Animal Welfare vs Animal Rights: An Important Distinction


The public debate about fur (and other animal products) is often distorted by confusion between two important concepts: animal welfare and animal rights. These terms sound similar and are often used interchangeably, but they describe two profoundly different ideas. Caring about the welfare of the animals we use – for food and other purposes – is very different from assigning them the rights that activist groups are now proposing.

Do you believe that farm animals should be treated humanely and spared unnecessary suffering? Then you are a proponent of animal welfare. Animal-rights advocates, by contrast, argue that humans have no right to use animals at all – not for food, clothing, or anything else. They believe that all livestock production should be shut down completely. “Not better cages, no cages at all!” is their rallying cry.

It is rare that we agree with PETA on anything, but its views on the chasm separating animal welfare and animal rights are spelled out clearly on its website for all to see:

“Animal rights means that animals are not ours to use for food, clothing, entertainment, or experimentation … Animal welfare allows these uses as long as ‘humane’ guidelines are followed.”

Let’s see how this distinction plays out in the real world.

Eating Meat, Fish and Dairy

Animal-welfare advocates have worked for the past 100 years to ensure that the animals that provide us with meat, dairy products and eggs receive good nutrition and care. Thanks to their efforts we have humane-slaughter regulations, codes of practice and other provisions to minimize stress and suffering. This is an on-going process. For example, while modern production methods have made animal protein more affordable for millions, promoting healthy brain development for infants and children, they also raise new animal-welfare challenges.

Animal-rights advocates do not seek better conditions for farm animals. Rather, they oppose all killing and consumption of animals no matter how humanely this is done. Their openly-stated goal is to shut down all livestock farms and to end the consumption of meat, dairy, eggs, and any other animal products – even honey. They demand everyone becomes “vegan”, and argue that animal-welfare improvements only serve to justify what, for them, can never be justified, i.e., the killing of animals.

Wearing Leather, Fur, Wool and Silk

Again, animal-welfare advocates work to ensure that animals used for the skin, fur, feathers, hair, or other materials are treated humanely, with minimal suffering. Their efforts have driven North America’s world-leading trap-research program, and the development of codes of practice for fur farms.

Animal-rights campaigners oppose any use of all animal products for clothing or accessories. They often show examples of shocking abuse in their campaigns against fur, leather, and wool – which can make it look like they are concerned about animal welfare – but their goal is not better standards or regulations. They don’t believe humans have a right to use animals at all, which means no more wool, leather, fur, cashmere, down or even silk.

Owning Pets

Animal-welfare advocates believe that owning a pet is a privilege that comes with responsibilities. A pet needs to be housed, fed, and cared for properly, to ensure an acceptable level of well-being.

Animal-rights activists consider pet ownership to be a form of slavery. In their Brave New World there would be no more cats, dogs, fish, hamsters, bunnies, budgies, or other pets. In fact, the shocking kill-rate at PETA’s “shelter” confirms that it prefers to euthanize pets rather than find new homes for them, despite receiving more than $50 million annually from well-meaning donors.

Animals for Entertainment

Zoos, circuses, racetracks and other activities that use animals for entertainment are obliged, by law, to respect the welfare of their animals, ensuring they receive appropriate nutrition, housing and care.

Animal-rights activists, by contrast, want to ban all such activities. If they have their way, there will be no more animals in circuses, no more horse-back riding or dog shows, not even zoos that support breeding programs for endangered species. If giant panda conservation had been in PETA’s hands rather than those of the Chinese government, it would probably be extinct by now.

Animals for Medical Research

The efforts of animal-welfare advocates ensure the responsible care of animals used for medical research. The “3-Rs” require that researchers “Replace” animals with other techniques when possible, “Reduce” the number of animals used to the minimum required to achieve their objectives, and “Refine” experiments to minimize suffering. Experiments using animals must be justified to show that the benefits could not be obtained otherwise.

