Welfare Assessment



  • Welfare is a concept which can be difficult to measure but is critical to understand in captive animals
  • Welfare reflects the ability of an animal to cope with its environment
  • Behaviour, cognition, emotion, physical health and biological function interact to produce positive and negative welfare states
  • Identifying reliable indicators of welfare which can be easily identified in the home pen is important to ensure welfare can be monitored in an ongoing manner

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Read more about how we measure welfare in the laboratory-housed dog.


Defining welfare


'Welfare' has many uses in common language, but needs an objective definition in scientific use which isn't influenced by moral or ethical considerations [1] and concentrates on empirical evidence. Welfare can be understood in terms of physical health, and in terms of subjective experience. Dawkins[2] states that it is not possible to have good welfare while experiencing poor physical health. Broom [3] describes welfare as a term which describes an individual's state in relation to its attempts to cope with a situation. Welfare does not reflect external circumstances but rather how effectively an individual is coping with them and the resulting impact on fitness (defined in an evolutionary sense). It is well accepted that 'welfare' is a continuum from negative to positive, rather than a desirable condition; in other words, an animal cannot be 'given' welfare, but its welfare can be described somewhere on a continuum between negative and positive.

Although understanding the subjective state of nonverbal animals is difficult , there are methods of assessing welfare through physiological and behavioural indicators of pleasure and stress, physical health, physical fitness, assessment of preferences, ability to express normal functions and attempts to cope [1, 4]. Behaviour is the most established and perhaps the most useful measure of welfare. Behaviour can be observed without specialist or invasive equipment, can provide instantaneous information on an animal's reaction to stimuli and when observed using an agreed coding scheme, is free from subjective bias. Conversely, one of the drawbacks of using behaviour is that it tells us little about the internal state of the animal when measured in isolation.


Welfare-indicating behaviours


There are common themes in behaviour across species when an animal is restricted in its ability to express natural functions, is unable to satisfy social or physical needs or experiences chronic stressors and distress. For example, vigilant behaviours are common to many species [5,6] and are more commonly seen in situations where stressors are present (especially unpredictably so), or there is a potential threat to the animal [7]. Vigilance becomes maladaptive where there is no actual threat, but a perceived threat such as an aversive procedure or presence of staff, removes the ability of the dog to relax. The absolute presence or absence of such a behaviour is not in itself maladaptive nor indicative of poor welfare, but heightened vigilance seen throughout the day, in the absence of stimulation indicates that subjectively, the animal perceives a threat. Conversely, relaxed behaviour and an interest in surroundings are commonly seen in situations where there are no threats [8]. The provision of an appropriately stimulating environment allows animals the opportunity to exhibit these behaviours, promoting positive emotional states such as happiness, satisfaction and positive anticipation [9,10]. Learn more about behavioural indicators of welfare in the laboratory-housed dog.

Postures do not strictly indicate positive or negative welfare, but must be assessed in context. For example, it is desirable for dogs to exhibit neutral posture at baseline in the absence of other stimuli. During play for example high posture and low posture may be considered normal, and high posture may be exhibited in anticipation of positive events like feeding. When high or low posture are exhibited throughout the day, they can be considered indicative of negative welfare, suggesting high levels of vigilance or anticipation of negative events.

Other behaviours can become maladaptive when an animal becomes distressed, as is the case with stereotypic behaviours. A stereotypy is a “repeated, relatively invariant sequence of movements which has no obvious function” [11] and is seen almost exclusively in restricted and captive animals, mentally ill or handicapped humans and people given stimulant drugs [12]. A stereotypy may often be a frustrated attempt to complete a natural behaviour pattern in a situation which prevents this, or a repetitive escape attempt [1].

Understanding emotion in nonhuman animals


Measuring emotion in nonverbal animals is difficult but is central to assessing welfare. Negative states such as suffering may be more easy to measure than positive ones, which in many cases can be considered to be the absence of negative states. However, positive emotion includes states such as happiness and excitement that should be promoted in their own right [8, 12,13].

Emotions are thought to have developed as a means of responding quickly to arousing events or stimuli in the environment, for example to avoid danger or seek out rewards [14]. Recent research suggests that these processes interact to bias in perception [13]. Since Harding et al [17] first measured a judgement bias in rats similar to that present in depressed humans, similar methodologies have found effects across different species, suggesting that judgement bis is effective as a cross-species measure of affective state, including in the dog.


Using physiology to assess welfare based upon feelings


Like the emotional response to stress, the physiological response can be thought of as an attempt to maintain or return to homeostasis. Responses to potential stressors can therefore be used to understand welfare. Selye [23] introduced the concept of the ‘general adaptation syndrome’, a change in physiological functioning designed to promote survival, which also highlighted the role of increased endocrine function (frequently associated with stress) in disease models of hypertension and autoimmune disorders.

One of the most commonly used physiological measures of welfare is cortisol, a glucocorticoid released in response to physical or psychological exertion. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activates in response to a stressor, increasing endocrine function and blood levels of cortisol which are detectable in blood, urine and saliva [24]. Cortisol has been found to change with stress and activity in the dog, for example by Haverbeke [25] in a cohort of 27 military dogs exposed to a startling stimulus. Dogs demonstrated increased locomotion, circling, nosing, body shaking, yawning and displacement behaviours following the startle.

However, changing cortisol levels can be caused not only by distress, but by increased activity [27], positive anticipation [28], and other physiological exertion such as aggression [29] or reproductive stress [30]. The physiological response to (bad) stress and (good) eustress can be difficult to differentiate. Conversely, chronic states of distress and activation of the HPA axis can lead to a dampening of the cortisol response; so-called ‘burnout’ is well-documented in humans [31], meaning that the absence of a response can be wrongly interpreted as a positive welfare state.

Beerda [33] studied increasing levels of chronic stress, caused by increasing levels of austerity in housing conditions, across four groups. The relationship between measured urinary cortisol levels and activity was found to be complex. Dogs were found to have higher cortisol on days in which they were apathetic, but dogs which were overall more active also had higher levels of cortisol than inactive dogs. This complex relationship between activity and chronic ‘burn out’ means that cortisol is an unreliable indicator of welfare state.

Physiological measures can be used to not only assess welfare, but also the effects of human interaction interventions. Hennessy et al [35] found that following exposure to a stressor, shelter dogs’ plasma cortisol doubled unless they had undergone a human interaction programme. The human interaction programme appeared to have the function of increasing the dogs’ ability to cope with a novel stressor. You can learn more about the benefits of positive human interaction here.



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