Assessing attitudes towards welfare and pain in farm animals
Thompson, Carol Sylvia
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Within the livestock sector, farmers and veterinarians are two groups of people who play a pivotal role in maintaining the health and welfare of animals. How the different welfare needs of farm animals are perceived and prioritised by these two caretaker groups will have direct implications for the animals in their care. People’s perceptions and attitudes directly influence their behaviour, and research has demonstrated that positive attitudes towards animals are paramount to ensuring good animal welfare. The prevention and mitigation of pain is an important component to ensuring good animal welfare, as pain has the potential to negatively affect both physical and mental health. How pain in animals is perceived by farmers and vets will influence how it is managed. Therefore, understanding how farmers and vets: view the capacity of animals to experience pain, perceive the pain severity associated with different conditions and procedures, view the importance of pain mitigation in relation to other welfare needs, and deem the necessity of analgesic use in livestock, is vital. Four separate questionnaire based studies were conducted to assess these attitudes in farmers and veterinarians as well as in agriculture and veterinary students, as these students will be the next generation of farmers and veterinarians. Overall, farmers and vets were found to have positive attitudes towards pain in livestock. Although the capacity of cattle and sheep to feel pain was perceived to be lower than that of humans it was still rated highly. In addition, positive beliefs about the benefits of pain alleviation, the negative impacts of pain on production and welfare, and the importance of prompt treatment and pain management for good welfare were held. Cattle farmers had more positive attitudes towards pain and analgesic use than sheep farmers. This difference was most evident around areas of resource availability, such as time and labour, and the practicalities associated with pain identification and drug provision. Farmers, vets and students perceived lameness to be a painful condition, with the perceived severity of pain being closely related to the perceived severity of the disease. In addition, participants reported a greater emotional reaction in instances where they rated lameness and pain more highly. Furthermore, a positive relationship was found between lameness, pain and emotional reaction scores and the decision to catch a lame sheep for inspection. The majority of students had positive views towards pain in farm animals, believing that: farm animals were capable of experiencing pain, prompt treatment and the provision of pain relief were the two most important elements of welfare, and that farm animals benefit from pain alleviation. However, there was a perceived difference between a number of animal species in their capacity to feel pain, with livestock species being viewed as having a lesser capacity than companion animals and humans. In addition effects of gender were found, with females reporting higher levels of empathy and compassion towards lame sheep, and rating pain higher. Furthermore, female students had a stronger belief that animals were sentient beings than did males. These four studies found that views on pain and analgesic use in livestock were generally positive. However, differences between individuals and between groups were found in a number of areas including how observers perceived the severity of painful conditions and procedures and in the capacity of different animal species to experience pain. These differences in attitudes may affect the decisions farmers and vets make regarding the treatment of pain, which is likely to have implications for farm animal welfare.