What is Poultry Welfare?

Actually, the question should be “What is poultry welfare to YOU?”.  As I’ve mentioned before, I am doing a Master’s degree in animal welfare.  It has long been an interest of mine, and the circumstances resulted in me doing the degree part-time, while I am still doing my vet job.

Today, in my “Assessing Animal Welfare” course, a discussion evolved on defining animal welfare (makes sense to figure out what you are assessing before you start).  Basically, the gurus say there are 3 broad components of animal welfare – mental states (referred to as feelings or affective states), health (the absence of pain and illness), and ability to live naturally.   The great thing is that, almost universally, EVERYONE agrees on benefits and detriments for animals.  Nobody will argue that it is good for chickens to be sick, or hungry or in pain; and everyone will agree that it is good for hens to be able to perform natural behaviours like nesting, perching and dust-bathing.  It should be simple to go forward from this point.  Unfortunately, very few changes in hen care result in improvements in all 3 aspects.  Often, strategies that improve the hens’ health restrict the diversity in the environment, resulting in boredom.  More freedom of movement and behaviour almost inevitably result in more injuries and pain. 

The problems, arguments, plebiscites, lawsuits and angst result from the different emphasis people put on different aspects of welfare.  If chickens are allowed to wander outside, they will get more disease, and suffer more deaths and injuries from predators.  Nobody will argue this point.  What happens is that people argue about whether it is worth it.  (Even if, sometimes, the combatants don’t even realize that this is the discussion they are having.)   “Hens have to have access to the outside, to feel sunshine on her face”, and “The mortality and disease rates of range housing of laying hens is unsupportable” are actually just different shades of grey. 

I think that the discussions would be a lot more productive and congenial if everyone involved in the debate would realize that we are all actually on the same side.   We all want happy chickens living a free, healthy, productive life.  The question is: how many days of illness are worth the feel of sunshine on her beak?  How heavy a load of bacteria offsets the satisfaction of scratching through the dirt for bugs and grubs?  There is no set answer, but everyone has a valid opinion.

The discussion has to continue, and farmers have to continue to evolve to meet the society’s expectations.  Just remember, the debate has been going on for thousands of years….Aristotle and Plato discussed animal welfare in ancient Greece.  If they couldn’t figure it out, I don’t expect the answer will be very simple or straightforward.

Mike the Chicken Vet


4 responses to “What is Poultry Welfare?

  1. I love this blog, and it is coming right at the right time.

    I am trying to get together some facts on industrial egg farming, and I think/know that some industrial egg farming conditions in Canada are not exactly “the best”.



    • Hi Andrew;

      Thanks for the support! Let me know if there is anything I can help you with, fact-wise. Whatever you find, try to make sure that it is actually from Canada. Many of the stories and images you will find will be from the US, and it is a very different system than the professional farmers in Canada use. Our farms are much smaller and more profitable (check my post on “why I like supply management”).


  2. Good point Mike. I am taking an animal welfare course online at U of G right now, and a lot of people are getting their info from what the see online, assuming the same conditions exist in Canada. Most have never set foot in a barn or slaughter plant. From what I have seen, and I am sure you have been in many more barns that me, but regulated egg farmers take very good care of their birds.

    • Hi Mike;
      Who are you doing your course with? I think its great how many people are taking an interest in the topic. I am proud of the level of care given to the laying hens in Ontario. There are few barns that need improvement. Our “poor producers” would be considered excellent in a lot of other places. The other thing that is commendable is the amount of interest and research that the farmers put into welfare. They are constantly looking for improvements, and the “next best thing”.
      Thanks for reading, and thanks for the comment. Best of luck with your studies.


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