by Tim Harding, B.Sc.
(An edited version of this essay was published in The Skeptic magazine, June 2014, Vol 34 No 2, under the title ‘Creature Features’. The essay is based on a talk presented to the Mordi Skeptics in February 2012).
The term ‘animal welfare’ is not easy to define, but it usually includes the mental and physical aspects of an animal’s well-being, as well as people’s subjective ethical preferences as to how animals should be treated. These preferences can give rise to a range of opinions about animal welfare; but as we skeptics are fond of saying: ‘people are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts’.
I realise that this article may be controversial, even amongst my fellow skeptics. Nevertheless, I would like to focus on some common factual misunderstandings about animal welfare; and try to dispel a few myths.
There appear to be two extreme polarised positions in the community regarding animal welfare. An outdated view, often attributed to Rene Descartes (1596 –1650 CE), is that animals are not consciously aware, and are therefore unable to experience pain and suffering. At the opposite pole are those who believe that animals have rights like humans do; and that hunting, farming and other uses of animals for human purposes are morally unacceptable. Between these two extremes are various other views, including evidence-based or scientific approaches versus the so-called ‘organic’ or free-range farming industries.
Animal welfare science is a relatively new field of study; but some good research is now being done – including in Australia. The two main experimental approaches are firstly, animal physiological and biochemical testing (e.g. blood tests) to objectively measure stress in animals under different conditions; and secondly, animal behavioural and preference studies (such as testing whether animals prefer more food or better surroundings).
Myth #1: Animals are best treated like humans
The attribution of human characteristics to non-human animals is known as anthropomorphism. It is sometimes used to appeal to human emotions in campaign slogans about animal welfare (e.g. ‘Meat is murder!’ and ‘How would YOU like to be kept in a cage?’).
There are two main problems with an anthropomorphic approach to animal welfare. Firstly, it is emotional rather than evidence- based – and is therefore unscientific or lacking in objectivity. Secondly, treating animals like humans is often a projection of human preferences rather than a consideration of the real needs of the animal. Apart from the obvious differences in intelligence, anatomy and physiology, animals have different instincts to humans and they express a much more limited range of emotions than humans do.
Most of us love our pets and regard them as members of the family. But treating them like little humans may not actually be in their best interests. For instance, most of us are aware that chocolate is poisonous to dogs, but we may not be as aware that onions, garlic, grapes, avocados and macadamia nuts are also toxic to canine animals. Many dogs are also lactose intolerant, so dairy products are not a good idea for them either. So we should be careful about feeding human leftovers to dogs.
Myth #2: Dogs are tame wolves
Our treatment of dogs has been shaped by a historical view that they are basically wolves with nicer table manners. This is the concept behind much of traditional dog training – that dogs are pack animals competing with humans for dominance over the family. This outdated view is now being challenged by modern canine science.
All dogs are different varieties of one species descended from wolves. Archaeological evidence now shows that dogs were first domesticated over 20,000 years ago – long before the first human settlements (around 9000BCE) and while we were still hunter-gatherers. Dogs used to follow human hunters and scavenge from our leftovers. We may have even used dogs to assist in our hunting.
Over this quite long period, dogs have been selected by humans for their mental temperaments as much as their physical characteristics. As a result, modern pet dog breeds often bond more closely with humans than with other dogs. It can therefore be bad welfare to deprive pet dogs (not farm dogs) of human contact for extended periods.
Myth #3: Some dog breeds bite humans more than others
Statistical research by the Victorian Bureau of Animal Welfare (BAW) has shown that the major contributing factor to dog attacks in urban public places is the inadequate confinement of dogs to their property, rather than the breed of dog. Most incidents occur on the footpath or road bordering the dog owner’s property, as a result of dogs displaying territorial aggression toward people passing by or attempting to access the front door. If owners ensured their dogs were adequately confined to the house or back yard, over 80% of dog attack incidents in public places could be prevented.
