Making the crucial distinction between animal welfare and animal rights

Samantha Smith

The terms ‘animal rights’ and ‘animal welfare’ tend to be used informally, and interchangeably, to refer to any matter involving a moral concern for animals. But, in fact, these terms are far from interchangeable. And the importance of understanding the distinction between them cannot be overstated.

Animal welfare ideology accepts the institutional use of animals for food, clothing, medical research and entertainment, provided the use complies with two conditions: that is the animal was treated humanely and was not subjected to unnecessary suffering.

By contrast, animal rights ideology rejects the use of animals for food, experimentation, entertainment, security, clothing, or otherwise. Animal rights theory views animals as sentient beings who possess inherent moral worth and are owed equal consideration.

Animal welfare advocates do not oppose the breeding, raising or killing of farmed animals for human consumption. Their objection is limited to the intensive rearing of animals (commonly known as ‘factory farming’), so they support the introduction of larger cages for egg-laying hens and the elimination of sow stalls in pig farming.

Animal rights advocates, on the other hand, vehemently oppose any mode of animal agriculture and practice this belief by living according to vegan principles.

The conflation of these terms betrays the fundamental distinction between accepting animal use and rejecting it. Animals are unique individuals for whom suffering and death is a dire harm, and no matter how ‘humanely’ we may proclaim to treat them, exploiting and killing them for food, clothing and entertainment is, in the absence of genuine necessity, morally wrong.

Under the common law, animals are classified as property. This means that an animal’s interest in avoiding harm is superseded by their owner’s interest in exploiting their body for economic gain. In this light, the irresponsible use of the term ‘animal rights’ to describe a welfarist matter that involves improving the conditions under which animals live and die totally ignores the reality that animals lack legal rights.

The concepts of ‘humane treatment’ and ‘unnecessary suffering’ which are commonly employed to justify the use of animals, do not mean what the public thinks they do. The meaning of these terms is dependent on the context in which the animal is used. If the animal is exploited in accordance with a socially acceptable use, their suffering tends to be deemed necessary. For example, slicing off your cat’s tail is a criminal offence under the Animals Protection Act 71 of 1962, punishable by a fine and or imprisonment, for the reason that mutilating a cat is not considered an acceptable use of animal property. By contrast, docking the tails of lambs, piglets, and calves –without the use of pain relief – is standard industry practice incidental to the use of animals in food production. Similarly, the act of euthanising an elderly dog losing her battle with cancer and shooting a cow in the head with a captive bolt gun to render her unconscious in a slaughterhouse are both deemed humane within the animal welfare view.

For all these reasons, it is vital to keep ‘animal welfare’ and ‘animal rights’ conceptually separate so as to remain clear and respect the moral rights of sentient beings.


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