The current EU animal welfare legislation has shown its weaknesses. There is therefore a general agreement that the current rules must be reviewed in order to make them more enforceable, while adapting them to evolving animal welfare science.
As such, the ongoing EU review of animal welfare legislation is seeking to lay down a more solid set of standards for animals across the continent. Yet the bloc is in a race against time, aiming to advance as much as possible with the dossier before the new term begins next year.
However, at the same time as this review, reports continue to highlight the absence of clear scientific evidence and data about animal welfare in some key topics, including as it relates to some livestock animals. This only raises the stakes further for this new legislation to enshrine standards that are both practicable and founded in science.
For instance, certain aspects of the welfare of pigs are poorly understood. In its recent opinions (1), the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) reports that there is an insufficient number of scientific papers and data on the practice of temporarily placing sows in crates before they give birth to their piglets, for example, compounding the challenges the EU faces in its legislative review.
As highlighted (2) by the fitness check of the legislation, some of the EU’s current animal welfare rules are also in some parts poorly enforced, therefore it is even more important that the bloc agrees on a realistic and enforceable legislation.
Ultimately, though, there is no one-size-fits-all set of practices ensuring a high level of welfare for all animals. Instead, legislators must strive to meet in the middle of many of the debates that have followed the animal welfare legislation to date.
The implementation of the so called “Five Domains” (3) in the future legislation, building on the traditional “Five Freedoms” of animal welfare, is a good example of how the legislation can be updated according to the latest scientific developments. It also shows how animal welfare is interconnected with other scientific fields such as animal health, one of the Five Domains.
In many cases, better animal health is the best available proxy for better animal welfare, and existing health measures can help to connect the dots to also begin to reduce suffering and stress in animals.
As such, EU legislation should take an inclusive approach to animal welfare, while making full use of the available tools to improve animal health – and ultimately, the welfare of animals of all kinds – across the continent.
To begin with, this means recognizing the need for species-specific rules on animal welfare.
At present, welfare requirements are missing from EU legislation for cats and dogs, yet their needs differ enormously to the welfare needs of pigs, cows and poultry – whose own needs are also highly varied between species.
The announcement made by the European Commission to integrate species-specific provisions for cats and dogs in the future proposal is therefore highly welcomed by the animal health sector. It is essential that the future legislation ensures access to all means needed to properly care for these animals: including antiparasitics, proper identification and registration and digital passports including health data of the animal.
Secondly, pragmatic policies should also be adopted for the transport of animals across the EU, and the implications this holds for animal welfare. Time limits on live animal transport, for instance, can be backed by the use of modern animal health technologies and monitoring systems.
For instance, these technologies can monitor how long animals have been travelling, as well as other indicators of stress, providing greater transparency during transportation, which has emerged as a key debate (4) during the legislative review.
Finally, the Five Domains show that, like humans, animals may need to have negative experiences in order to have positive ones. This includes, for instance, becoming thirsty enough so that an animal knows when they should drink. The role of the animal health sector, and the upcoming EU legislation, should therefore be to minimize the impacts of specific negative experiences.
The EU’s animal health sector can provide a range of tools to minimize animal suffering and stress such as pain relief and antiparasitics. Animal vaccines could also be further developed to address ongoing challenges such as avian flu, helping farmers grant outdoor access to flocks while protecting health and promoting a better quality of life as a whole.
Regardless of the debate over the ongoing review, one thing is clear: high standards of animal health can clearly lead to better outcomes for animal welfare.
In the absence of fully developed science in some areas, and as the EU races to install new legislation, supporting better animal health and leveraging its wide range of existing tools and technologies is a future-proof way to cement Europe’s leading role in improving animal welfare.