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A guide to animal welfare: How to protect animals

Animals are only now being recognised as sentient beings. Here, we discuss how animal welfare has changed over time, and what actions you can take to protect animals.

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Several things might come to mind when you think about animal welfare. Whether you think about the treatment of farm animals, charities like the RSPCA, or the rise of veganism, there is a lot to unpack when it comes to this important topic.

Animals are innocent creatures with whom we share this planet, and they deserve our protection. They can think, feel, communicate, love and fear, which makes them not so different from us. This is the main basis for animal welfare discussions – sentient creatures with the capacity to experience the world in a range of ways deserve the right to live peacefully and be protected by those who hold the most power. On Earth, humans are the most powerful species.

In this article, we’ll be discussing what animal welfare means before delving into the history of animal welfare across several centuries. We’ll then explore the five animal welfare needs, why animals deserve peace and protection, and some of the simple ways you can help animals. 

What is animal welfare?

Fundamentally, animal welfare is the protection of the health and well-being of animals. It can be defined by the five animal welfare freedoms, but we’ll go into more detail about that later. We keep animals for all kinds of reasons – as pets, as a food source, for entertainment and for experimentation. 

Discussions around animal welfare look at how animals are treated in all of these different circumstances and explore how things could be better for them. Phil Brooke from Compassion in World Farming says that animals should be treated as sentient beings because they have the capacity to feel hunger and pain, experience emotions, and suffer and feel pleasure.

In addition to thinking about the animals themselves, animal welfare has been recognised as an important feature in animal production for human use. Experts discuss how there are many issues in the breeding system for farm animals that can be fixed by raising animals in a humane way.

A brief history of animal welfare

Animals have had a large role in society for centuries, but the way we think about them has definitely evolved over time. From being killed in huge numbers for entertainment in Ancient Rome, to being protected by animal rights campaigners today, we’ve seen a lot of progress.

To put some of the discussions around animal welfare into context, we’ll be discussing how the biggest Western philosophers viewed animals before looking at how animal rights increased throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Finally, we’ll think about where we are today in the animal welfare debate.

Animals according to philosophy

The biggest Western philosophers didn’t exactly help the cause for animal welfare. In fact, they may have set it back by convincing intellectuals that animals weren’t worth protecting. René Descartes lived in the 16th and 17th centuries and is considered the father of modern philosophy, but he was responsible for the idea that animals are nothing more than machines, incapable of language or thought. 

These ideas stuck around. In 1651, the famous English philosopher Thomas Hobbes suggested that animals did not deserve moral consideration because they had no language. In a similar vein, Immanuel Kant, who lived in the 18th century, believed that animals could not reason and therefore only had instrumental value. 

During the Enlightenment, things began to slowly change in the realm of philosophy. Philosopher David Hume believed that animals could learn from experience, and philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham believed that it was a creature’s ability to suffer that made them worth caring about. With this reasoning, animals were worth protecting.

Animal welfare in the 19th century

In the 1800s, the first ever animal rights law was passed. The Act to Prevent the Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle was passed in UK parliament in 1822. This law meant that anyone being cruel or treating farm animals badly would be fined, and then imprisoned for up to 3 months if they didn’t pay up. 

The Irish MP who pushed this law through, Richard Martin,  was one of the founders of the first animal welfare charity. The Society of the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals was born in a London coffee shop in 1824, and it went on to become the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) after it gained patronage from Queen Victoria.

Animal welfare in the 20th century

Things started to change even more rapidly in the 20th century, with the introduction of several new animal rights laws. The most important was the 1911 Protection of Animals Act, which was much broader than the previous legislation. 

The Act made it an offence to “cruelly beat, kick, ill-treat, over-ride, over-drive, over-load, torture, infuriate, or terrify any animal” and also made poisoning or forcing animals to fight illegally. A guilty offender would receive a fine and potentially a prison sentence of up to 6 months.

Many more animal rights laws were passed in the 20th century, including laws surrounding dog breeding, cockfighting, animal abandonment, wild animal keeping, and horse riding, among others. Veganism was also first coined in the 20th century when British woodworker Donald Watson claimed in 1944 that a vegan diet could protect consumers from Tuberculosis.

