Animal Welfare: An Impact-Focused Overview

We think animal welfare is very important, highly tractable, and the most important areas of animal welfare are still very neglected. As such, animal welfare is a great cause area to work in – if you’re a good fit.

Read on to find out how we reached this conclusion.

What is animal welfare?

Animal welfare is concerned with – unsurprisingly – the health and welfare of non-human animals. There are a number of different areas within animal welfare you might choose to help with, and this cause profile will run through a few of them.

For one, you might be focused on helping companion animals, like cats, dogs, and other animals kept as pets. Many companion animals are abandoned or fail to receive appropriate veterinary care because their owners can’t afford it. 

Alternatively, you might choose to help farmed animals. Many farmed animals experience intense suffering due to cramped living environments and inhumane slaughtering practices.

More speculatively, you might also be concerned about the welfare of wild animals, who endure many sources of suffering in nature like disease and predation, as well as the harmful effects of human activity, like habitat loss from climate change and agriculture.

If you want to work on improving the lives of animals, it’s worth thinking about which of these areas within animal welfare will enable you to have the greatest impact. We think it’s highly likely that working to help farmed animals, and potentially wild animals, will allow you to do much more good than working to help companion animals.

How important is working on animal welfare?

There are roughly 840 million cats and dogs kept as companion animals worldwide, alongside many millions of other types of companion animals. Many of these animals don’t receive as much care and attention as they should, and a large number are abandoned. There are also likely hundreds of millions of stray animals across the world. A large number of these animals will experience unnecessary and preventable suffering across their lives.

The scale of farmed animal welfare is even larger – 75 billion land animals are slaughtered each year for food, as well as well over 1 trillion fish, if we count both wild and farmed fish. The conditions for the vast majority of these animals are miserable. Over 90% of the world’s farmed animals are kept in factory farms, where animals spend their entire lives in intensely crowded and uncomfortable conditions and endure various inhumane practices. 

For example, chickens – about 26 billion of which exist at any given time (that’s more than three chickens for every person on the planet) – are often debeaked as chicks. This is done without anesthesia, and is thought to cause lifelong pain. Additionally, egg-laying hens are commonly kept in cramped battery cages so small that they’re unable to spread their wings. Likewise, female pigs are often isolated in tight “farrowing crates,” where they’re unable to walk or even turn around. And of the 200 million land animals who are slaughtered every day, many are killed without being adequately stunned first, meaning they undergo their slaughter fully conscious.

As these statistics make clear, the extent of farmed animal suffering today is truly enormous – as well as unnecessary, given we could deploy more humane farming practices or meet our nutritional needs from non-animal products instead. However, the demand for meat is only increasing. And unfortunately, many of the world’s biggest animal markets, such as China, lack any welfare policies or regulations for farmed animals. 

On top of this, animal agriculture (particularly beef and dairy) is responsible for releasing significant quantities of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, thereby increasing the risk of climate-related catastrophes. Though not directly related to the welfare of animals, this increases the importance of reducing the scale of animal agriculture.

So, farmed animal welfare is highly important, but how does wild animal welfare compare?  Well, despite our temptation to idealize the natural world, the life of a typical wild animal might not be particularly good. Animals in nature are likely to experience pain and suffering from widespread causes such as disease, parasites, hunger, thirst, and predation – however, there’s lots of uncertainty about just how much suffering a typical wild animal experiences across its life. But because there are many wild animals in existence (one estimate puts the number of wild mammals between 100 billion and a trillion), wild animal welfare could be very important in terms of scale.

How neglected is animal welfare?

Relatively little money is given for animal welfare compared to causes that help humans. For example, less than 3% of US charitable giving goes to helping animals. And, within these donations, only a tiny fraction (less than 1%) goes to specifically helping farmed animals, which is vastly disproportionate to the scale of their suffering.

Courtesy of Animal Charity Evaluators. This graph is based on
2016 statistics, though we expect it would look very similar
with up-to-date numbers.

Instead, the majority of the money goes to shelters that primarily help companion animals. Though many animals are likely helped by this money, this means that farmed animal welfare is both incredibly important and much more neglected than helping companion animals.

In a sense, wild animals also receive a fair amount of funding; the World Wildlife Foundation has a budget of over $300 million – this alone is 50% more than the estimated $200 million spent on the entirety of farmed animal advocacy. However, this money tends to be spent on conservation efforts, rather than specifically improving wellbeing. Though this is valuable work, it does mean there likely isn’t much funding going to directly improving the welfare of wild animals.

How tractable is animal welfare as a cause area?

