Companion Animal Welfare

Chapter 4
Companion Animal Welfare

  1. 4.1 Introduction
  2. 4.2 Theories About Animal Welfare
  3. 4.3 From Farm Animal Welfare to Companion Animal Welfare
  4. 4.4 Assessing the Welfare of Companion Animals

4.1 Introduction

As we saw in the previous chapter, keeping dogs, cats and other companion animals fulfils a number of roles in people’s lives. Generally, companion animals contribute to the quality of the lives of their owners or keepers, and so in most cases, keeping companion animals is an activity that people find fulfilling and pleasurable. However, the fact that people keep companion animals because they enjoy doing so does not necessarily mean that they care about or prioritise the animals’ welfare. Certainly, most owners of companion animals probably think of their relationship to their animal(s) as win-win: a well cared for and thriving animal improves the owner’s quality of life. However, compromises sometimes have to be made between what is good for animal companions and what is in the interests of their owners.

For example, many owners of cats and dogs put them in boarding facilities when they go on holiday, even though they believe it would be better for their animals’ welfare if they all stayed home. In such cases, owners prioritise their need for a holiday over their animals’ welfare. Even so, most owners typically try to find out which boarding facility will look after the animals in the best way – ideally where they will be provided with enough space, and cared for by people who pay attention to their needs.

However, owners of dogs and cats can be faced with choices where they are genuinely in doubt about what is best for the animal. A number of such choices will be discussed later in this book; for example, the choice about whether or not to neuter a companion animal, or to treat a severely ill animal rather than to euthanase it (‘put it to sleep’).

In addition to areas of uncertainty, there are also disagreements about what constitutes an animal’s welfare. We will use the case of indoor versus outdoor cats as an example. Many cat owners have to choose between sometimes allowing their cat(s) to go outdoors, or keeping them indoors all the time; many people have strong views about this choice. Often these views are based on claims about what matters most from the point of view of the affected cats.

An illustrative exchange of views can be found on the website of the US animal rights organization PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Under the heading ‘Why all cats should be indoor cats’, the organization argues that for the welfare of cats, it is better never to allow them to go out and roam:

[There are] … several deadly diseases that cats who roam outdoors can catch. Unattended cats also face dangers posed by dogs, wildlife, and the scariest predator of all, humans. Thieves, or “bunchers”, cruise neighbourhoods for friendly dogs and cats who can easily be picked up and sold to dealers, who in turn sell them to laboratories. Cats are often poisoned, shot, set on fire, or trapped and drowned by intolerant neighbors or bored juveniles. They are hit by cars, accidentally poisoned by spilled antifreeze, or maimed by fan blades when they crawl into warm engines on winter days. “But he wants to go outside.” “We live on a very quiet street.” “It’s cruel to keep her in.” These are things said by people who would never dream of opening the door and sending toddlers to wander down the street on their own… Today’s concrete jungles are far too dangerous for vulnerable, trusting little animals.

(PETA, 2013)

This argument is followed by a list of things that a cat owner can do to enrich the indoor environment to keep her or his cat active and engaged without letting it out.

However, a number of readers have posted comments on PETA’s argument; some of these are highly critical about the idea that good cat welfare requires keeping cats indoors. Here are two examples:

I believe cats should be free to roam; that is one of the wonders of owning cats. I have 2 very happy healthy cats who have a great life. I don’t believe in house cats. It’s no different to keeping a rabbit in a hutch with a run in the garden – completely unnatural. That may suit the owner but not the creature. I do, though, keep them in at night so they are safe. If there is lots of traffic or you don’t have a suitable home then you should not have a cat. Let’s not go the way we have with children where people are scared to let them play in the street when in fact a child is more likely to be harmed by a family member than a stranger. (Victoria 30 January 2013 [punctuation and spelling corrected by authors])

‘Yes it is more dangerous for cats to go outdoors. Same applies to people. But we don’t lock ourselves away because the outside world is such a dangerous scary place… Cats are independent creatures.… It is cruel to keep cats indoors’. (Vicky 22 January 2013)

Thus, there can be clear disagreement between people who all seem genuinely to care about the welfare of cats. However, the two sides of the discussion cannot both be right. So, how can someone who is genuinely in doubt decide what constitutes ‘good welfare’ for cats? Can animal welfare science help?

