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Measuring animal welfare and applying scientific advances - Why is it still so difficult?

Measuring animal welfare and applying scientific advances - Why is it still so difficult?

UFAW International Symposium 2017
27th-29th June 2017

Royal Holloway, University of London, Surrey, UK

On 27th June, UFAW welcomed over 240 delegates from 26 countries to Royal Holloway to our latest international symposium. Attending were leading scientists, veterinary surgeons and policy makers and others interested in animals and their welfare.

The theme of the symposium, was ‘Measuring animal welfare and applying scientific advances - Why is it still so difficult?’, inspired in part by a paper published by Professor Georgia Mason (University of Guelph) and Professor Mike Mendl (University of Bristol) in our journal Animal Welfare in 1993. The aim was to consider where we have got to with animal welfare science in the 24 years since the paper, what issues we face that underlie some of our continuing difficulties and to seek new ideas and to promote higher quality and better-focused animal welfare science.

Fittingly Professors Mason and Mendl both presented keynote talks at the meeting - as did neuroscientist and current UFAW award holder Dr Tom Smulders (Newcastle University).

Professor Mendl started proceedings with a thought provoking talk on ‘Animal affect: What is it, what do we know, and what can we know?’ He argued that there is an emerging consensus that welfare is to do with what animals consciously experience (e.g. feelings, emotions) and that therefore to measure welfare we need to know about animal feelings. He put forward two different models, based on humans, that seek to explain what we are studying when we study feelings. The first is a discrete emotions approach which argues that emotions (eg (e.g. ‘fear’;  ‘anger’; ‘happiness’) reflect the activity of discrete neurobehavioural systems and that it should be possible to determine which part of the brain generates each of the emotions. The second is the dimensional approach to emotions which argues that the action of a small number of underlying systems can generate many mental categories of feeling, including discrete emotions. Professor Mendl then outlined the scientific arguments that are put forward to support each and considered what they mean for animals. He concluded that when we study animal affect there are three questions that we should address if we are to develop a more rigorous science of animal affect and welfare and to avoid confusion in interpretation. These are: Is the animal able to consciously experience the affective state? Which measures reflect the affective state? What type of affective state is likely to occur in our study species? To address these, he said we need to justify any use of discrete emotion words for the species being studied; be explicit about our reasons for using particular measures as indicators of particular affective states; and treat the type of affective state as a separate question from measuring it, and make a specific arguments for it for the study species.

Having set the challenge faced by animal welfare scientists, the other talks then went on to consider some novel measures of animal welfare. Some of the behavioural measures included quality of sleep – Fuchs et al, boredom – Burn and willingness to play – Mason. Others included neurological markers such as the growth of neurones in the hippocampus (Smulders, Armstrong and Poirier) and cell markers such as telomere length (which are found at the end of chromosomes) – Andrews. The need to consider variability in welfare state between individuals (Goold) and that supposed experts often disagree as to the usefulness of different welfare measures/indicators (Sandoe) were also discussed.

However, in a meeting that encompassed all of the diversity of animal welfare, these presentations only touch on the many other inspiring and interesting talks and poster presentations given during its three days.

We would like to thank all those who contributed to making the symposium so stimulating and enjoyable – the speakers, the poster presenters and chairs – and all the delegates. Thanks also to the conference team from Royal Holloway.