Let’s start by looking at the tractability of farmed animal welfare, through some of the major ways people are currently trying to help farmed animals. 

One prominent approach is persuading corporations to demand better welfare standards from their animal product suppliers – an intervention that has had many successes in recent years. The Humane League, for example, successfully helped lobby Unilever to stop purchasing eggs from suppliers who kill newborn chicks (likely a few years quicker than they would have done had the Humane League not intervened), saving millions of chicks from gruesome deaths. Impressively, they did this with just a few members of staff. In general, corporate campaigns seem to be especially effective

Another possible approach is to research important animal welfare issues – like identifying improvements to animal agriculture and working out the moral weights we should give different animals. Though such research sounds abstract, it’s important for working out how we should prioritize within animal welfare and inform practical decisions. For example, recent research on animal consciousness conducted at the London School of Economics was instrumental in motivating the UK’s 2022 Sentience Act, which formally extended welfare laws to sea animals like octopuses and shrimp. However, there’s likely a lot of variance in how impactful this kind of research is.

A further intervention is developing and promoting alternative proteins to reduce the demand for factory farming. For example, the Good Food Institute works with both government, science, and industry to accelerate the uptake of new animal-free food products, like plant-based and cultivated meats. There’s uncertainty about just how effective this approach is – for example, US meat production hasn’t shown many signs of slowing despite the huge growth in demand for plant-based products – but it could still prove a promising path to impact.

There’s a variety of ways to effectively help farmed animals – but for wild animals, it’s quite different. Because they aren’t under human control, it’s much harder to help wild animals at scale, and we’re not at all confident about how we might do so. Though some tentative possibilities have been offered – such as reducing aquatic noise, or replacing rat poison with sterilizers – we need much more research in this area to give us more insight into how to effectively help wild animals (indeed, such research could be impactful in itself). In general, wild animal welfare currently seems much less tractable than farmed animal welfare.

In general, we expect that interventions in both farmed and wild animal welfare will help more animals than interventions targeted at companion animals. For example, it costs animal shelters hundreds of dollars to provide a year’s care for a dog in a shelter, but helping farmed animals is far more cost effective; one estimate suggests that 250 hens have been saved from battery cages per dollar spent on corporate advocacy campaigns. 

Why might you not prioritize animal welfare?

One reason you might not think animal welfare is as pressing as other cause areas is if you think animals don’t feel as much suffering as humans do – or perhaps even that they don’t feel anything at all. While it’s impossible to get a definitive answer on this, there is a general consensus that at least certain kinds of animals, like birds and mammals, experience pain. There’s much more uncertainty about other kinds of animals, such as insects and crustaceans, though, and there’s a range of reasonable views on whether or not they are conscious. Regardless, even if you’re unsure if certain animals feel pain, you might want to treat them like they do, just in case.

Another reason is that, even if you think animals suffer, you might think their suffering is just much less important than human suffering. There are various views one might take on how to morally weigh animal suffering, and lots of in-depth research has been dedicated to working this out (see this or this, for example). 

It’s worth taking some time to think about how much you weigh animal suffering against human suffering. If you think that no amount of animal suffering can outweigh even one person’s suffering, then you’ll likely want to prioritize other cause areas. But if you’d choose to alleviate the pain of many animals (as a crude example, let’s say 100 pigs) over a single person, then the extremely high cost-effectiveness of many animal welfare interventions – particularly for farmed animals – could give you reason to pursue opportunities in animal welfare.

People tend to be extremely inconsistent about their views on animal welfare, depending on context. A great way to reduce this inconsistency is to really consider what our values are.

What can you do about animal welfare?

There are a bunch of ways you might be able to help with animal welfare. One small way is to reduce the animal products you consume in your diet to reduce the demand for animal agriculture. An even more impactful option is giving money to the most effective animal welfare organizations; Animal Charity Evaluators has some helpful advice on where to get the most value for money with your donations.

And, as always, one of the most valuable resources you have is your career, which you could use to do a whole lot of good for animals.

If you’re looking for more detailed advice on careers within animal welfare, then Animal Advocacy Careers have some great resources for people looking to have incredibly impactful advocacy careers within animal welfare, including a free online course. We also recommend you look at impact-focused job boards—like our own job board, or those over at Animal Advocacy Careers and 80,000 Hours—to get a sense of the specific roles available in this space.

It could also be helpful to have a look at the work of some effective organizations working within animal welfare. A few examples of such organizations include:

Finally, this could be a great cause area for new effective organization to be founded. For more, see our career profile on nonprofit entrepreneurship.

Additional resources