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A History of Animal Welfare

Updated: Jan 4, 2023

One voice for Animals Guest blog by

What is Animal Welfare?

Animal welfare relates to the general health and well-being of animals and covers a wide range of issues, from the care of family pets to concerns about exploitation and abuse.

Animal rights are hotly debated. Proponents stress the helplessness and vulnerability of animals and campaign for their protection, particularly in areas such as medical research and factory farming. Others take a more pragmatic approach, insisting that the ever-increasing demand for better medicines and more food should take priority over the rights of animals.

However, few in Britain today would argue against the need to protect animals from suffering and there are many organisations which continue to campaign vigorously for animal rights.

History of Animal Welfare in the UK

Historically, Britain could claim to be something of a world leader in animal welfare, having been responsible for the first ever animal welfare legislation and the first animal welfare charity.

19th Century In 1822 the ‘Act to Prevent the Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle’ was steered through the House of Commons by Irish MP Richard Martin – known as ‘Humanity Dick’ because of his campaigning for both animal and human rights. The act stated that if any person or persons “shall wantonly and cruelly beat, abuse, or ill-treat any horse, mare, gelding, mule, ass, ox, cow, heifer, steer, sheep, or other cattle” they would be fined a sum “not exceeding five pounds, not less than ten shillings”; failure to pay the fine would result in a prison sentence of up to three months. Not everyone appeared to take the new law seriously, however, and there were concerns that the legislation was not being properly implemented. Consequently, in order to provide greater protection for animals, Richard Martin, together with the Reverend Arthur Broome and fellow MP and slave trade abolitionist William Wilberforce, founded the world’s first animal welfare charity, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), in a London coffee shop in 1824. The charity subsequently attracted the patronage of Queen Victoria and went on to become the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), well-known today as one of the world’s leading animal welfare organisations.

Other animal charities began to be established towards the end of the 19th century and some, like the RSPCA, are still going strong today. The Mayhew Animal Home, for example, founded in 1886 to protect “the lost and starving dogs and cats of London”, is still rescuing and providing shelter for thousands of animals every year; and the National Canine Defence League (NCDL) set up in 1891 to protect dogs from torture and mistreatment of any kind, today operates as the Dogs Trust and has become the UK’s largest dog welfare charity.

Animal experimentation also became a major issue around that time. Although live animals had been used in research for many years, it was not until the late 19th century that anti-vivisection societies began to organise concerted opposition to the practice. Five of the societies merged in 1898 to form the British Union, which later became the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection. Support for the movement grew rapidly and today the BUAV and many other national and international groups are continuing to campaign for an end to all animal experimentation.

20th Century The work of the various charities was supported by the introduction of further legislation which was gradually expanded to cover domestic and other animals. The 1911 Protection of Animals Act was introduced to “consolidate, amend, and extend certain enactments relating to Animals and to Knackers”. The Act made it an offence of cruelty to “cruelly beat, kick, ill-treat, over-ride, over-drive, over-load, torture, infuriate, or terrify any animal” or permit an animal to be so used; to “convey or carry, or permit to be conveyed or carried, any animal in such manner or position as to cause that animal any unnecessary suffering”; to “cause or assist at the fighting or baiting of any animal”; to “administer, or cause administration of, any poisonous or injurious drug or substance to any animal; and to “cause or permit any animal to any operation which is performed without due care and humanity”. Any person found guilty of such an offence of cruelty would be liable to a fine “not exceeding twenty-five pounds”; and/or be imprisoned, “with or without hard labour,” for a term “not exceeding six months”.

Further Acts were passed throughout the 20th century. These included the Performing Animals (Regulation) Act 1925; the Pet Animals Act 1951 (amended 1983); the Animal Boarding Establishments Act 1963; the Riding Establishments Act 1964 and 1970; and the Breeding and Sale of Dogs (Welfare) Act 1999, which amended and extended the provisions of the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973 and the Breeding of Dogs Act 1991.

21st Century In 2006, the Animal Welfare Act largely repealed and replaced the 1911 Protection of Animals Act, strengthened and updated the provisions of that Act, and consolidated and updated several other pieces of animal welfare legislation.

