Article, 100th Anniversary

Fostering a “shared understanding of animal welfare”

welfare strategy_an elder in a seated position, smiling while hugging a goat in a seated
Animal welfare is a complex issue that reflects our relationship with the animals our livelihoods depend on. It has been part of WOAH’s mandate since 2002. To make international welfare standards a reality across the world’s diversity of production systems, the Organisation collaborates with diverse stakeholders, from NGOs to governments and the industry. To celebrate WOAH’s centenary, a representative from each stakeholder group reflects on how animal welfare has evolved over time.

The economic, social and cultural importance of animals for human societies is as old as time. Animals are critical for food security, human health, livelihoods, sustainability and even to provide emotional support. For instance, “It is estimated that 200 million working animals support the livelihoods of over one billion people around the world”, notes Roly Owers, Chair of the International Coalition for Animal Welfare (ICFAW) which collaborates with WOAH to improve animal welfare across the world.  

With the prominent roles animals have in our lives “comes an ethical responsibility to ensure the welfare of animals is upheld to the greatest extent practicable”, adds Dr Carol Sheridan, Assistant Secretary of the Animal Welfare Branch in the Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. Yet, NGOs such as the World Horse Welfare, a member of the ICFAW, still observe “a lack of recognition of [the] importance, and health and welfare at policy level”

welfare strategy_caring for animals
Caring for animal welfare through proper nutrition and rearing conditions is the cornerstone of sustainable animal production. This has a direct impact on animal health and productivity. 
Photo: © Ginger Wood

Building momentum for animal welfare 

Today, we define WOAH’s mission as “improving animal health and welfare across the globe.” This second aspect, closely connected to the first, became part of the Organisation’s mandate with the adoption of a resolution in 2002. Members recognised the essential link between animal health and animal welfare, and asked WOAH [then OIE] to develop a detailed vision and strategy that would incorporate all the facets of this complex issue.  

More than twenty years later, important strides have been made. At the first Animal Welfare Global Conference, organised in Paris, France, in 2004, national Delegates adopted the first standards on animal transport and slaughter, working in collaboration with international organisations, the private sector, and the civil society. These standards were published in the Terrestrial Code in 2004 and in the Aquatic Code in 2008. Animal welfare was officially defined as “the physical and mental state of an animal in relation to the conditions in which it lives and dies.”

The Five Freedoms

Developed in 1965, the “Five Freedoms” describe the conditions that animals should experience when under human control.  

  1. Freedom from hunger, malnutrition and thirst. 
  2. Freedom from fear and distress. 
  3. Freedom from heat, stress or physical discomfort. 
  4. Freedom from pain, injury and disease. 
  5. Freedom to express normal patterns of behaviour. 

Developing standards based on science and evidence 

Producers’ organisations, such as the International Poultry Council, provided their professional perspective in the making of WOAH’s standards. “Our real-life input is critical to ensuring that WOAH’s work is based on farm level knowledge and science,” said Ricardo Santin, president of the Council. “International governmental guidance needs to be taken to the national level, and ultimately to the farm level. This is a process that takes the right communication and training tools so the private sector can act upon government sector guidance.”  

For Dr Carol Sheridan, “The development of WOAH Standards has promoted a shared understanding of animal welfare and the ethical treatment of animals” which contributes to improving animal welfare at all levels. By coining international standards based on science, we provided Members with guidance to develop their own national directions.  

“WOAH Standards were a key building block for the development of Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock and the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System”, adds Dr Carol Sheridan. The making of these standards also sheds light on the importance of animal welfare to sustain human societies:

The very existence of WOAH Standards for the welfare of working equids has raised awareness of the value and roles of working animals who are often invisible.

Roly Owers, Chair of the International Coalition for Animal Welfare (ICFAW).
welfare_two  juvenile llama interacts with its elder in a stable
A juvenile llama interacts with its elder in a stable. Behavioural interaction is one of five domains used to assess animal welfare, along with nutrition, health, mental state and living environment. Photo: © EC-WOAH

A strategy that acknowledges animal welfare’s contribution to sustainable development 

The fourth Animal Welfare Conference in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2016, paved the way for the adoption of WOAH’s Global Animal Welfare Strategy. In this roadmap, WOAH [then OIE] enumerates different roles of animals and recognises “all these purposes as legitimate, while carrying an associated ethical responsibility to ensure any such use is humane, as defined through the OIE’s international standards for animal welfare, in recognition of the sentience of animals.” 

Far from abstract ethics, animal welfare is approached as a key asset to sustainable development. WOAH’s Global Animal Welfare Strategy acknowledges that in animal production systems, attention to welfare can improve animal health, productivity, quality, food safety, and economic returns, and therefore contribute to food security and economic prosperity. “To maximise the poultry sector’s contribution to food security, maintaining healthy and productive birds is key, and animal welfare is key to a healthy bird”, confirms Ricardo Santin.  

welfare strategy_Animals are prepared for a flight
Animals are prepared for a flight, in line with WOAH’s standards on animal welfare during transport. Following these recommendations helps reduce pain and stress caused by long-distance transport. Photo: © WOAH/Miguel Vilatorro

Collaborating to bring animal welfare to farm life  

WOAH’s Global Animal Welfare Forums, as part of the key activities of the strategy, took over from the previous conferences to foster dialogue on the most challenging topics and make sure all stakeholders are on board. The last global forum, held in November 2023 in Paris, France, was an opportunity to share experience and good practices on national animal legislation. 

NGOs agree with producers and governments on this particular aspect: implementation is key “There is much to be done in order to properly implement WOAH Standards among countries and improve the welfare of animals worldwide,” notes Roly Owers, stressing the importance of collaboration between all actors, in line with WOAH’s Vision on Animal Welfare, published in 2024. 

Collaboration will be essential to counter the “increasing impact of climate change on livestock industries” which is bound to affect animal welfare, notes Dr Carol Sheridan. “Through organisations such as WOAH, we can address these as a global community”, she adds. Now, more than ever, WOAH calls for a paradigm shift in the way humans interact with animals – for their benefit and ours.

Have you read?