Well Being Assessment Concepts and Definitions

John J. McGlone

Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas, U.S.A.


Animal welfare and animal well-being are more or less interchangeable terms. Assessment of animal welfare seems to include some subjective assessments, while the term animal well-being is viewed as more objective in some circles. In practice, the two terms have very similar meaning to the public and most scientists.

Animal welfare/well-being assessment is often criticized by scientists as being anthropomorphic. Anthropomorphism is the ascribing of human traits to nonhumans (e.g., animals or inanimate objects). Most scientists have historically not been comfortable with assessing animal happiness or pleasure. Still, there is a need to objectively measure and assess animal well-being. From this need, the science of farm animal welfare was born. Animal cognitive experiences, including their feelings, are included in this science along with measures of physiological status (endocrine and immune status), behavior, growth, and reproduction.


Philosophers have examined the relationship between humans and animals from moral and theological views for centuries. The modern concept of farm animal well-being began with the issuing of the Brambell report in 1965 in the United Kingdom. The group of biologists, led by Brambell, concluded that animals have ''Five Freedoms.'' These freedoms (some would call them ''rights'' today) include the freedom to get up, lie down, stretch their limbs, turn around, and groom (themselves or others, depending on the species). The assignment of the original ''Five Freedoms'' is considered more of a moral argument than a scientific argument there was no science to support these basic freedoms in 1965.


The public and the media often confuse animal rights and animal welfare/well-being. Animals have limited legal rights and few widely agreed-upon moral rights. Animals have a legal right to not be abused or neglected. Other than that right, animals do not have the right to life or liberty. Some activist groups attribute rights to animals to the extent that they believe animals should not be eaten, exhibited, or used in research.

Animal welfare/well-being is the concern of all people who own animals. People give animals adequate environments to ensure that they have good welfare/well-being. The subject of animal welfare/well-being science is a recognized area of investigation. Those who hope to improve the lives of animals will do so through careful examination of animal welfare/well-being.


Scientists working in the field of farm animal welfare science have struggled with defining and assessing animal welfare/well-being. The most widely-held view is that to properly assess farm animal welfare, a multidisciplinary approach is required. Measures should include behavior, physiology, growth, and reproduction. All these measures are responsive to stress to varying degrees. A sample of other views are provided here.

Duncan[1] suggested that animal welfare has to do with how animals feel their cognitive experiences. Moberg[2] suggested that when animals experience stress, their welfare is compromised when they reach a prepatholog-ical state as measured by animal physiology and disease state (including infectious and metabolic diseases). In another view, because behavior is adaptive, simply finding a behavioral effect cannot be said to be a negative welfare situation. Only when the environment is stressful to the point that physiological changes are invoked can the animal be said to be in a state of reduced welfare, McGlone[3] argued. In another model, animal welfare has to do with behavioral needs, and when behavioral needs are met, welfare is adequate.[4] The most recent model, proposed by Curtis,[5] includes an assessment of the animals' state of being its state relative to a continuum from a bad to a good state of being (Fig. 1). Many models of animal welfare/well-being overlap.

Very good



Very poor

Fig. 1 The continuum of states of animal welfare/well being.


In the multidisciplinary approach, one measures behavior, physiology, and performance and then uses all of this information to determine whether welfare/well-being is adequate. This approach is the safest approach in that several of the other models can be examined if all of these measures are collected. This approach was used recently to assess sow welfare in various housing systems using a meta-analysis of selected scientific publications.1-6-1

Measures of performance include, for growing animals, rates of growth and efficiency of nutrient utilization.

Table 1 Definitions in the field of animal welfare/well being science





Fixed action pattern

Rights (12 definitions were given in this source)

Rights (animal) Stereotyped

Stereotyped behaviorb


Welfare Well being

Aggressive, submissive, and threat behaviors. Any action pattern typical of a given species or breed that is performed in a very similar way by its individual members. In contemporary ethology, the term ''fixed action pattern'' often is replaced by ''modal action pattern'' because of inevitable individual variations in behavior. Examples: face grooming in mice, egg retrieval in geese. Qualities (as adherence to duty or obedience to lawful authority) that together constitute the ideal of moral propriety or merit moral approval; something to which one has a just claim, such as the power or privilege to which one is justly entitled.

The idea that animals have a just or moral claim or privilege to certain items such as lack of abuse or neglect, life, or freedom. Repeated behaviors shown in sequence that vary only slightly in sequence; may be caused by the environment genetics, or a combination. Examples: chewing, suckling. Behavior repeated in a very constant way. The term generally is used to refer to behavior that develops as a consequence of a problem situation such as extended social isolation, low level of environmental complexity, deprivation, etc. Stereotypy also may arise from genetic predispositions, or from disease of, or damage to, the brain. Stereotyped behavior that serves no apparent function; often associated with disease or adaptation to a stressful environment. Example: navel sucking in weaned piglets.

The state of being of an animal. Welfare can range from very good to very bad. A term used in the scientific literature to indicate animal welfare.

Merriam Webster[8]

aA source is given when the definition is widely accepted.

bThis definition has been functionally divided into ''normal'' stereotyped behavior and stereotypies among farm animal welfare scientists.

Among adult animals, rates of reproduction are included in animal performance measures. Growth and reproduction are suppressed when animals are stressed.