These are the kinds of question that we will consider in this chapter. In the next section, we begin by outlining different philosophical theories about what counts as a ‘good life’. In the following section, we discuss the role of science in finding out about what is optimal welfare for companion animals.

4.2 Theories About Animal Welfare

Achieving good welfare is equivalent to having a good life. If we agree that some action or resource helps to give an animal a good life, then – assuming that it is appropriate to assist the animal in question – we have a reason to act, or to help the animal to access the resource. But how can we know what actually does contribute to giving an animal a good life – for example, whether it is good for a cat to be let out to roam?

Scientific studies may help us find out how animals are affected by the way we treat them. For example, epidemiologists can try to find out how allowing a cat to roam may affect its risk of getting certain diseases, and how this may be relevant to its survival. Behavioural scientists may study how living indoors can affect a cat’s behaviour, and whether being indoors causes behavioural disturbances or signs of frustration. But although such information would inform the discussion, the results, unless they are very extreme, are unlikely to settle the debate. For the parties engaged in the indoor/outdoor cat debate not only disagree about the likely consequences for cats, they also appear to disagree about how to define a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ life for a cat. While typical proponents of keeping cats confined indoors seem to focus on safety as a key feature of cat welfare, opponents focus on other aspects of a ‘good life’ such as freedom and naturalness. It seems that clarification is required on what, in principle, matters in a cat’s life.

Debates about what constitutes a ‘good life’ have a long history. One influential thinker here is the English lawyer and philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832). Bentham is famous for saying that animals – like humans – matter morally because they are able to suffer. According to Bentham, the avoidance of suffering contributes to making a good life.

However, avoidance of serious pain, intense fear, depression and other forms of suffering cannot be the only thing that matters in life. If it were, the safest goal in life would be to die, painlessly, as soon as possible: suffering seems to be an unavoidable part of life, and death seems to be the only safe route to total avoidance of it. There must also be something of positive value that makes life worth living; this positive element Bentham identifies as pleasure. In this category, he collects a whole range of mental states, all of which are positive or pleasant. These states include various forms of joy, fulfilment and comfort. According to Bentham, the good life consists of getting the optimal balance between, on the one hand, pain and other forms of suffering, and on the other hand, joy and pleasure (Bentham, 1789/1989).

The theory that Bentham endorses is usually called hedonism.

The best life, according to hedonism, is one in which there are as many stimulating, comfortable and joyful experiences, and as few frustrating, unpleasant or painful experiences, as possible. The more positive experiences relative to negative ones there are (i.e. the higher the net level of positives), the better the quality of the life is.

Returning to the example of outdoor cats, a defender of hedonism would claim that for the cat, the best option will depend on how many negative or positive experiences are either lost or gained by going out. So, the specific situation is important, for example, the kind of risks the cat actually faces outdoors, in terms of level of traffic, presence of potential predators, diseases, and hostile humans. Equally, the quality of the alternative indoor environment also matters, including the availability of enrichments that allow the cat to engage in indoor behaviours that are equally as rewarding or pleasurable as the missed outdoor behaviours (Figure 4.1).


Figure 4.1 Cats kept indoors: a safe but frustrated life?

(Maria Sbytova/

For the hedonist, there is no a priori answer as to what is best for cats in general – it will depend on how the chances of pleasure and risks of pain add up in the specific circumstances, and to the particular individual (because what gives pleasure to one cat may cause fear to another). To try to calculate this would be difficult, in terms of weighing different kinds of states against each other and assessing risks. How, for example, should the potential pleasure of being allowed to roam outdoors be weighed against (say) a 5% risk of becoming infected with an unpleasant disease that will cause an early death?

In addition, welfare, on a hedonist account, may not be a simple additive function of positive and negative states. If, for example, an animal experiences mild pain, its welfare may not be significantly affected if it is able to cope with the pain. However, beyond a certain threshold, the animal may no longer be able to cope, and may start to suffer.

