Animal welfare for youth: Part 7 – Evaluating animal welfare scenarios

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


This is the seventh and final article in a series from Michigan State University Extension aimed 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, Part 3 introduced the Three Circles Model, Part 4 detailed Basic Health and Functioning, Part 5 explored Natural Living, and Part 6 explained Affective States. Part 7 will provide examples to put all the pieces together and discuss animal welfare. The Three Circles Model will help youth practice thinking about welfare through the lenses. The ideas presented in this article can be applied to any 4-H animal science project because the questions and concepts discussed can be applied to all species, including beef, sheep, swine, dairy, poultry, rabbits and cavies, companion animals, goats, and horses and ponies.

The following two examples are scenarios to discuss with youth to help them evaluate and think critically about animal welfare. To use these with youth, read the example and provide time for youth to discuss each scenario. Remind them to think about the situations through each lens of the Three Circles Model. Depending on how many youths are in the group, it may work best to keep them in a single group. However, they could also be broken up into three groups with each focusing on one of the three circles. After each scenario, a few talking points are offered.

Example 1: House cats

Two cats live in a small, one-bedroom apartment with one human owner. Both cats are neutered males from different litters. They were both adopted from a shelter and they are not declawed. The cats are allowed access to the entire apartment and are not let outside. The owner does provide toys that are rotated so there is always something “new” to interact with and he plays with the cats frequently. The cats seek out attention from their owner and are very social with other people. They are fed balanced, commercial dry food and fresh water is always available. Veterinary visits occur annually. There are several places for the cats to hide, but there are no high places for them to climb and no scratching post. Due to the close quarters in the apartment, the two cats do not always get along. They fight about once a week over hiding places, toys or food. Neither has been seriously injured, but small scratches or bites are common.

Using the Three Circles Model, how would you assess the welfare of these cats?

Basic Health and Functioning

Both cats receive a balanced diet that meets their nutritional needs, have unlimited access to fresh water, and see a veterinarian regularly. These are important actions to make sure the cats remain healthy and is a positive for this aspect of their welfare. One problem area is the minor injuries the cats incur as a result of fighting, which could impair their health if wounds are not treated or become infected. In addition, the cats are not allowed outside. This helps to minimize the risk of acquiring parasites from wild animals and/or aggressive interactions from other animals. However, this could limit the expression of some hunting behaviors.

Natural Behaviors

The cats have places to hide which is important for having some control over their environment and being able to escape perceived threats. They also have “new” toys to play with and human interaction. Both actions provide enrichment for the cat because novel objects will often be explored and played with more than familiar toys. Human contact provides social interaction, which also helps to improve their welfare. Although skirmishes between the two cats are normal, it may hamper their welfare. They could be fighting over “home” range and are causing minor injuries. Cats in the wild are generally solitary animals and seek space to claim as their own. Males living this closely together is not a natural social structure and can lead to conflict. It would also be beneficial to have a scratching tower. This would provide the cats with a high place to escape and an appropriate material to wear down their claws and leave scent markers on their home territory.

Affective States

The cats seek out human interaction and affection, helping to improve their welfare. They also have easy access to food and water; thus, they do not have to search for these necessities. However, the fighting between the cats may be stressful if one cat is always being targeted by the other. The lack of high places or a scratching post could also be stressful for these cats, impairing their welfare.

Example 2: 4-H swine project

A 4-H youth is raising three female market hogs to show at a fair in central Michigan. The pigs are kept in an outside pen with a packed-dirt floor, one feeding trough, a single waterline with one nipple drinker, and shade covering 40 percent of the pen. The hogs are fed commercial feed once a day. Due to this group feeding method, the hogs sometimes fight for position at the trough, as one animal is dominant over the other two. The dominant pig guards the trough and does not allow the other two pigs to eat as much of their daily ration. Since the pigs are just fed this balanced ration, they sometimes exhibit abnormal oral behaviors, such as chewing on the bars of their pen or sham chewing. Sham chewing is when a pig sits and chomps with nothing in its mouth; it looks similar to a cow chewing cud. The pen is cleaned daily. The youth works with the hogs three times per week for 30-60 minutes per pig, so the animals are accustomed to handling in the show ring. Veterinary visits are scheduled as needed.

Using the Three Circles Model, how would you assess the welfare of these hogs?

Basic Health and Functioning

The hogs are fed a balanced diet for growing market-weight animals and always have access to fresh water. Cleaning the pen daily helps to improve the hog’s environment and minimize disease potential. Veterinary care is provided to the animals when it is needed. The packed-dirt floor is cooler and softer than concrete for resting. Shade coverage is important to make sure the animals are not heat stressed during hot summers. All of these points help to improve the welfare of the pigs. More shade coverage should be provided to ensure all three hogs can avoid direct sunlight or alternate method of cooling should be provided, such as a wallowing area.

Natural Behaviors

Having the animals housed in groups helps to meet pig’s social needs. Pigs naturally form female groupings. One dominant animal in the pen is a normal behavior that occurs when pigs are housed in groups. Fighting behavior, though completely natural, is one behavior that is not desirable and impairs the welfare of the two subordinate pigs. Adding addition feeding troughs or water nipples may help to reduce the aggressive interactions. The nutritional needs of the pigs are met with one feeding per day, but the behavioral needs to root, explore, and scavenge for food is not satisfied, which has led to abnormal behaviors. Providing enrichment, such as compost to root through or a straw bale to destroy, may help to meet their exploration needs and decrease the abnormal oral behaviors. Feeding multiple, smaller meals throughout the day would be another option to try.

Affective States

The training interaction with the 4-H member raising the hogs is a positive experience that provides exercise, mental stimulation and enrichment for the hogs, improving their welfare. The fighting that occurs may distress the other animals in the pen because the dominant pig is working to maintain her status, while the other hogs are just trying to avoid negative interactions. Providing interactive enrichment, like a hay bale, would offer the pigs something else to interact with to possibly divert aggressive behaviors.

As these two examples illustrate, animal welfare is very complex, but that’s what makes it fun! There are many ways an animal situation can be viewed and analyzed. An exercise like this provides a wonderful opportunity for youth to practice critical thinking skills, evaluation, and communication as they discuss their ideas with peers and adults.

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