Animal-rights activists want to ban any use of animals for medical research, no matter the benefits. To understand the implications of this position, consider that, according to the Foundation for Biomedical Research“Animal research has played a vital role in virtually every major medical advance of the last century – for both human and veterinary health. From antibiotics to blood transfusions, from dialysis to organ transplantation, from vaccinations to chemotherapy, bypass surgery and joint replacement, practically every present-day protocol for the prevention, treatment, cure and control of disease, pain and suffering is based on knowledge attained through research with lab animals.” This does not impress animal-rights activists. According to PETA’s founder Ingrid Newkirk, “Even if animal research produced a cure for AIDS, we’d be against it.”

Animals at Work

People have long used animals for all sorts of work: horses and oxen pull loads and plow fields; pigs root out truffles; service dogs help a range of people in need while others pull sleds and sniff out bombs; and now, falcons are taking down intrusive drones. Most people who work with animals care about their partners and provide them with excellent care, and these animal-welfare concerns are increasingly codified in regulations.

Animal-rights activists seek to end this important relationship that humans have long enjoyed with animals.

Bottom line: while “animal welfare” recognizes that animals enrich our lives in many more ways than we usually consider, “animal rights” denies that humans have any right to use animals for our own ends.

Groups like PETA blur this distinction by showing extreme examples of animal abuse in their campaigns. Their goal is not to improve the treatment of animals we use. It is to end all animal use completely.

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  • Obviously a very biased article despite the near-accurate definitions. This quote here says everything you need to know about the attitude of the author and TAF:

    Animal-rights activists seek to end this important relationship that humans have long enjoyed with animals.

    Emphasis on the relationship that HUMANS HAVE ENJOYED with animals..not at all considering if the animals consent to it, let alone enjoy it. People who say that veganism and animal rights is easy and achievable are thinking about the victims. People who say that veganism and animals rights is difficult and impossible are thinking about themselves.

    • Biassed? Maybe. But certainly mainstream. Almost all humans prioritise the welfare of their own species over others. Animals do exactly the same.

  • Also, most indigenous communities have historically used animal products, but have across the board treated animals with respect and helped maintain and improve the environment through being selective about what they do, where they do it, and when they do it. Many communities and individual people cannot survive without animal products.

  • i believe that animal welfare should be implemented. because by implementing animal rights, economies would fail, there would be food insecurity most especially on developing/third-world countries whose small and subsistence farmers household depend on mixed livestock-crop farming would definitely lose their source of food (protein). although there are plant-based proteins, its availability and accessibility is still not enough for every poor subsistence farming household to survive. aside from that, these animals can be a source of income for them.

  • This article will help me a lot with my school project. I agree that animals should be treated fairly and when killed it should be as quick and painless as possible. I don’t get why people think shearing sheep and milking cows is bad. Cows need to be milked because, it could cause bruising, udder injury, sickness and, if it continued, could result in death. Sheep need to be sheared to keep them healthy and allow them to live comfortably through the changing seasons. The ability to shed naturally has been bred out of most breeds of sheep which makes shearing an absolute necessity.

    • Please watch Dominion and then come back and tell us if you still don’t understand why sheep shearing is bad. Also, cows only produce milk because they’re forcibly impregnated year after year. Plus, they produce the amounts of milk that they do because we’ve genetically modified them to do so.

  • I most definitely lost a few brain cells reading this. Animal rights don’t want to ban pets or service dogs. There is no such thing as a humane slaughter either, you stupid animal welfare xxxxx. x
    I have literally never heard anyone say having a pet is slavery? Anyway, hope the red meat clogs up your arteries hehe xx

    • If you’ve never heard animal rightists say such things, it only indicates that you’re not well read. Try Googling Peter Singer, Ingrid Newkirk or HSUS’s former director Wayne Pacelle. There’s loads of stuff out there likening pets to slaves.

  • I agree with most….but what are you going to do with pets then? Dogs can’t live in wild.
    Also endangered animals that are in shelters are safe from wild hunting.

    • You mean they are safe from poaching, sustainable hunting actually helps endangered animals conservation, hunters also fight for the end of poaching.

  • Wow, I had no idea that animal-welfare advocated think that having a pet is a privilege and it brings on responsibilities. My daughter loves horses and she has been doing some research for one of her school projects about the protection laws that apply to them. She asked me to look for advocacy groups that we could pledge and donate to so we can become more conscious.