Animal welfare act 2006

The animal rights laws that exist today mostly came about in 2006 when the Animal Welfare Act was created. This act effectively replaced the 1911 laws, updating and strengthening many of the pieces of legislation.

It also added to the law the offence of failing to look after an animal properly. This meant that anyone who failed to look after the five welfare needs of an animal could be banned from owning animals, fined a hefty amount or even given a prison sentence. 

Animal welfare sentience bill 2021

It seems almost unbelievable that it’s taken this long for animals to be recognised as sentient beings in the UK, but the government are only now pushing through this legislation in 2021. While late, this is great progress for the animal rights movement.  The new legislation will:

  • formally recognise animals as sentient beings in domestic law
  • establish an Animal Sentience Committee made up of experts to ensure cross-departmental government policy considers animal sentience
  • ensure Government Ministers update parliament on recommendations made by the Animal Sentience Committee.

What are the 5 animal welfare needs?

So, we’ve discussed how under the most recent animal welfare laws of 2006, animals are entitled to 5 welfare needs. Here, we’ll go into more detail about what these needs are and how they can be met.

Freedom from hunger and thirst

This is a pretty obvious one. All animals should have access to readily available food and water, through accessible feeders and drinking troughs that are comfortable to use. Food and water are basic necessities, and animals who don’t have proper access to them will eventually die. 

There are also agricultural benefits to making sure farm animals are fed well – “precision feeding” can stop animals from getting overweight and having metabolic diseases. Making sure animals have a nutritious diet increases their wellbeing and also profits the farmer. 

Freedom from discomfort

This is quite a broad welfare need, but essentially it means that animals should have access to a comfortable environment. EIT Food suggests that this could mean easily accessible indoor and outdoor spaces that encourage animals to socialise, and environments that are well lit and equipped with cooling or heating systems. 

Freedom from pain, injury or disease

The third essential welfare need is freedom from pain, injury or disease, which is something we often take for granted as humans. Animals have to rely on human support to prevent and treat injuries and diseases, so it’s our duty to ensure they have access to medical professionals. 

Humans who look after animals should have vaccination plans, follow preventative hygiene practices, carry out health screenings and only give animals drugs when they’re sick. If you’re interested in exploring the veterinary profession, we have a course where you can learn about animal diseases and viruses, and also one that will provide you with virtual work experience as a vet

Freedom to express normal behaviour

In EIT Food’s open step, experts suggest that animal breeders should allow animals to express their natural social behaviour by respecting their natural tendencies and raising them in groups of adequate sizes. They should have enough facilities surrounding them and they should have opportunities to socialise with their own kind. 

Freedom from fear and distress

This means that animals should live in conditions where their psychological wellbeing is a priority. Fear can have a really negative impact on an animal’s physical health, preventing them from eating properly, sleeping well, or having ordinary social interactions with humans and other animals.

To make sure animals are living in a fear- and distress-free environment, you should try to eliminate things that they’re scared of from their environment, treat them with compassion and positive reinforcement, and keep an eye on their behaviour to see if they seem content.

Why is animal welfare important?

There are many reasons why animal welfare is important, but we’ll try to break down some of the main reasons in simple terms. Philosopher Peter Singer suggests that if human suffering should be avoided, then all those who have the ability to suffer should be afforded the same treatment.

He suggests that a popular argument for dismissing animal wellbeing is that they lack intelligence, but he asks, “If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans?” Effectively, he is arguing that our treatment of others shouldn’t be dependent on whether they’re intelligent enough. 

Even so, it’s worth considering that animals have more abilities, thoughts and emotions than we originally believed. Phil Brooke from Compassion in World Farming argues that many animals, including chimps, elephants, dolphins, magpies and manta rays, pass the mirror test, which is where they can recognise that their reflection in a mirror is of themselves. 

Moving away from the question of whether animals deserve to be treated well, paying attention to animal welfare has plenty of benefits for society. The welfare of animals and the welfare of humans are closely linked, as many regions depend on the health and productivity of animals for their food supply, and many diseases that humans suffer from originally come from animals. 

You can learn more about how everything is interlinked in our course, One Health: Connecting Humans, Animals and the Environment by the University of Basel.

