Animal Welfare Science

Important terms and concepts

Perspectives on welfare

As animal welfare science developed, it quickly became apparent that different people held different views on what they thought mattered most to animals. For some, the health of the animal was paramount, for others, physiological homeostasis, behavioural expression or subjective experiences were most important. These different views persist and are crucial to understanding that animal welfare is not purely a scientific or factual discipline, but rather is shaped by how people think about animals and what they regard as important and valuable to them.

Members of the veterinary profession have held different opinions about involvement in animal welfare over time. In the contemporary environment, professional bodies like the BVA and AVA explicitly prioritize animal welfare. For instance, in the new BVA Animal Welfare Strategy the authors note that it is critical to have veterinarians take the lead on this issue, since 'if we don't speak out about systemic animal welfare problems or if we only do so reactively once a critical mass of favourable public opinion has been achieved, then this can lead to accusations of weak morality and worse, complicity in animal welfare problems.' (p. 12)  While the AVA's new proposed strategy moves 'improving animal welfare' to be the number one priority (see on p. N6 here).

The development of animal welfare science

Animal welfare science is a relatively new scientific discipline that strives to provide rigorous scientific evidence to estimate the welfare state of an animal. Although animal welfare science has made advances in areas such as the assessment of welfare, some of the key concepts which underlie this discipline are difficult to study and measure. For instance,  “animal needs”, “sentience” and “suffering” though important and worthy of scientific inquiry, are challenging to define and assess. However concepts such as the “5 freedoms” or the more recent “5 domains” have helped advance our understanding of animal welfare.

Laws and regulations regarding animal welfare

Research in animal welfare science and ethical analysis can be combined to formulate animal welfare standards i.e. legislation or codes of practice which goven how we treat animals. There is currently a great deal of debate about the principles, content and outcomes of regulation of animal welfare from a variety of stakeholders including animal industries and animal rights advocates. Veterinary practice is also regulated by various codes and standards which reflect the concerns and ethos of the veterinary profession.

It is important to recognize, however, that although there may be a relationship between ethics and law, these terms are not inter-changeable. Illegal acts may not be unethical and some acts may be unethical but not illegal. This means that ethics can be used to criticize and challenge law.

Human-animal bond

The human-animal bond or human-animal interaction (HAI) is a field of study focused on the mutual and dynamic relationship between people and animals. Interactions have important physical and psychological effects on both humans and animals, and in turn have important implications for animal welfare. Here is a link to Purdue University's centre dedicated to the human-animal bond.


Triage is a tool to help veterinarians prioritise treatment in emergency situations and involves rapid assessment and designating to further treatment options. In critical situations it can significantly alleviate animal suffering.