  • I agree to some degree. I do not feel that in the world we live that animals need to be raised for the use of their skin or is antiquated. Very few areas in this world need to use animal fur to clothe themselves. And those that do use every part of the animal. Nothing is wasted. In the fashion industry it is just for profit only and most of these animals are treated horribly.

    • Thank you for your opinions, Susan. You’ll understand that we don’t quite see eye to eye. With specific reference to the North American fur trade, which we represent, there is very little waste indeed, and that’s actually true for all livestock industries. It’s also not true to say that the animals – farmed or wild – are treated “horribly”. Animal welfare standards on mink farms, for example, are surely among the highest of all livestock industries. Last but not least, please don’t fall into the trap of thinking “profit” is a dirty word. When it comes to capitalist economies – which means almost every economy on the planet today – it’s the pursuit of profit that keeps the wheels turning, creating jobs and putting food on the table. Rest assured that no one these days is getting obscenely rich off fur.

  • There exist alternatives to all uses of animals. For example, faux fur, leather and wool are popular, and a plant-based diet is delicious and healthy. In addition, there are less expensive and more effective alternatives to testing on animals because non humans do not react the same way to drugs as humans do. Moreover, sentient, living non-human beings should have the same legal status as children and mentally challenged individuals who cannot reason like most human beings.

    • Please understand, Carol, that not everyone agrees with you. For example, almost all nutritionists consider a vegan diet to be unhealthy for children, almost all medical researchers (and the governments which regulate them) still believe in the importance of animal models, and almost no one thinks animals should have the same legal status as children and the mentally challenged.

      • You’re wrong on so many levels, but I’ll start with your untruthful comment about “nutritionists saying vegan is unhealthy”, check out the American Dietetic Association quote here “
        It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.“ You represent a fur trade and you think people should believe what you’re saying about vegans? You’re biased and grossly untruthful and misinformed. Vegans don’t say we shouldn’t own pets. Humans have caused overpopulation, so it is our duty to take care of these animals, that’s why we rescue. Get a grip. You want to spread lies so you can continue making money off the suffering of animals. How low can you go?

        • Hi Cindi, I’m afraid we must stick with our comment that “almost all nutritionists consider a vegan diet to be unhealthy for children”. Note that we say “almost all”. Perhaps we should also have used “infants” instead of “children”.

  • A world where no animals are abused or killed is possible! At this age we don’t need animal skin to cover ourselves. We don’t need our car seats to be made of calf skin. We don’t need animal flesh to feed ourselves. List goes on.
    Your article is full of biased and untruthful remarks. It disgusts me to see how you are ignorant and glorify the violence and abuse.

    • Well, let’s be honest, Vic. Are your comments entirely “truthful” and in no way biased? The debate over animal rights is not, and probably never will be, based on irrefutable facts. It’s based on values, opinions, and different shades of grey. It’s sad that just because some people don’t share your values, you must brand them as “biased”, “untruthful”, “ignorant”, etc. They just don’t agree with you, and you need to try to accept that.

    • Personally, if we were to stop the livestock industry, the animals wouldn’t be getting proper nutrients out in the wild. They would die off, which for someone who is activating for animal rights, seems like the opposite. Also, the economy would fail. Meat, eggs, and dairy are main components to our economy and farmers are making sure that their livestock are well kept so that the economy doesn’t falter.

      • Slavery was once a main component of our economy too. Industries evolve. There is NO reason to continue doing what we’re doing to animals. We can be much healthier on a plant-based diet, even reverse diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, and we sure as heck don’t need animal skins or furs for clothing.

    • I agree. I went into this article thinking it would be more open-minded since the site is called “truth about fur” but boy.. this is so biased I’m disappointed

  • If you believe animals should NOT suffer abuse and torture….. for humans to profit from….. you’ve taken the first step towards being a believer in animal rights.

    If you believe animals should suffer abuse and torture….. for humans to profit from…… you definitely don’t believe in animal rights OR animal welfare.

    Not too complicated.

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