Measures of behavior include maintenance behaviors (feeding, drinking, standing, moving, laying, and sleeping), social behaviors (agonistic and nonagonistic behaviors), goal-directed behaviors (exploration, food-searching, water-searching), preferences, emotional behaviors (fear, frustration, rage, etc.) and abnormal behaviors. Among abnormal behaviors are aberrant behaviors including tail biting, ear chewing, navel sucking, buller-steer mounting, wind sucking, and cribbing in horses, wool-picking in sheep, and a host of others. In a gray area of science, certain behaviors are considered abnormal by some authors but other authors simply conclude they have unknown cause. Included in this gray area are stereotyped behaviors that develop into stereotypies (Table 1). Examples of behaviors that clearly are stereotyped but may become stereotypies are bar biting in sows, tongue rolling in calves, and pacing among captive wild animals.

Measures of physiology include both endocrine and immune measures. Endocrine measures used in assessment of animal welfare include adrenal cortical and medullary hormones. Glucocorticoids (cortisol or corticosterone) and catecholamines are the most commonly measured endocrine measures of stress. Measures of immune status are measures of stress in that if the immune system is suppressed and a pathogenic microorganism (or even a normally nonpathogenic microorganism) is present in sufficient quantity, then the animal will become ill. Illness is clearly a state of reduced welfare/well-being. Stress suppresses the immune system and so an important measure of the animal's welfare/well-being would be its relative immune status. Examples of measures of immunity that are sensitive to stress include natural killer cell activity, neutrophil function (chemotaxis and phagocytosis), and levels of some cytokines. Other measures of immunity such as antibody response to a foreign antigen and lymphocyte proliferation in the presence of mitogen have been used in welfare/well-being assessment; however, these measures require very stressful environments to induce changes. Two examples of use of the multidisciplinary approach to assessment of animal welfare are given below.

Hicks et al.[9] examined the effects of heat stress, shipping stress, and social stress on pig behavior, immunity, and endocrine and performance measures. Pig behavior was significantly changed by all acute, mild stressors. Pig physiology was only slightly changed. Pig social stratus (dominant, intermediate, or submissive) interacted with stress treatments. Dominant pigs were heavier and less negatively influenced by stressors than were subordinate pigs. The authors concluded that behavioral changes were more consistent and reliable measures of the effects of acute stress. Stockpeople could use the behavioral responses as early indicators of reduced welfare and as a sign that interventions are required to maintain adequate animal welfare.

Mitlohner et al.[10] examined the effects of shade on cattle performance, carcass traits, physiology, and behavior while they were experiencing heat stress. The provisions of shade increased weight gain of cattle that were in a warm climate. Shade also reduced neutrophil numbers and respiratory rates and caused altered cattle behavior. Because shade increased cattle weight gain and improved some measures of physiology, one could conclude that the cattle with shade in the summertime had improved welfare/well-being.


Animal welfare/well-being can be examined as a science; as a legal, moral, or ethical argument; or as a subject for activism. Farm animals have the right to not be abused or neglected, but beyond that they have few agreed-upon rights. Livestock producers provide environments that are conducive to good animal welfare. Several animal welfare models are presented. Measuring animal welfare by using a multidisciplinary approach would provide information on animal behavior, physiology, and performance so that decisions about animal welfare/well-being can be made with the most possible information[11] and if possible in context with other society issues.[12]


1. Duncan, I.J.H. Animal welfare defined in terms of feelings. Acta agric. Scand., A Anim. Sci. 1996, 27, 29 35.

2. Moberg, G.P. Suffering from stress: An approach for evaluating the welfare of an animal. Acta Agric. Scand., A Anim. Sci. 1996, 27, 46 49.

3. McGlone, J.J. What is animal welfare? J. Agric. Ethics 1993, 6, 26 36.

4. Duncan, I.J.H. Behavior and behavioral needs. Poultry Sci. 1998, 77, 1766 1772.

5. Curtis, S.E. Stress: State of being. Encycl. Anim. Sci. 2004. (in press).

6. McGlone, J.J.; von Borell, E.H.; Deen, J.; Johnson, A.K.; Levis, D.G.; Meunier Sala√ľn, M.; Morrow, J.; Reeves, D.; Salak Johnson, J.L.; Sundberg, P.L. Review: Compilation of the scientific literature comparing housing systems for gestating sows and gilts using measures of physiology, behavior, performance, and health. Prof. Anim. Sci. 2004, 20, 105 119.

7. Hurnik, J.F.; Webster, A.B.; Siegel, P.B. Dictionary of

Farm Animal Behavior, 2nd Ed.; Iowa State University Press: Ames, 1995.

8. Merriam Webster. Merriam Webster Online Dictionary; 2004. http://www.rn w.com/netdict.htm. Accessed March 28, 2004.

9. Hicks, T.A.; McGlone, J.J.; Whisnant, C.S.; Kattesh, H.G.; Norman, R.L. Behavioral, endocrine, immune, and perfor mance measures for pigs exposed to acute stress. J. Anim. Sci. 1998, 76, 474 483.

10. Mitlohner, F.M.; Galyean, M.L.; McGlone, J.J. Shade effects on performance, carcass traits, physiology, and behavior of heat stressed feedlot heifers. J. Anim. Sci. 2002, 80, 2043 2050.

11. Brambell, F.W.R. Report of the Technical Committee to Enquire into the Welfare of Animals Kept Under Intensive Livestock Husbandry Systems; Command Paper, Her Majesty's Stationery Office: London, 1965; Vol. 2836.

12. McGlone, J.J. Farm animal welfare in the context of other society issues: Toward sustainable systems. Livest. Prod. Sci. 2001, 72, 75 81.

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