Animals used for Work, Sport, Recreation or Display

Important terms and concepts

Behaviour, selection and training for sport and recreation displays

Selection refers to the methods used to choose individuals for a specific purpose (e.g. racing for greyhounds and horses, herding sheep and cattle for working dogs). Selection occurs at the level of choosing 1) appropriate parents for breeding, and 2) individual animals as fit for purpose. Selection necessarily means some individuals are not selected, a process resulting in wastage. Wastage is an ethical problem in many industries, including racehorses (Velie, Stewart et al. 2013), greyhounds (Carr 2015) and working dogs (for research on behavioural wastage in working dogs, go to this Working Dog Alliance page). Although it occurs, a lack of evidence and transparency regarding wastage makes it difficult to discuss this issue across other industries.

Behaviour problems occur in animals not kept in ethologically suitable environments, for example stereotypic behaviours such as crib biting and wind sucking in racehorses kept in isolation and not allowed to graze naturally (click on this link for an article on stereotypies in horses) and swaying in elephants in zoos (Hasenjager and Bergl 2015). All animals used for work, sport and recreation require training to be able to perform. Behavioural problems are exacerbated when training methods are inappropriately designed or implemented. The four quadrants of learning theory (positive and negative, reinforcement and punishment) may all be used, but training relying on punishment rather than positive reinforcement is likely to be less efficient and cause pain or distress to the animal. If the trainer is inconsistent, or too slow to respond to the appropriate trained behaviour, inefficient training and risk to animal welfare will result. Conversely, training can be used positively as a source of enrichment and to allow common husbandry practices to be carried out, for example for wildlife species in captivity. For research on training horses to improve welfare, visit the site for the International Society for Equitation Science.

Educating the public

Education of the public is a recognised role for the modern zoo. Visitors learn about endangered species and how change is needed to protect their natural habitats. (Here is a link to a BBC article about ethical issues regarding animals in zoos and circuses, and here is one for a great podcast on ethics and zoos). There is also an important role of education for allowing the public to assess whether practices used in animals kept for work, sport and recreation are acceptable to general society. The public reaction to live baiting in the greyhound industry in Australia demonstrated the public right to know the practices used in animal industries. (See this news article for more details.)

Pushing of animals to physiological/ behavioural limits

Animals are pushed to physiological limits particularly in the racing industries. Racehorses are at risk of fatal cardiothoracic events during racing (Boden, Anderson et al. 2006) or broken limbs that may necessitate euthanasia (Boden, Anderson et al. 2007). In horses, jumps racing involves high risks and is not allowed in most Australian states and under pressure to stop in others. Greyhounds are at risk of sprains, strains and broken bones during racing (Guilliard 2010). Behavioural limits are reached when animals are unable to continue to cope with the stressors (environmental or physical) placed on them, for example apathy and learned helplessness result from continued unpredictable and uncontrollable stressors.

Ownership/ responsibility

In performance animals, such as racehorses and greyhounds, the person who owns the animal may be different to the person training the animal. This may mean responsibility for the animal’s welfare may not be clear, particularly if there is a conflict between economics and animal welfare. Veterinarians need to encourage responsible ownership of all animals at all times.


Euthanasia of animals used in work, sport and recreation may occur at any point along their life cycle, from newborn, to juvenile, performing and then older animals that may no longer be capable of working. Veterinarians need to ensure euthanasia is appropriate, and that animals have health or behavioural problems sufficient to warrant euthanasia. If the animals are surplus to requirements or not performing, euthanasia is not the correct term, and this becomes an ethical problem.

References cited above

Boden, L. A., G. A. Anderson, J. A. Charles, K. L. Morgan, J. M. Morton, T. D. Parkin, A. F. Clarke and R. F. Slocombe (2007). "Risk factors for Thoroughbred racehorse fatality in flat starts in Victoria, Australia (1989-2004)." Equine Vet J 39(5): 430-437.

Boden, L. A., G. A. Anderson, J. A. Charles, K. L. Morgan, J. M. Morton, T. D. Parkin, R. F. Slocombe and A. F. Clarke (2006). "Risk of fatality and causes of death of Thoroughbred horses associated with racing in Victoria, Australia: 1989-2004." Equine Vet J 38(4): 312-318.

Carr, N. (2015). The greyhound: A story of fashion, finances and animal rights. Domestic animals and leisure. N. Carr. Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK, Palgrave Macmillan.

Guilliard, M. J. (2010). "Third tarsal bone fractures in the greyhound." J Small Anim Pract 51(12): 635-641.

Hasenjager, M. J. and R. A. Bergl (2015). "Environmental conditions associated with repetitive behavior in a group of African elephants." Zoo Biol 34(3): 201-210.

Velie, B. D., B. D. Stewart, K. Lam, C. M. Wade and N. A. Hamilton (2013). "Profiling the careers of Thoroughbred horses racing in Hong Kong between 2000 and 2010." Equine Vet J 45(6): 694-699.