Animal welfare issues are often controversial, sometimes requiring societal regulation. Ethics involves using logic, reasoning, and weighing up evidence, to help decide whether an action is morally right or wrong.

Challenge       

Animal welfare issues often arise when there are conflicts of interest between humans and animals. This poses challenges around whose interests to prioritise, and what actions can be taken to produce the best moral outcome. The needs and wants of human, animal, and even environmental stakeholders must be understood and evaluated to decide what is the right course of action, but different ethicists and stakeholders may disagree about the conclusions of any ethical analysis. For example, unnecessary suffering must not be caused to legally protected animals, but what counts as ‘suffering’, when is it really ‘necessary’, and which animals should be protected? Evidence must be gathered and some consensus must be agreed upon as to weight the different possible actions.

Even once an ethical decision is reached, putting it into practice to improve animal welfare can present additional challenges, requiring an understanding of the societal barriers and routes to human behaviour change.

Examples of topics within this RVC project theme include:

  • The ethics of reproductive technologies as applied to animals, including cloning and genetic alteration.
  • Evidence regarding sentience in decapod crustaceans, such as crabs, lobsters and prawns.
  • Ethical considerations about the use of horses and dogs in sports.
  • The efficacy of animal welfare legislation, including the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 for safeguarding animal welfare.
  • Understanding human attitudes towards animal welfare issues and the potential roles that humans play as stakeholders in animal welfare improvements. Including understanding consumer preferences and trade-offs between broiler welfare, sustainability and economics.

Solution      

Incorporating moral philosophy, qualitative and quantitative multi-factorial data interpretation, logical reasoning and problem-solving we use a variety of ethical theories and frameworks to critically evaluate potential animal welfare issues. Examples include utilitarian or deontological theories as applied through ethical matrices that compare the needs of different stakeholders, including both humans and animals. For example, harm:benefit analysis is particularly relevant for assessing whether laboratory animal research is justified.

We also provide scientific evidence that can contribute to ethical evaluations through our scientific animal welfare research, and through our research on human attitudes towards animal welfare and animal use.

Impact      

Many of the challenges that arise in animal welfare are complex and layered. Ethical frameworks can enable not only the identification of stakeholders involved in these issues but also allow collaboration towards contextual decisions on the best course of action. Our work in relation to animals used in sport identified a lack of sufficient tools to support the consideration of ethical issues of non-human athletes. This led to the development of a novel ethical framework to tackle this omission and to provide stakeholders with the means to make structured ethical decisions in equestrian sport. This tool allows those involved to critically evaluate existing and proposed practices to continue the social license to use horses in sport and make adjustments to practice, if and where necessary, to protect horse welfare.

Our involvement in investigating the capacity for sentience in cephalopods and decapod crustaceans concluded that evidence suggests that these animals are likely to be sentient. This led the UK government to include these groups of species as being within the scope of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill in 2021, potentially paving the way for legislation protecting these animals from unnecessary suffering.  

Work on harm:benefit analysis for animal use in scientific procedures led to our participation in the design of the Swiss National Science Foundation research call (NRP79) for work to replace, reduce and refine animal use, including evaluation of grants submitted under this call, as well as membership of the Royal Society for Protection of Birds (RSPB) ethics advisory committee.

Partners      

We thank our funders (charities, industry stakeholders, government, and UK Research Councils), our collaborators, and the organisations we work with on the various projects.

Publications     

For the most up to date publication lists, please check the Animal Welfare Science and Ethics researcher pages.

Title

Publication

Year

An ethical framework for the use of horses in competitive sport: Theory and function

Animals

2021

Ethics, Genetic Technologies and Equine Sports: The Prospect of Regulation of a Modified Therapeutic Use Exemption Policy

Sport, Ethics and Philosophy

2021

Ethics: use and misuse of assisted reproductive techniques across species

Reproduction and Fertility

2021

The UK Dangerous Dogs Act: Improved, but legally and ethically flawed

Veterinary Record

2021

Review of the evidence of sentience in cephalopod molluscs and decapod crustaceans

Defra commissioned independent report

2021

From unpleasant to unbearable: why and how to implement an upper limit on pain and other forms of suffering in research with animals

ILAR Journal

2020

The ethics of laying hen genetics

Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics

2019

Retrospective harm benefit analysis of pre-clinical animal research for six treatment interventions

PLoS ONE

2018

Reporting of suspected dog fighting by veterinary professionals

Veterinary Record

2018

The economics of animal welfare

OIE Scientific and Technical Review

2017

A study investigating the attitudes and opinions of cattle farmers and veterinarians in the United Kingdom on the use of Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) for post-disbudding analgesia of calves

Animal Welfare

2017

Is cloning horses ethical?

Equine Veterinary Education

2016

Consumer attitudes to injurious pecking in free range egg production

Animal Welfare

2016

Adolescents care but don’t feel responsible for farm animal welfare

Society and Animals

2015

How should the welfare of fetal and neurologically immature post-natal animals be protected?

Animal Welfare

2014

Does the current regulation of assisted reproductive techniques in the UK safeguard animal welfare?

Animal Welfare

2014

Do dog owners recognise clinical signs related to a conformational inherited disorder that is 'normal for the breed'? A potential constraint to improving canine welfare

Animal Welfare

2012

Measuring the success of a farm animal welfare education event

Animal Welfare

2012

 

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