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Care and Welfare – What’s the Difference?

Lessons in Welfare Series

Care and Welfare – What’s the Difference?

Introducing the second edition in our series of blogs examining animal welfare concepts with the Wild Welfare team. This month, Animal Welfare Field Manager, Sarah Bonser-Blake explores the nuances and critical differences between animal care and welfare.

Bear yawning laying on log

A long time ago when I was managing captive animals in zoos and sanctuaries, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of what animal welfare was. In my head, if my animals were living in clean enclosures and I could see that they were healthy, well fed and acting (relatively) normally, then they must have good welfare.

Looking back, I now realise how much more advanced my understanding of welfare has become. The truth of the matter was that back then I was mistaking animal care for animal welfare, and while the two concepts very much intercept, what we constitute as good care does not always equate to good welfare. Part of my role within Wild Welfare is to discuss this with animal care teams around the world.

Let’s take a look at the example of hygiene. Washing, scrubbing and power hosing an animal enclosure to within an inch of its life is quite often a necessary part of an animal carer’s job. But this doesn’t take into account what the animal itself needs to be able to thrive. Many animal species are very scent-based. For example a marmoset or tamarin species relies heavily on smelly forms of communication and if they are removed every day, it can actually become quite stressful for them. A marmoset’s understanding of their environment is erased with every stroke of a soapy sponge, and a sparklingly clean enclosure just does not smell like home to a tamarin. For many species, the powerful aroma of disinfectant (no matter how much it is washed away) could be a very uncomfortable odour to live alongside, particularly for those species with olfaction as their dominant sense.

Tiger on zoo bedThe more I have learned about what welfare is, and what it looks like, the more I learned to differentiate it from the care practices I had spent a decade entrenched in. Unhelpfully, there is no single, unified and universally agreed upon definition of animal welfare. This does not make the necessitation for segregation of the terms any easier, but within Wild Welfare, we examine welfare through how an animal is coping with the conditions in which it lives.

We can ask ourselves some of the following questions:

  • Are there opportunities for that animal to experience positive emotions through the care in which we might provide?
  • Is the animal able to express behaviours which they feel motivated to undertake?
  • Are animals able to enjoy a varied, nutritious and species appropriate diet? But beyond that, are they also able to search and process that food in a way in which they would in the wild?
  • Are animals able to enjoy choices, make decisions and experience comfort and pleasure throughout their lives?

All of these things feed into how the animal experiences their world.

“(Historically), determining the welfare status of individual animals…has largely focused on what is actually animal care—what is provided to animals. This includes access to food, water, and shelter, as well as to veterinary care. These are all necessary components of welfare, but they do not, in and of themselves, ensure good welfare.” – Kagan & Veasey, 2010.

‘The disinfectant era’ was a time in history when enclosures in zoological collections were hyper-clean. Floors and walls were often made with tiles or other easy to wash materials. This design meant that the animal was less likely to get sick from lingering pathogens in their enclosure, but at the same time, they couldn’t enjoy any behavioural opportunities from such a barren home. If a bear or a meerkat or a porcupine wanted to dig or burrow, the clean tiles would stop them from doing that so although they might have hygienic surroundings, they would still feel frustrated at their lack of behavioural opportunities.
The five domains of animal welfare compromise put forward by Mellor highlights how the mental state of the animal (how they are feeling) is influenced by nutrition, health, behaviour and the environment. Looking at these domains one by one can help us to separate out what is care and what is welfare.Animal image

If we encounter a behavioural issue with one of our animals, for example an abnormal pacing behaviour, it is common to seek a solution based on our own management of that animal. This, however, ignores what that behaviour is telling us. During my career I have been asked several times to put something in the way of the animal’s pacing path in the hope of stopping it. Of course the behaviour did not stop, the animal would simply move around the obstacle and carry on because we weren’t addressing the welfare of the animal. We weren’t questioning why the animal was not coping with its environment, why the animal felt motivated to pace, and how we could change things to make the animal feel less frustrated. Behaviour is always meaningful and the more we learn to listen to what the animal is telling us, the more we can make changes in our care based on what it is that the animal needs.

When it comes to eating, food is so much more than just the nutrients it provides. Different foods have different tastes, smells, and textures to enjoy, as well as giving us a variety of edible options to choose from. If you had to eat the same thing, every single day for the rest of eternity (no matter how nutritious it was or how much you loved it at the beginning) you would become bored of it eventually. The same is true for animals under human care. Although many receive a very well researched and nutritionally appropriate diet, a lack of variety means a lack of choice.
The way animals are given their food is also critical. Feeding bowls do not exist in nature but the desire to forage for food still remains in a captive setting. Some animals may spend upwards of 70% of their time in the search for food so giving them the opportunity to do that can feel very rewarding to that animal.

peacockWe talked about environments earlier, with easy to clean enclosures which meet the practical needs of humans rather than the welfare needs of an animal. But enclosures also need to be species-specific and provide opportunities for all natural behaviours from that species’ repertoire. The provision of that environment is the care, how the animal experiences and copes with the conditions in which it lives is the welfare.

Care is what an animal receives via husbandry practices.
Welfare is what the animal experiences as a result of that care.

An animal in a captive setting, be it zoo, aquarium, sanctuary, or rescue centre, has every aspect of its life controlled by humans. Good animal care isn‘t just about cleaning enclosures and giving animals their food. It is about providing opportunities for comfort, pleasure and interest. It is about creating opportunities for animals to experience positive welfare outcomes. If we are able to view animal management decisions through the lens of what animal welfare actually is, animals will be afforded many more opportunities to thrive under human care.

Kagan, R. & Veasey, J. (2010). Challenges of zoo animal welfare. Wild Mammals in Captivity: Principles & Techniques for Zoo Management. 11-21.
Mellor,D.J. (2015) Positive animal welfare states and reference standards for welfare assessment, New Zealand Veterinary Journal, 63:1, 17-23.


To explore animal welfare in more depth, check out our animal welfare page or our free to access online learning programme.

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