The BAW studies have not shown that ‘restricted breed dogs’ (i.e. dogs bred for fighting) are excessively represented in the incidence of dog attacks on humans. Any dog can bite if sufficiently provoked. However, because of the relative strength of fighting dogs and their habit of tenaciously gripping their victims with their teeth and shaking them, anecdotal evidence suggests that the risks of injury and death may be greater from these types of dogs if and when they do attack humans.
Myth #4: Feeding stray cats is being kind
A survey by Monash University in 2005 found that 22 per cent of people said they sometimes fed a cat that did not belong to them. People may feel they are being kind because they know that stray cats suffer from starvation, disease and injuries from fights with other cats. But because they are ‘unowned’, stray cats are deprived of the regular meals, shelter, grooming and veterinary care that owned cats receive. Feeding stray cats provides people with a short-term ‘feel good factor’ that acts against the long-term welfare of the cats. It is a form of preference failure. Being a stray cat is not a sustainable lifestyle, with an average life-expectancy of only 3 years. So feeding them actually perpetuates the misery of these poor animals (and their kittens), which on a rational basis should either be adopted as pets or euthanased.
An adverse side-effect is that stray cats are also more likely to kill birds, possums and other native animals than owned cats, at least some of which are kept indoors overnight. The kindest thing to do for a stray cat would be to ‘adopt’ it (but have it checked for a microchip by a vet first). If this is not possible, contact an animal welfare organisation such as the RSPCA or the Cat Protection Society.
Myth #5: Livestock are slaughtered inhumanely in Australia
Slaughter standards in Australian abattoirs are dictated by the Australian Standard for the Hygienic Production of Meat and Meat Products for Human Consumption (AS 4696 — 2007), which requires that:
1. Animals are slaughtered in a way that prevents unnecessary injury, pain and suffering to them and causes them the least practicable disturbance; and.
2. Before killing commences, animals are stunned in a way that ensures that the animals are unconscious and insensible to pain beforehand, and do not regain consciousness or sensibility before dying.
There is provision for a religious exemption under an approved arrangement that allows ritual slaughter involving the commencement of killing without prior stunning. However, such animals must then be stunned without delay to ensure that they are rendered unconscious whilst dying. Personally, I am opposed to such religious exemptions, on the grounds of cruelty.
Myth #6: Meat chickens are kept in cages
Many people are surprised to learn that no meat chickens (also known as broilers) are kept in cages, at least in Australia. They are farmed in large ventilated barns or sheds where they are free to roam large distances, albeit under crowded conditions, as shown in the photograph below. Traditionally, this has not been done for welfare reasons but to allow faster and easier collection for processing, which is usually done at night.
An RSPCA approved Australian meat chicken shed
In Australia, feed lines and pans run the length of the shed and are supplied automatically by silos from outside. Water lines run the length of the shed, with drinkers at regular intervals. Water and feed are placed so that chickens are never more than about 2 metres from food and water.
Myth #7: Free range chooks live mainly outdoors
Chickens naturally prefer to live under cover from predators and bad weather. In the wild, they forage for insects and other food beneath shrubs and undergrowth, only venturing out into the open for short periods of time.
Free range chickens preferring shade (source: Wikimedia Commons)
There are no government regulations about free-range farming practices – this is left to industry self-regulation. Australian industry standards specify that free-range chickens only need free access to the outdoors – they don’t actually need to spend any time outside a shed to qualify as free-range. As a result, free-range chickens don’t usually spend the bulk of their time in the open, as illustrated by the photograph above. Some free-range farms have sheds on wheels or other movable housing structures.
Myth #8: Pigs are permanently kept in sow stalls
This claim is often made by animal rights activists but is untrue. The reason for confinement in sow stalls (gestation stalls) is to minimise early abortions as a result of stress from aggressive behaviour between adult female pigs (sows).
The endorsed Australian national standards for pig farming specify a maximum confinement period of 6 weeks during the initial stages of pregnancy. Parts of the pork industry are voluntarily introducing shorter periods, but these will require more supervision (and thus higher labour costs) to separate sows that fight.
There is also some public confusion between gestation stalls and farrowing crates, especially when photographs of the latter (see below) are described as the former.
