What is Animal Welfare Science?

Welfare scientists investigate the well-being of animals managed or impacted by humans – for example living as pets, on farms, in research labs, in zoos etc. Their research involves collecting behavioural and physiological data to make careful, objective inferences about how animals feel, with the goal of improving animals’ lives in an evidence-based way. Typical aims are to assess the relative impact of practices like different handling methods, or different types of housing, to identify those best for welfare and a good quality of life. Another key aim is validating indicators (e.g. investigating whether particular vocalisations reliably signal pain or hunger). As well as its practical value, welfare science touches on some fascinating, fundamental biological problems (e.g. the nature of sentience).

Welfare science has come a long way since the early days of CCSAW. There are now dedicated peer-reviewed academic journals such as Applied Animal Behaviour Science and Animal Welfare, as well as professional academic societies that run international conferences (especially the International Society for Applied Ethology and Universities Federation for Animal Welfare). There are also now many excellent welfare science groups around the world, including those at University of British Columbia – UBCUniversity of California Davis – UCDavis (in the US), Scotland’s Rural College – SRUCUniversity of Bristol, and several more. And there are growing connections with other disciplines too, especially social science and veterinary medicine, because solving animal welfare problems in practice involves much more than just understanding animals.

The slideshows below (best seen on a computer) provide more detail on the types of research question that welfare researchers aim to tackle, and how we do so.

  • Cat in the sun
  • Two very young piglets on a dirty, strawless floor
  • Radiograph of chicken bones
  • Lab rats in plastic cages
  • Close up of a cat being examined by someone wearing blue exam gloves
  • An obese rhesus monkey
  • A cow's hind legs and udder
  • Many brown chickens standing together in rows in a barn
  • Pigs standing and sitting on a concrete floor
  • Poler bear in an aquarium, looking at the camera
  • A snarling dog
  • Two small ponies playing
  • A brown bear pacing in an enclosure
  • Rainbow trout on a hook

The methodologies used range from controlled experiments to epidemiology and meta-analysis, and involve assessing diverse indicators of animal state (endocrine responses, behavioural changes, animal cognition, and more). The slideshow below gives examples.

  • A CCSAW student lab uses inclined ramps to assess mobility in chickens differing in foot health
  • Hens in a well-resourced pen
  • Chicks in a pen
  • Beef cattle in crowded pens at a slaughterplant
  • A graph showing the number of elephants surviving at different ages in zoos vs in the wild in Kenya (the zoo curve being poor)
  • Person filling out a survey on a laptop
  • Dairy cows in a barn feeding
  • Dairy cow in a robotic milker
  • Startle testing chamber
  • Diagram of a 'judgment bias' experimental setup used to assess welfare effects on cognition in hens.
  • A cat has her blood drawn so that white blood calls can be assayed
  • Four colourful thermal images of a hen in an experiment to see if good housing makes chickens more calm.
  • Close up of the face of a horse
  • Image of a calf being dehorned.
  • Golden Hound and British short-haired cat resting together
  • X-ray of a chicken embryo developing in the egg
  • A section of a mink brain
  • White lab rat peering over the edge of his box.