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Animal Welfare - Recent Reports and Comments

Animal Welfare vol 24 issue 1 Volume 27 
Issue 1
February 2018

Animal consciousness

This Report, commissioned by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), is an exhaustive survey of animal consciousness running to more than 160 pages and in excess of 700 citations. EFSA’s intention for the Report was to answer four questions: What is the current knowledge on the different dimensions of consciousness and the scientific methods that can be used to determine whether an animal is conscious? Which types of consciousness, level and content, are present in vertebrate animals, specifically in livestock species, including farmed fish? What is the content of different livestock species’ specific consciousness? What are the neuronal correlates of consciousness in different livestock species?

All of these questions clearly have important implications for EFSA in that they address the capacity of farmed livestock species (the welfare of which is the responsibility of EFSA) to have consciousness, and hence good or bad welfare. In fact, the questions all really relate to the classic question posed by Jeremy Bentham as “…can they suffer?” If animals are conscious and therefore sentient, they can have poor welfare and most people would therefore accept that they are deserving of moral concern. On the other hand, if some animals are not conscious it is reasonable to focus our concern elsewhere.

The Report takes a comprehensive approach, tackling first the historical, largely philosophical perspective ranging from Aristotle to modern day philosophical thought on consciousness. The Report then moves to consider the scientific evidence base for consciousness, beginning, unsurprisingly, with humans where more attention has been focused and where there is the benefit of language allowing humans to share their phenomenological experience of consciousness.

The third chapter discusses consciousness in animals, considering numerous phenomena which may be involved in animal consciousness (sensory perception and episodic memory, for instance), progressing to an examination of the evidence for neural correlates of consciousness (NCCs) in animals. This consideration of NCCs has important practical as well as theoretical relevance, for instance, in judging when consciousness is lost during stunning at the time of slaughter and thus identifying periods between loss of consciousness and death where the animal’s welfare is of no further concern, so this summary is useful in highlighting how far neuroscience can help us detect and understand the various correlates of consciousness.

The final chapter considers some of the processes which might underlie conscious perception, with a particular emphasis on pain as a conscious emotion which likely underpins a great deal of animal suffering.

The conclusion of the Report begins in an unsurprisingly equivocal tone, the authors cannot answer the question whether animals have consciousness, and acknowledge that there are different types of consciousness and that there may also be degrees of consciousness. Even human consciousness can only be inferred in others and the absence of language in animals makes our ability to make inferences about their consciousness even more difficult. The more different an animal is from humans the more difficult it is for us to infer whether it has the capacity to be conscious, and the authors point out that the evidence for animal consciousness is concentrated amongst a very limited number of mammalian species commonly studied in the laboratory. Consciousness has been perhaps most studied in primates, but there have also been extensive studies of rodents. Surprisingly little is known about consciousness in livestock species, those animals which, arguably, we should be most interested in due to the vast number raised for food and whose welfare, assuming they are sentient, is therefore directly affected by humankind.

The authors arrive at a pragmatic conclusion given the paucity of evidence for or against consciousness in many species, that it cannot be ruled out even amongst taxa which differ fundamentally from humans, such as invertebrates, echoing a conclusion reached several years ago by a group of prominent neurobiologists (Low et al 2012) that consciousness was not likely to be solely the province of those species with the classical mammalian brain structure where higher functions are subserved by a neocortex. The final paragraph of the Report therefore reaches the inevitable conclusion that the precautionary principle should be applied, since there is, in the authors’ opinions, “a wide range of animals which have a wide range of conscious abilities.”

This Report takes an epic journey from the earliest thoughts of philosophers in antiquity through to the latest neurobiological and theoretical approaches to unravelling the mechanisms of consciousness, and for that it will prove useful to many who have a scientific interest in animal consciousness even if it still cannot answer Bentham’s question with certainty. The Report also highlights how much more work is needed and, taking a utilitarian view of which Bentham would likely have approved, points to the need to focus effort where a better understanding of animal consciousness will inform us about, and in the future perhaps allow us to maximise the welfare of, the largest number of animals: those species which we farm or harvest for food.

Animal Consciousness (2017). A4, 165 pages. EFSA Supporting Publication by Pierre Le Neindre, Emilie Bernard, Alain Boissy, Xavier Boivin, Ludovic Calandreau, Nicolas Delon, Bertrand Deputte, Sonia Desmoulin-Canselier, Muriel Dunier, Nathan Faivre, Martin Giurfa, Jean-Luc Guichet, Léa Lansade, Raphaël Larrère, Pierre Mormède, Patrick Prunet, Benoist Schaal, Jacques Servière and Claudia Terlouw. https://doi.org/10.2903/sp.efsa.2017.EN-1196.