Sow farrowing crate (source: Wikimedia Commons)
Sows are moved in groups to farrowing sheds approximately one week prior to giving birth. In Australia, a farrowing crate is only used for piglet feeding purposes. It allows the sow less movement than a gestation stall, but provides creep areas along either side for the piglets. Adjustable rails alongside the sow slow her movement when she is lying down, thus protecting piglets from being crushed. As soon as the piglets are weaned, the sow is moved to either a much larger pen or outdoors.
Myth #9: Sheep mulesing is cruel and unnecessary
Mulesing is the removal of wrinkled skin from the breech or breech and tail of a sheep using mulesing shears. Until accepted alternatives are developed and the current practice can be phased out, mulesing of lambs remains an important husbandry practice in Australia for animal health, welfare and management reasons. The principal reason is to reduce urine and faecal soiling or dag formation in the breech and tail wool; and thus minimise susceptibility to even more painful breech and tail flystrike.
Currently, cost effective chemical, management and breeding solutions are not available for all types of production systems in Australia and mulesing is a valuable tool for the prevention of breech flystrike for certain production environments and sheep types. Although potentially painful, mulesing can be a net welfare benefit.
Available scientific research suggests that it is possible to achieve pain relief in conjunction with mulesing. Pain relief is most effectively achieved through a combination of approaches such as the pre-mulesing administration of a systemic pain relief drug, followed by a post-mulesing application of topical anaesthetic to deal with the ensuing period of pain associated with the inflammatory phase. That is to say, a combination of short and long-acting pain relief drugs may be needed to provide more complete pain relief.
Myth #10: Fish can’t feel pain
The International Association for the Study of Pain’s widely used definition states: ‘Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage’. Unlike in humans, pain is difficult to observe and measure in fish, especially in the absence of tissue damage.
Even when pain avoidance is observed experimentally in fish, a possible explanation is that it is a conditioned response to stimuli without the adverse emotional experience necessary for suffering. Because of these observational difficulties, the conclusion that fish experience pain is often inferred on the basis of comparative neural anatomy and physiology. Some scientists are currently of the view that all higher vertebrates feel pain; and that certain invertebrates, like the lobster and octopus, might too.
The current approach in Australian animal welfare regulation is to give the fish the benefit of the doubt, and to presume until further research that fish can feel pain. Whilst painless fishing may be almost impossible to achieve, banning fishing would also be politically impossible in a democracy. The current regulatory approach is to minimise pain by requiring fish to be either killed or released as soon as possible after capture.
It may come as no surprise that I support the current scientific approach to animal welfare rather than an anthropomorphic or animal rights approach. My main reasons for this view are:
- Evidence-based animal welfare standards are being progressively adopted by Australian governments.
- Such standards are more likely to be enforced and complied with than other approaches.
- As a result, animal welfare is steadily improving in Australia.
- This approach maintains the competitiveness of Australian agriculture.
Tim Harding B.Sc. has worked for the last 13 years as a regulatory consultant, amongst other things evaluating state and national animal welfare regulations for both domestic animals and livestock.
 Warren, Katrina. DrKatrina.com web site.
 Pet MD web site. Dietary Reactions in Dogs.
 Bradshaw, John (2011) In Defence of Dogs. Penguin Books, London.
 Harding, Tim (2005) Proposed Domestic (Feral And Nuisance) Animals Regulations 2005 – Regulatory Impact Statement. Department of Primary Industries, Attwood.
 Browne, Gavin (2007) Australian Standard for the Hygienic Production of Meat and Meat Products for Human Consumption (AS 4696 — 2007). Food Regulation Standing Committee Technical Report Series 3. CSIRO PUBLISHING / Food Regulation Standing Committee, Collingwood.
 Harding, Tim and Rivers, George (2006) Proposed Model Code Of Practice For The Welfare Of Animals – Pigs: Regulatory Impact Statement. CSIRO PUBLISHING, Collingwood.
 Harding, Tim and Rivers, George (2013) Proposed Australian Animal Welfare Standards And Guidelines – Sheep: Consultation Regulation Impact Statement. Animal Health Australia, Canberra.
 Bonica, John (1979) The need of a taxonomy. Pain. 1979; 6(3): 247–8.
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