‘Suitable outcomes’ for animals - Veterinary Practice
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‘Suitable outcomes’ for animals

PERISCOPE continues the series of reflections on issues of current concern

I RECENTLY read the latest FAWC report entitled Farm Animal Welfare in Great Britain: Past, Present and Future. It is bound to rattle a few cages and shakeafew people out of their complacency, talking as it does about giving animals a “good life” rather than just a “life worth living”, or at worst “a life not worth living”. I foresee that some will consider the authors to have become somewhat anthropomorphic. I do not believe that to be the case.

The report is important in that it highlights the relevance of achieving suitable outcomes for animals rather than just the need of making certain provisions for them. Provisions are all well and good but provisions alone do not necessarily equate to good welfare.

As an example,a good stockman can care very well for his animals (even with very poor provision in the form of poor infrastructure), to produce an excellent animal welfare outcome.

Conversely,a poor stockman blessed with state-of-the-art infrastructure may “achieve” a very poor level of animal welfare in certain circumstances. It is all down to understanding an animal’s real needs and ensuring that these are met to the fullest extent possible.

One of the difficulties highlighted by the report is: how can a genuine measure of animal welfare be made? A possible option proposed is the use of Iceberg indicators: things that one can observe about an animal – e.g. body condition, demeanour, vitality – from which one can deduce something meaningful about the overall welfare of the animal in question.

Comes naturally

This appeals to me in that it is the sort of thing that we vets do automatically in the normal course of our work whenever we are confronted with an animal to examine or advise on. It comes naturally to us as part of our training to quietly observe how the animal is behaving in its natural environment and to make some deductions about the state of its health (and welfare) from those observations.

A whole host of data and observations are processed in our heads to arrive at a conclusion and it might not be possible to put some of those factors considered onto a neat black and white sheet of paper. Sometimes an assessment of welfare is based on gut feeling as much as on measurable variables.

As an illustration of what I am saying, take the example of a human kept in prison for a prolonged period of time on a nutritionally balanced diet with good health-care and comfortable accommodation. Compare that with a person in relative poverty with possibly no health-care, a restricted diet and cramped living conditions, but with complete freedom of choice.

What useful repeatable measures are there of the welfare of each of these persons which would enable a valid comparison to be made? If no questions could be asked as to how each person felt about their lives, it is likely, based purely on measurable criteria and such things as Iceberg indicators, that the welfare of the person in prison would be considered superior (i.e.agood life), to that of the “free” man. If the mental well-being of each of the persons were taken into account, the result might be quite different.

New approaches

The FAWC report appears to recognise this difficulty where animals are concerned, particularly from the point of view of assessing an animal’s mental health. Because although it stresses the need for measures of animal welfare to satisfy the criteria of validity, reliability and feasibility, it also has a section that discusses “New approaches to welfare assessment”.

Under this heading it talks about qualitative assessment of behaviour, a method developed by Dr Francoise Wemelsfielder at the SAC in Edinburgh. This relies on observers describing an animal’s body language using words such as calm, nervous, aggressive, etc.

Whilst the results appear to be very repeatable between observers, there is considerable division amongst the scientific community over exactly what the assessment method tells us about animal welfare and in particular about an animal’s mental well-being.

What does all this suggest to me needs to happen with regard to improving animal welfare in the years ahead?

Firstly, we cannot expect to accurately assess the welfare of farm animals on the cheap. Producing a “tick box” assessment that measures provisions and takes no account of welfare outcomes is literally not worth the paper it is written on.

Secondly, proper assessment of animal welfare can only be carried out by persons who have a genuine understanding of an animal’s needs and behaviour, and can recognise when an animal is deviating from the expected norm in any one of a large number of physical and behavioural characteristics.

It follows that the obvious persons to make a genuine assessment of an animal’s overall well-being are those vets with a real interest in improving animal welfare, some behaviourists, and some good and highly motivated stockmen.

To pretend that we can easily equip any old Tom, Dick or Harry with a clipboard, a set of instructions, and gaily send them out onto farms to make an informed assessment of animal welfare is not just naive, it is downright dishonest.

And only when we are genuinely assessing the welfare of animals does it make any sense to start labelling food (as suggested in the FAWC report) in order that consumers can makeatruly informed choice about what they are buying based on good or indifferent welfare.

To do otherwise would bring any such new labelling system into disrepute in much the same way as I currently view the labels of “farm assured”, “organic” and “little red tractor”. Are animals reared under such labels genuinely better cared for than others? Personal experience of many farms suggests to me that they are not.

In the current economic climate it is hard to imagine that the money will be found to take forward any meaningful initiative on farm animal welfare if cheaper alternatives can be found. It is paramount that any efforts to make cost savings do not undermine a worthwhile aim even before it has got off the ground.

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