Animal welfare for youth: Part 4 – Basic health and functioning

This series will explore basic concepts of animal welfare and why 4-H youth involved in animal projects understand this subject.

Three Circles Model of Animal Welfare, adapted from Appleby, Lund, and Fraser and colleagues.
Three Circles Model of Animal Welfare, adapted from Appleby, Lund, and Fraser and colleagues.

This is the fourth in a series of articles from Michigan State University Extension to help 4-H club leaders discuss animal welfare concepts with youth. In Part 1, animal welfare was defined, Part 2 provided an outline of the Five Freedoms and Part 3 introduced the Three Circles Model of animal welfare. Part 4 will break down the first circle of the model: basic health and functioning. The ideas presented here can be used with any 4-H animal science project because the questions and concepts apply to all species, including beef, sheep, swine, dairy, poultry, rabbits and cavies, companion animals, goats, and horses and ponies.

Defining basic health and functioning

To review, the definition from Part 3 addresses the physical fitness of the animal, including good health, normal body function, and normal growth and development. This is probably the most easily understood part because care takers, both youth and adults, want to make sure their animals are healthy, growing and producing!

Most animals present with discrete signs when basic health and functioning are impaired – lethargy, fever, feed refusal, poor conception rate, poor coat quality, and many other behaviors and symptoms. When this occurs, production animals will not grow as efficiently or provide the other product(s) (e.g., milk, eggs or fiber) desired. Companion animals will not perform the tasks asked of them (e.g., a dog on an agility trial).

Back to the Five Freedoms

In looking back to the Five Freedoms, this relates most closely to the freedoms from hunger and thirst (Freedom 1); discomfort (Freedom 2); and pain, injury and disease (Freedom 3). The three freedoms listed will impact basic health and functioning of an animal, which can be both positive and negative.

Positive impact: If quality food, water and a comfortable environment are provided, as well as minimizing the risk of injury or disease, this will go a long way in providing for the physical needs of the animal. This care and attention will help to provide an excellent foundation for ensuring good welfare and is something youth are already doing.

Negative impact: If, however, these basic husbandry practices are neglected, the welfare of the animal will be impaired, along with health, growth and production. Meeting the basic health and functioning needs of an animal are relatively easy. This should be one of the first parts of an animal project that should be learned and are necessary for the youth be able to show their animal project at the county fair.

Talking with youth about basic health and functioning

  • Remind youth of the Five Freedoms discussion and let them know they are going to dig even deeper into the topic of animal welfare! Make it exciting, telling them they already know a lot, but now it’s time to think in more detail and about the good things they do to care for their animals.
  • Start a conversation by asking what important physical needs are provided for animals. Focus on physical needs because other needs (natural living and affective states) will be addressed later. Answers will likely be the same as what was provided with the Five Freedom discussion, which is perfect! The Three Circles are an extension of the Five Freedoms, so it is important that you help youth find this connection.
  • Once youth make the connection with the Five Freedoms, introduce the Three Circles Model. A picture will be very helpful in explaining the three parts, how they overlap and how they can diverge. Give the basic definitions from Part 3 and ask the youth to describe where the physical needs they just listed fit. Ask them also to place the Five Freedoms that meet the physical needs in the appropriate circle.
  • A more detailed understanding of welfare has just been introduced! This, like the Five Freedoms, should be very familiar to youth. Once these physical needs are recognized, it will be easier to have the conversations about the more abstract topics of Natural Living and Affective States.

The key to talking with youth about welfare is connecting the dots from what they know and practice to bigger concepts and topics that are important in agriculture. Welfare can be very easy, and youth are already becoming experts in the topic; they just may not realize it!

Parts 5 and 6 in this series will explore natural living and affective states more in depth. Part 7 will include real-world examples to use as conversation starters to practice expressing their and using critical thinking skills.

Did you find this article useful?