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Ethics and Morality

Animal Welfare Science May Not Benefit Animals

A new study reveals the distorted focus of animal welfare science.

Key points

  • Animal welfare science focuses on the physical, emotional, and psychological well-being of animals.
  • Researchers found that the level of consideration for intrinsic value of animals in scientific papers is low.
  • The language and motivations used in animal welfare scientific literature are often ambiguous.

Animal welfare science has emerged over the past several decades as a critical field of study that aims to improve quality of life for animals, especially those used within industrial venues such as agriculture, laboratory research, and zoos. It focuses largely on how to understand and measure the physical, emotional, and psychological well-being of animals, emphasizing the need to consider the intrinsic value and experiences of animals. However, recent research suggests a concerning disconnect between the objectives of animal welfare studies and their actual focus.

A study published last month in Animals, a prominent animal welfare journal, explored an obvious but surprisingly neglected question: What value do scientific papers focused on animal welfare attribute to animals, and how has this focus changed over time? Alessandra Fragoso and her colleagues set out to assess the value attributed to farm animals in major animal welfare and animal production journals over the past three decades. They selected 180 different papers that mentioned “animal welfare” or “animal well-being” in their objectives or hypotheses. Each paper was blindly scored by five assessors on a scale of 1 to 10, based on the degree of intrinsic value attributed to animals, with 10 indicating a high degree of intrinsic value.

Unveiling the Distortion

The study found that the average level of consideration for the intrinsic value of animals in the analyzed scientific papers was lower than expected. The overall mean score was only 5.6. This low score indicates a departure from the fundamental principles of animal welfare science and is evidence that “animal welfare scientific publications are, on average, not prioritizing the interests of animals.” The observed discrepancy raises concerns about the distortion of the animal welfare concept and the broader implications of this distortion.

As Fragoso and colleagues note, the language used in animal welfare scientific literature is often ambiguous; the motivations for the research—why and for whom it is performed—are diverse and often not stated explicitly. Although labeled “animal welfare science,” research may be directed at increased productivity, compliance with welfare regulations, appealing to customers who want “humane” meat, and, above all, increased profitability.

Assessing the motivations behind animal welfare studies proved challenging, as many papers lacked clear statements regarding their reasons for investigating animal welfare. This lack of clarity and self-awareness highlights the need for improved scientific writing in the field. Greater transparency and declarative statements regarding the motivations driving each study would benefit the development of animal welfare science and its societal impact.

Distorted Perspectives in Marketing and Agri-Business

The distortion of the animal welfare concept is not limited to scientific publications; it also manifests in marketing and agri-business discourses. Companies often use animal welfare as a marketing tool to improve public perception without genuinely prioritizing animal well-being. Strategies such as "humane washing" are employed to create an impression of animal welfare–conscious practices, while obscuring the reality of animal suffering. ("Humane washing" involves using the appearance of compassion and ethical behavior as a facade to distract from or mask any underlying unethical or inhumane practices.) This distortion undermines the ethical principles and goals of animal welfare science and reinforces the current paradigm in which exploiting and harming animals is normalized.

Epistemological Considerations

The study's results underscore the need for a deeper discussion on animal welfare science within the domain of epistemology, which explores the relationship between science and moral philosophy. The findings suggest a lack of clear linkage between ethical demands and the objectives of animal welfare studies. Bridging the gap between science and ethics is crucial for the advancement of both fields and the development of comprehensive animal welfare practices.

Insufficient Progress Over Time

Although the field of animal welfare science has expanded rapidly in the past three decades, Fragoso et al. found relatively little change in scores over the past three decades; average “intrinsic value” scores of papers did not significantly increase over time. This modest progress is surprising considering the growing societal interest and ethical relevance of animal welfare issues. According to the study authors, the lack of substantial improvement suggests the existence of specific biases or factors within the scientific community that hinder the advancement of animal welfare science.


The study's findings shed light on the distorted focus within animal welfare science, indicating a misalignment between the objectives of studies and their actual content. This distortion has implications not only for scientific research but also for marketing practices and public perception. To address this concern, there is a need for a more comprehensive discussion of the relationship between science, ethics, and animal welfare. By fostering coherence, transparency, and a clear linkage between ethical demands and scientific objectives, the field of animal welfare science can contribute more effectively to the well-being of animals and society as a whole.


Fragoso AAH, Capilé K, Taconeli CA, de Almeida GC, de Freitas PP, Molento CFM. Animal Welfare Science: Why and for Whom? Animals. 2023; 13(11):1833.

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