Low P, Panksepp J, Reiss D, Edelman D, van Swinderen B and Koch C 2012 The Cambridge Declaration on consciousness. Francis Crick Memorial Conference. 7 July 2012, Cambridge, UK

H Golledge,

Welfare standards for the Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN) countries

The ASEAN-Australia Development Cooperation Program (AADCP) is producing new animal welfare standards for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, (ASEAN) countries, and a recent module has been published on the welfare of layers, broilers and ducks. The module’s justification for the guidelines is that not only is global trade in chicken and chicken products increasing as trade becomes freer, but also that consumers are increasingly requiring assurance that chicken products are produced and handled in a manner that provides good welfare and does not harm the environment. These societal changes have resulted in retailers wanting industry compliance with good animal husbandry practices (GAHP) and increasing legal protection for animal welfare and other issues.

The GAHP guidelines and standards are intended to cover more than just animal welfare so this particular module also includes issues such as bio-security, husbandry, the environment, and health and safety of farm workers.

The guidelines begin by providing the OIE definitions of animal welfare and the OIE guiding principles for animal welfare. Further sections specify in detail animal welfare standards for broiler chickens, layer hens and ducks and how management should be provided to deliver environmental sustainability. The standards are largely provided as performance standards, for example that “Temperature in sheds must be maintained within a range that ensures good health and welfare of the chickens” rather than the engineering standard approach of specifying an acceptable temperature range. The document also provides general considerations for poultry transportation and slaughter, and animal welfare standards and management approaches with respect to environmental sustainability for chicken and duck farms. Annexes provide additional information including a self-assessment checklist for poultry producers.

ASEAN Good Animal Husbandry Practices (GAHP) – Animal Welfare and Environmental Sustainability Module for Layers, Broilers and Ducks (2017) A4, 111 pages. Available at http://aadcp2.org/wp-content/uploads/Final-ASEAN-GAHP-Module.pdf

R Hubrecht,

Report on the incidence of bovine tuberculosis in cattle in 2013–2016

The UK Animal Plant & Health Agency (APHA) has published a Report on TB incidence in cattle comparing three UK areas in Gloucestershire, Somerset, and Dorset where badger culling licences have been issued with ten comparison areas where no licences were issued. The incidence of TB in cattle was also monitored in 2-km buffer areas surrounding the intervention areas and compared to incidence in similarly defined areas around the comparison areas. All areas were compared for the three years prior to culling and the first three years since culling began in Gloucestershire and Somerset, and the first year since culling began in Dorset. The primary outcome used to compare the three areas were TB breakdowns per 100 herd years at risk unadjusted for additional factors which affect TB risk. TB breakdowns were defined as having occurred when more than one reactor was found at a TB test or only one reactor was found at a TB test and:

  • Lesions that are typical of TB are identified at the post mortem inspection;
  • A laboratory test has demonstrated the presence of Mycobacterium bovis (bovine TB);
  • The herd has been classified as OTFW in the previous three years;
  • The herd is next to another herd which has been classified as OTFW in the previous six months;
  • A disease risk to that herd has been identified by the APHA; and
  • Any combination of the above circumstances.

The analysis showed different distributions of TB breakdown incidents between the intervention areas. In one area (Gloucestershire), the incidence rate remained lower in the intervention area than the comparisons area while, in another, the incidence rate prior to culling was higher than in comparison areas, although this declined after culling. Overall, however, there were no significant differences between the combined central areas of the intervention areas and the comparison areas or between buffer areas of intervention and comparison areas.

The Report draws attention to the complexities of assessing effectiveness, noting “The long-term value of information from monitoring industry-led culling will depend on the conduct of the cull, the number of areas eventually licensed and the extent to which other parts of the TB control policy remain stable. Continued delivery of the intervention in these areas, and further roll out of the intervention to other areas will enable better assessments to be made of the longer-term impact of the policy on TB incidence in cattle.” The Report also points to the need to control for confounding factors in future analyses of longer data-sets.

Report on the Incidence of Bovine Tuberculosis in Cattle in 2013–2016: Three Years’ Follow-up in Areas of Somerset and Gloucestershire and One Year of Follow-up in Dorset of Industry-led Badger Control (September 2017). A4, 47 pages. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/643492/tb-badger-control-third-year-analysis.pdf.

R Hubrecht,

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