Welfare Assessment

Welfare assessment has historically been viewed as negative and as something only enforcement agencies engage with. However, welfare assessment CAN be a positive activity. It can be something that each and every one of us engages with on a regular basis, for the benefit of learning and of always trying to improve the lives of our animals.

Habitually assessing the welfare of our horses allows us to identify problems at an earlier stage, promoting the merits of prevention over cure, and encouraging us to always think, how can we create more opportunities for positive experiences? It doesn’t have to be about waiting for things to go wrong, but about constant consideration of how things could be more right (or better).

This was the thinking behind the Five Domains model of welfare assessment (Mellor, 2013). Whilst the Five Freedoms framework (Brambell, 1965) focuses on preventing negative experiences for an animal, the Five Domains goes beyond this and argues that welfare is not merely the absence of the negative but also the promotion of the positive and that an animal’s quality of life depends upon the balance of positive and negative experiences across its lifetime. The first four of the Five Domains – nutrition, health, environment and behaviour – are all seen to impact on the fifth domain, mental state.

If we accept that animals are sentient then we also accept that they have the ability to experience sensations, such as pain, pleasure, happiness and comfort. For example, meeting an animal’s nutritional needs shouldn’t just involve freedom from hunger by ensuring it is a healthy body condition, but should also look at the variety of foodstuff offered, the pleasure an animal can experience through taste, the emotional ‘seeking’ system that can be activated by opportunities to forage, and the safety it feels when not having to compete for food resources.

Meeting an animal’s environmental needs shouldn’t just refer to freedom from discomfort but should also consider the provision of enrichment, presentation of choice, and opportunities for social interaction. Behavioural needs should include consideration over opportunities to play, explore, move freely, forage, bond, enjoy deep sleep and engage in clear, consistent and kind human-animal interactions.

Assessment of welfare should not rely on our own subjective or anthropomorphic opinions but that of the animal in question and their ethological needs. Furthermore, a bit like someone asking a depressed human why they’re depressed when they have food, a house and a family, meeting an animal’s basic survival needs doesn’t automatically result in psychological well-being. We can look at an animal and think they look physically healthy, but asking ourselves how they might be feeling, how their experiences differ to what they would natural choose, and how this impacts upon their affective state helps enable us to be more compassionate, thoughtful and welfare-friendly caregivers. Crucially, it enables animals to thrive, not simply survive.

My business, ‘Affective Equine’, is so-called because I feel so strongly about consideration of an animal’s mental health, an aspect of welfare that is often neglected, especially with equids. It is also a slight play on words, in recognition of the Five Domains and the way in which the balance of emotional experiences impacts an animal’s behaviour and welfare, as by considering affective state, we can be more effective in our training.

Published by Kate Fletcher

I have an MSc in Equine Behaviour, Performance & Training and over 10 year's experience working on the front line of animal welfare operations, helping people help animals. I currently work for an international equine welfare charity and am committed to promoting compassionate training and positive human-animal relationships using least invasive, minimally aversive methods and through encouraging human behaviour change.

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