Setting these problems of measurement and aggregation aside, some people challenge the hedonist position on the grounds that things other than positive and negative experiences matter. They say that it also matters whether the animal is allowed to lead a full and natural life:

Animals, too, have natures – the pigness of the pig, the cowness of the cow, “fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly” – which are as essential to their well-being as speech and assembly are to us.

(Rollin, 1993a: p. 11)


Not only will welfare mean control of pain and suffering, it will also entail nurturing and fulfilment of the animals’ natures, which I call telos.

(Rollin, 1993b: p. 48)

In these two excerpts, the American philosopher, Bernard Rollin, seems to be suggesting that it is good for animals to be free to live in accordance with their natures. Reading Rollin, and philosophers who hold similar views, it can be unclear whether they wish to say that being free to live according to their natures is not only good for the animals because it may give them pleasure, but also in its own right; or that living according to their natures is good for the animals, because it generally leads to more pleasant experiences. Here, we will adopt the former interpretation, because the latter interpretation essentially collapses into hedonism.

This second view will here be labelled perfectionism. Perfectionism is the standard philosophical term for similar views in the human case, which maintain that a good life for a human being depends on the development of certain capacities central to human nature:

According to the perfectionist, being able to realise significant natural or species-specific potentials is a precondition of a good life.

Underlying this approach is the common, but also controversial, assumption that animals have well-defined natures (a perfectionist uses these to define criteria for living a successful life). For example, it may be claimed that it is the nature of a domestic cat to engage in predatory behaviours, and that having the opportunity to engage in such behaviours is part of a normal cat life. So, adopting a perfectionist view, one can argue that something crucial is lost in the life of a cat when it is kept indoors and is not allowed to go out hunting; and that this is so even if an indoor cat would not in (in any conscious sense) ‘be aware’ of missing anything because the indoor life does not trigger its predatory instincts. Similarly, it could be argued that it is the nature of a retriever dog to engage in hunting activities, or a collie to herd, and that something important is lost in the life of such dogs if it they are kept purely as family pets – even if they show no signs of frustration.

A related view of a ‘good life’ for an animal has been developed by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in what is known as her ‘capabilities’ approach. Nussbaum maintains that ‘animals are entitled to a wide range of capabilities to function, those that are most essential to a flourishing life, a life worthy of the dignity of each creature’ (Nussbaum, 2006: p. 392). If we are to ensure that an animal – such as a companion animal – has a good life, we need to identify which capabilities are most important to animals to ensure their flourishing, based on what’s normal for the species. Once we have identified these core capabilities, we should recognise both that companion animals can be harmed if prevented from fulfilling their core capabilities (even if they are not aware of the harm) and that, where necessary, we should assist animals to fulfil their core capabilities. So, to return to the cat example: on Nussbaum’s view, if we can establish that running, hunting and jumping are core capabilities for cats, and required for a cat’s flourishing, then we should endeavour to make sure that the cat has the freedom to perform those behaviours. However, if these behaviours could be satisfactorily carried out indoors (with games and toys), then it may not be necessary for the cat to go outdoors.

The views of a good animal life presented so far have an important assumption in common: they both maintain that there is a standard of the good (animal) life. According to the hedonist, an animal needs to have the optimal balance of pleasure and pain to lead a good life; and according to the perfectionist, an animal can only enjoy a high quality of life if it lives in accordance with its nature, often understood in terms of its species-specific nature.

However, would we, as reflective human beings, necessarily accept that these kinds of standards would guarantee a good life for us? We might be more inclined to say that what really matters is that one gets or achieves what one considers to be important, whatever that happens to be. Some of the things that people prefer, such as engaging in extreme sports and pursuing academic careers, do seem to involve a certain amount of suffering which is not obviously compensated for by extra pleasure, and they do not appear to be (straightforwardly) ‘natural’. But if that is what people really prefer, why deny that the satisfaction of the relevant preferences contributes to the quality of their lives? And if this is so for humans, why should it not be the same for other animals too?

