Vet Ethics: The True Meaning of Welfare

“Bounce”, a healthy and well fed Golden Retriever, has an active and varied life. On most days she is able to leave her sleeping quarters and go for a much-anticipated outing for several hours. She shows much enjoyment and excitement on her daily romps, especially when she meets and plays with other dogs (and people too) – some of whom she has got to know and especially like. She loves to follow a scent, roll about in the dirt, run full pelt through the grass, and wade through water. Her escapades often leave her tired and sore, but she is just as happy to do it all again the next day.

“Loafer” the Labrador has a very different life. From a young age he has been kept in a small enclosure. In fact, he has never been exposed to the sort of activities Bounce looks forward to, and consequently does not miss them. Instead, his savvy owners (who are rarely home) have installed a machine that dispenses tasty food to him on a frequent basis. Actually, Loafer the Lab (unsurprisingly) enjoys eating very much; and his diet is so well formulated he is (surprisingly) not obese. He gets vaccinated and wormed and has ready access to veterinary attention, although he has never been ill. Though he is solitary and sedentary, Loafer seems perfectly content.

Perfectly content he may appear, but does he have a good life? Or is it the reverse: does Loafer’s life go badly for him? If you think it does not go badly, do you nonetheless think that his life is significantly worse than Bounce’s or, if you prefer, that Bounce’s life is significantly better than his?

The reason I am asking these questions is because, like many vets, I am interested in “animal welfare”. But more specifically, I want to know what constitutes good and bad animal welfare. Some people have thought that science is the method we should use to answer these basic questions. So, for example, we could run certain tests and make careful and repeated observations of Loafer and Bounce.

Perhaps we could measure their cortisol levels or some other physiological parameters, and compare them to known canine affective states. Or maybe we could look for the presence or absence of signature stereotypical behaviours. We could monitor their health and reproductive capacity over time. Or we might go high-tech and investigate features of their brains, such as patterns of electrical and neurochemical activity.

Such science can be useful in situations where we are unsure about what an animal is feeling or experiencing. Thus, science can help where a species of animal is hard to read. Some prey species, for example, may hide their pain and suffering but not other key signs or parameters which are strongly correlated with these “internal states”.

However, in the case of my example of Loafer and Bounce, none of this information will be of any use. For we already know that both dogs are healthy and free of serious pain and anxiety. Neither dog is prone to obsessive or compulsive behaviour. Both of them evidently and regularly experience pleasure and the satisfaction of desire. These may not be bad things. Once again, does that mean their welfare is equally good?

The obvious difference between them is that Bounce lives a more “natural” life for a dog. That is to say, she gets to express more of the capacities which we typically think are a central part of what it is to be a dog. Some people would go on to say that Bounce flourishes or thrives as a dog; whereas Loafer, though he is quite comfortable and is not left wanting, does not flourish or thrive as a member of that kind. In fact, his life is relatively impoverished and bare. Therefore, some people would say, he does not have a good life. His welfare is diminished.

On the other hand, dissenters will argue that the fundamental determinant of animal welfare is affect or feeling. On this view, good welfare means the predominance of pleasure or contentment over pain and suffering. What does it matter what the animal does, so long as it feels happy? If this is right, Loafer and Bounce have roughly equal levels of welfare after all.

Aristotle thought that each living thing has a good which is determined by the kind to which it belongs. A tree has one kind of good, a dog another. Human beings, he thought, have a different kind of good again. Aristotle claimed that humans are rational animals – reason is their basic and distinctive excellence. He claimed that a human being could only live well if they exercised their reason in certain ways. A person must engage in certain rational activities, Aristotle believed, to have a good life. He might have agreed with Walter Kaufmann who said that “even it were possible to make all men happy by an operation or a drug that would stultify their development, this would somehow be an impious crime”.

If it harms a human being to deprive them of certain activities even while it is certain they are satisfied and content, perhaps the same is also true of animals. After all, in both cases we are talking about a similar, basic thing, namely, how lives can go well or poorly. And surely at least some of these animal activities will be ones that we can recognise as natural for each kind.

Suppose, then, we put forward this claim: If we do accept that certain distinctive human activities (over and above their propensity to cause pleasure and reduce pain) are necessary for good human welfare, then we need a reason for denying that certain distinctive animal activities are necessary for good animal welfare. Accordingly, a pig (say) cannot have good welfare if it lives like Loafer rather than Bounce, even if it is also good for a pig to enjoy eating and lounging. But it might be different in some ways for a solitary creature like a tiger.

What do you think is the true meaning of animal welfare?

SIMON COGHLAN