomedical Research, eds. Bernard E. Rollin and M. Lynne Kesel (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1990), 243–72; and Robert P. Martin, “The Opinions and Recommendations of One Particular Study Group: The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production,” in Animal Welfare in Animal Agriculture: Husbandry, Stewardship, and Sustainability in Animal Production, eds. Wilson G. Pond, Fuller W. Bazer, and Bernard E. Rollin (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2011), 43–74.

7 Welfare Quality, “Reducing Aggression in Pigs Through Selective Breeding,”

8 Gary C. Smith et al., “Effect of Transport on Meat Quality and Animal Welfare of Cattle, Pigs, Sheep, Horses, Deer, and Poultry,” 2004,

9 Welfare Quality, “Principles and criteria of good Animal Welfare,”

10 Bernard E. Rollin, “Ethics and Euthanasia,” The Canadian Veterinary Journal 50, no. 10 (October 2009): 1081–86.

11 American Veterinary Medical Association, AVMA Guidelines for the Humane Slaughter of Animals: 2016 Edition, 2016,

12 Canadian Council on Animal Care, Guide to the care and use of experimental animals, Volume 1, 1993,

13 Welfare Quality, “Reducing stress in farm animals by improved human-animal relationships,”