This seems to be the reasoning underpinning the view of Peter Singer, another ethicist with a keen interest in animals. In the following passage, he explains why he claims that what matters, in a good life, is getting what one wants, that is, satisfying one’s preferences:

… for me, a good life is one in which my own considered, informed preferences are maximally satisfied. If I hold this judgment in a form that makes no particular reference to myself – as I must, if it is to be a moral judgment as I understand the term – then I must hold that this is true for others as well, other things being equal.

(Singer, 2002)

This view – which Singer elsewhere explicitly generalises to include animals – may be called the preference theory: for a good life, it is necessary to achieve what one wants or strives for, that is, to have one’s preferences satisfied. If not all preferences can be satisfied, the goal is to achieve the maximum satisfaction available, which should be understood as a function of both the number of preferences satisfied and their relative strength. Typically, a requirement is added that preferences only count when they are considered and informed.

The requirement that preferences should be considered and informed is added here to avoid the objection that sometimes people (and animals) seem to prefer things that do not necessarily contribute to the quality of their lives. For example, people may prefer to do dangerous or harmful things because they do not understand the consequences; here the preference will not really be informed. Compared with humans, animals do not reflect about what they might want, so it is difficult to say that they can have ‘considered and informed’ preferences. Yet the reasons for including these constraints do seem relevant to animals, because they certainly could be ignorant of things that would change their preferences, and they could prefer things that are bad for them, and so would cause them, in the future, to be in states that they would not prefer.

However, it may be argued that we can make choices on behalf of animals, as well as for children, based on a concern for what would have been their considered and informed preferences had they been able to reflect and act in accordance with their long term interests. For example, it may be in the best interest of a dog not to give it the piece of chocolate that it strongly desires now, because chocolate is toxic to dogs; were the dog able to make a considered and informed choice, it would more strongly prefer not to have stomach pain and veterinary treatment that might follow.

If we return to the indoor/outdoor cat debate, the preference view may accept keeping cats indoors, as long as cats do not show signs of having strong preferences to get out (e.g. by sitting at the window, or constantly trying to slip through an open door). But if we think about what ‘informed’ might mean, the question is more complicated. ‘Informed’ in this case may mean that a cat’s actual preference (to go outdoors) could be overridden by a hypothetical preference to avoid significant outdoor threats, which we might suppose the cat would have if it were fully informed about the risks to be found outdoors. On the other hand, we might equally suppose that if a cat has always been indoors, it is not fully informed about what it is missing outdoors, and that if it knew how interesting the outdoors would be, it would have a preference to go out. In the human case, preferences shaped by restricted or oppressive circumstances are sometimes described as ‘deformed’ or ‘adaptive’; perhaps indoor cats who do prefer to stay indoors or do not prefer to go outdoors might be understood to have distorted or adaptive preferences. So, in practice, it may not always be easy to come to a clear conclusion about what constitutes good welfare if hypothetical preferences are to be counted in alongside the actual ones.

Different approaches to welfare, then, may give different answers to the question about whether a cat should be allowed to roam outdoors. It is not difficult to imagine other situations in which these approaches diverge. For example, in social animals, such as packs of dogs, fighting for a higher position in the hierarchy may be part of living a natural life, and could fit into a perfectionist vision of good welfare. But from a hedonistic view, it would be better for the animals if stressful fights were prevented, for example, by castrating the males to reduce aggression. Likewise, having preferences fulfilled may be rewarding at first, but may lead in the long run to unpleasant experiences or painful disease; for example, a dog fed according to its preferences may become obese. Thus, there may be a contradiction between what the animal desires and what will prevent it suffering in the longer term. (Of course, the comparison will be less straightforward if the preference view allows for hypothetical preferences, such as a hypothetical future preference not to suffer from diseases associated with obesity.)

However, it is not always the case that these different ideas of welfare diverge so dramatically. Positive experiences do often follow when you get what you want and you are able to express natural behaviours and potentials, and conversely, negative experiences often follow from frustrated desires and failing to fulfil natural potential or talents.

It may be possible to hold hybrid views of the good (animal) life that combine elements from different theories. Thus, one can easily imagine a view combining elements of hedonism and perfectionism, according to which it is important both to secure the best possible balance of positive and negative experiences and to express natural potentials.