How can we promote animal welfare in society?

Now that we’ve discussed the five animal welfare needs and why it’s important to protect animals, it’s time to explore some of the ways we can promote animal welfare in society. This list is not exhaustive but provides a good starting point for those who want to pay more attention to animal rights. 

Check food labels

Food labels can be very confusing, but it can be helpful to look at them if you’re trying to buy ethical produce. Terms like ‘locally sourced’ and ‘farm fresh’ don’t necessarily insure that animals are treated well, but there are some things you can look out for on labels.

Don’t test on animals

While testing cosmetic products and their ingredients on animals was banned in the UK in 1998, there are still millions of procedures being carried out on animals every year. This might be in the name of research, treatment development or chemical testing, but unfortunately animal welfare is not a top priority for many of these procedures. Try to make sure the company you work for aren’t testing on animals, or if they are, advocate for their humane treatment. 

Educate children about animals

Children should learn about animal behaviour and wellbeing from a young age, whether that’s through biology lessons, trips to a local farm, or through having discussions about the treatment of animals. If children are aware that animals have thoughts and feelings just like us, they are more likely to be compassionate towards them in later life.

Buy cruelty-free

Sadly, a lot of companies test on animals or use ingredients that test on animals, so you should make sure you do your research before buying products, whether that’s cosmetics or cleaning products. One of the best ways to check is to see if a brand is Leaping Bunny approved, which is part of an incentive created by Cruelty Free International. 

Don’t buy fur

This may seem obvious, but try to avoid buying fur if you care about the treatment of animals. Some wild animals are killed just for their fur, and it seems unjustified to kill an animal for a material that can be copied using synthetic materials. You can learn more about the global fur trade in ACT Asia’s course, Compassion in Fashion: Sustainability and the Global Fur Trade

You may also want to consider not buying new leather. There are plenty of faux leather alternatives available, or you can even buy vintage leather, as this will last a long time and doesn’t promote the creation of new leather.

Eat less meat, dairy and egg products

We’ve discussed how eating meat and dairy can be bad for the environment, but what about for the animals themselves? Animals can suffer from extremely poor treatment in these industries, so you may want to consider quitting meat, dairy and eggs entirely. Alternatively, pay more attention to where your food is coming from – buying from a local, respectable farm might be a better option than from a huge supermarket. 

You can learn more about where your food comes from in our course, Farm to Fork: Sustainable Food Production in a Changing Environment by the Department of Veterinary Sciences of the University of Turin, Queen’s University Belfast & EIT Food. 

Campaign for animal rights and the humane treatment of animals

There are numerous organisations that focus on campaigning for animal rights and the humane treatment of animals, so there are plenty of areas where you can make a difference. Check out organisations such as the RSPCA, Animal Equality UK, Naturewatch Foundation and World Animal Protection to find out about specific campaigns, from preventing badger baiting to stopping puppy farming.

Adopt don’t shop

Pets can become an important part of any family, and many pets live great lives with their new owners. However, dog and cat breeding can be extremely unethical and bad for the health of the animals who are bred, so you may want to consider adopting pets from animal shelters. Not only is this often much cheaper, but you are able to offer an animal a new chance at a happy life. 

Sometimes, pets from shelters have physical or psychological issues, but this is not always the case. Besides, any new pet requires a great deal of time, commitment and compassion, and if you’re unable to offer all of these to an animal, perhaps you should reconsider owning one.


There are plenty of opportunities for you to volunteer your time to help animals. Whether you want to volunteer at a dog shelter, farm or stables, you’ll have the chance to improve animal wellbeing and spend time with animals. RSPCA advertise a range of animal volunteering opportunities on their page if you’re interested.

Final thoughts

Hopefully, this has been an informative guide to animal welfare and has got you thinking about changes you can make in daily life to prioritise the wellbeing of animals. There is no such thing as too much compassion, and here at FutureLearn, we believe that all living creatures deserve a chance at a happy, peaceful life. 

If you’re interested in learning more about similar topics, our range of Nature and Environment courses cover subjects from climate change and sustainable development, to agricultural practices and ocean ecosystems.

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