In addition, the Act introduced a new offence of failing to ensure the welfare of an animal. Any person responsible for an animal must ensure that five specific needs of the animal are met: (a) its need for a suitable environment, (b) its need for a suitable diet, (c) its need to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns, (d) any need it has to be housed with, or apart from, other animals, and (e) its need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease.

The Act also made it an offence to dock the whole or any part of a dog’s tail, unless that dog is a certified working dog of not more than five days old. Anyone found guilty of offences under the Act could be banned from owning animals, fined up to £20,000 and/or given a prison sentence. The Animal Welfare Act also provides for secondary legislation and codes of practice to be introduced to further promote the welfare of animals. The Government has since introduced such codes of practice for the welfare of dogs, cats, horses and primates.


Animal welfare and animal rights seem to attract more controversy than many other issues, one of the most obvious examples being the antithetical views of vegans and livestock farmers. The below is a non exhaustive list of some of the current leading debates around animal welfare.

Factory Farming Vegans typically believe that animals are intelligent creatures capable of feeling pain and are “not ours to eat”. They oppose the use of all animal products and claim that vegan or vegetarian diets are more healthy and nutritious. They also believe that rearing animals for food is bad for the environment and inefficient and suggest that world food shortages could be solved by farming crops rather than animals. However, vegans and vegetarians are still in a minority in the UK and the demand for meat and dairy products shows little sign of diminishing. Nevertheless there is a growing interest in the way food is produced and the treatment of animals in that process.

This has been largely a response to reports about the cruel treatment of animals in ‘factory farming’ – one of the most controversial and emotive issues – where the maximum number of animals are crammed into the minimum amount of space, unable to move freely, denied any kind of normal life and reduced to nothing more than products on a factory production line. These concerns are most well known in relation to battery hens and broiler chickens.

Farmers, however, are adamant that animal welfare is a priority for them. The National Farmers Union has said that factory farming “is not normal” in the UK and suggests that the Red Tractor assurance scheme, launched in 2000 to raise standards right across the food chain, is “a proven indicator of good animal welfare compliance.”

The Red Tractor kitemark now appears on billions of packs of meat, poultry and dairy products and is intended to reassure consumers that these products have been produced to the highest standards of animal welfare and environmental protection. In the May 2022 Queen’s Speech the government announced details of its new Animal Welfare Bill. This contained provisions to ban the export of livestock for fattening or slaughter.

Animal experimentation Another highly emotive and controversial issue is animal experimentation, whether that involves testing cosmetics and household products on animals, or using animals in medical research. Opponents of vivisection believe that it is ethically unacceptable for animals to suffer physical or psychological pain during these tests. They also argue that because of the differences between humans and other animal species, test results can be misleading. The Dr Hadwen Trust for Humane Research claims that “in some instances, reliance on inaccurate animal ‘models’ of human disease have undoubtedly delayed medical progress.”

Proponents, however, insist that animal research has played, and is continuing to play, a vital role in treating and preventing many illnesses and diseases once thought incurable. Nevertheless, research is continuing into finding new ways to further promote the 3Rs scheme – to “reduce, refine and replace” the use of animals in research.

The Fur Trade The fur trade is another cause of concern for animal welfare supporters. Although fur farming is banned in the UK, fur products can currently still be sold here. Fur coats are no longer the must-have fashion item they once were following an intensive anti-fur campaign by animal welfare groups. Many high-profile celebrities and fashion designers have rejected fur and several stores now refuse to stock fur products. The British Fur Trade Association (BFTA) believes that “wild or farmed, fur is a natural, renewable and sustainable resource that is kind to the environment and respectful of animals’ welfare.” The BFTA is a member of the International Fur Trade Federation (IFTF) which claims to “promote strict codes of practice that meet or exceed established and accepted animal welfare standards for wild and farmed fur.” Both the BFTA and IFTF “strongly condemn cruelty to animals and do not trade in endangered species.”

By contrast, Animal Defenders International claims that animals raised on fur farms or trapped in the wild are subject to “very cruel methods”. According to ADI, “what is of paramount concern to the fur farmers is not the welfare of the animals, but the preservation of their fur and through these methods, although incredibly painful for the animals, the fur is kept intact.”