So far, the discussion has concerned how to define the good animal life or animal welfare. But even when a definition has been adopted, there is a further question: how, in practice, should we actually assess animal welfare? It seems relevant to consider this in the context of modern discussions of animal welfare, and its links to legislation and animal welfare science.

4.3 From Farm Animal Welfare to Companion Animal Welfare

The modern idea that we should focus on ‘animal welfare’ and its link to so-called animal welfare science is rooted in discussions about intensive farm animal production, and dates back to the 1960s. The first clear statement appeared in a report published by the British Brambell Committee (Brambell, 1965). This committee was set up by the British government following the public outcry about intensive livestock farming prompted by Ruth Harrison’s book Animal Machines, published in 1964. The recommendations of this committee formed the basis of subsequent British and European animal welfare legislation.

Previous legislation relating to animals had been so-called ‘anti-cruelty’ legislation, which only focussed on preventing people causing suffering to animals for frivolous reasons, or due to gross negligence (so-called wanton cruelty). Cruelty is still illegal, and cases involving neglect or cruelty towards dogs, cats and other companion animals make up the majority of the thousands of convictions for violations of anti-cruelty legislation made in the United Kingdom (RSPCA, 2013) and in other Western countries every year.

However, modern animal welfare legislation, in the wake of the Brambell report, also aims to protect animals from potentially adverse effects of rational attempts to make use of them, not least by increasing production efficiency (e.g. keeping laying hens confined in small cages or tethering or stalling pregnant sows). Typically, animal welfare legislation of this kind will define minimum requirements for housing and keeping animals: thus recently, in the European Union, both traditional battery cages and the confinement of pregnant sows have been banned. Some requirements to protect the welfare of companion animals have also found their way into modern, particularly European, animal welfare legislation, for example, requirements that puppies and kittens should stay with their mother for a minimum of time before being sold.

Another new development following the Brambell report was that the notion of suffering was widened to include the frustration of behavioural needs, whereas earlier, only pain was recognised as suffering. Thus, according to the Brambell report farm animals have ‘behavioural urges’, often frustrated in intensive confinement systems, which they need to perform to avoid suffering (Mench, 1998). This led to the statement of a general principle of animal welfare according to which farm animals should be free ‘to stand up, lie down, turn around, groom themselves and stretch their limbs’ (the so-called Brambell freedoms) (Brambell, 1965: p. 13). The committee insisted that ‘suffering’ should include discomfort and stress (understood to cover a wide range of mental states including frustration and fear).

Another very influential idea found in the Brambell report was that studies based on methods from physiology and ethology are necessary elements of animal welfare assessment. This was given great weight when the report’s conclusions were implemented. By requiring agricultural reform to be underpinned by scientific evidence, the British Government, on the one hand, undertook to set up new research, and on the other, bought time before having to embark on controversial legislation.

The Brambell report and similar initiatives in other European countries set off significant investments in the scientific study of farm animal welfare; these investments have also benefitted other groups of animals, including companion animals. So, when researchers today study the welfare of dogs, cats and other companion animals, they typically stand on the shoulders of pioneering work done within the study of farm animal welfare.

However, the approach to the study of animal welfare following from the recommendations of the Brambell Committee also has two major limitations:

First, the focus was mainly on the absence of suffering; there is little mention of positive welfare. Even the central principle of the Brambell report, that animals require certain basic freedoms (later developed into the Farm Animal Welfare Council’s Five Freedoms – see Box 4.1), has generally been understood to have been violated only when the infringement of a freedom led to suffering.

So, the underlying theory of animal welfare here is a very limited version of hedonism, focussing only on absence of suffering rather than on an optimal balance between pleasure and absence of suffering. Adherents of this approach may, with some justification, argue that the reduction of suffering should be considered the priority, before turning to positive welfare, which may be considered a luxury. However, it is worth noting that allowing or encouraging animals’ positive states may provide an opportunity to reduce suffering, by enabling animals to better cope with any negative states they also face.

Feb 16, 2017 | Posted by in GENERAL | Comments Off on Companion Animal Welfare

Full access? Get Clinical Tree

Get Clinical Tree app for offline access