With its new found legislative freedoms post Brexit, the UK government is believed to be considering bans of imports of fur from all species, albeit there could be exemptions for products used in religious ceremonies or for the continuous sale of vintage fur. In 2021, the government launched a public consultation as to whether to impose a ban on the import and sale of fur in the UK.

Endangered Species, and treatment of animals around the world Animal Defenders International remains concerned that threatened species are being illegally poached and traded for their skins or other body components, contributing to the extinction of species such as tigers, rhinos, leopards and ocelots. There also remains widespread opposition to whaling. These concerns are shared by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the charity believes that the internet has created new challenges in the fight against trade in endangered species. IFAW is calling for “robust domestic legislation” and an international action plan to tackle illegal wildlife trade on the internet.

Although animal welfare is a focus of political attention in the UK and across the European Union, many animal welfare organisations are concerned that animals in other parts of the world do not have the same kind of legislative protection and have supported a campaign, organised by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), to secure a commitment at the United Nations for a Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare (UDAW).

The UDAW would be an international agreement that animals are sentient beings, that animal welfare needs must be respected and that animal cruelty must end. The campaign is reported to have over two million supporters worldwide and the WSPA believes that securing such a commitment at the UN would create the required pressure for governments to put in place firm laws and enforcement for animal welfare. The proposed new Animal Welfare Bill contained provision to update the Zoo Licensing Act to strengthen conservation requirements.

Animal use in circuses In recent years, public attention has focused on the use of wild animals in circuses, notably the conditions in which the animals were kept, the training techniques to which they are subjected, and the tricks they are forced to perform, all of which it was argued were demeaning, cruel and inappropriate.

In 2019, Parliament passed the Wild Animals in Circuses Act 2019 which prohibited the use of wild animals in travelling circuses in the UK.

Pest Control, Hunting and Shooting Animal welfare organisations are equally concerned about the plight of wild animals which are often killed as a result of being regarded as pests or predators by farmers and land owners.

Badger culling to control the spread of bovine tuberculosis is one of the main controversies in this area. Bovine TB is a major problem for farmers, but a recent long-term review has concluded that culling is ineffective and suggests vaccination is a better long-term solution. This view is supported by the Badger Trust which believes that the way forward is an injectable and/or an oral vaccine for badgers and also ideally a vaccine for cattle.

Deer stalking, fox snaring and the trapping of wild birds and mammals are all equally controversial and fiercely opposed by animal welfare organisations. A number of animal rights campaigners, such as PETA, are also opposed to recreational angling.

There remains an ongoing debate about the effectiveness and merits of the current legislative framework designed to ban fox hunting.

However, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation argues that pest and predator control is a necessary and integral part of conservation and wildlife management. However, the BASC also stresses that “it is the responsibility of all those involved in pest and predator control to ensure their methods are legal, humane and carried out with sensitivity and respect for other countryside users.”

Domestic Pets Finally domestic pets, in particular dogs, are often the subject of controversy, and not simply in relation to the way that particular pet owners treat (or mistreat) their animals.

One of the most recent controversies in this area has related to the issue of ‘handbag dogs’. The current fashion started by ‘celebrities’ for carrying bichon frise, chihuahuas, shih tzus and other tiny dogs in handbags has been strongly criticised by animal charities who warn that the dogs’ ability to behave normally is being restricted, which can in turn lead to behavioural problems. According to The Blue Cross, the number of miniature dogs given up or abandoned has more than tripled in the past five years.

Similar controversy has also been focused on the issue of dangerous dogs, on so-called ‘status dogs’ such as Rottweilers and Staffordshire Bull Terriers which are often bought to give their owners a tougher image, or which are also used for dog fighting and to intimidate other people. In addition to concerns about human safety, the RSPCA reports that these ‘status dogs’ often suffer violence at the hands of their owners and are forced to take part in fights which result in the dogs sustaining serious injuries.

The newly proposed Animal Welfare Bill contained plans to crack down on puppy smuggling and to introduce a new ‘pet abduction’ offence to reflect the ‘value’ that people place on their pets.


In 2018 in the UK, it’s estimated that 12 million (44%) households have pets with around 51 million pets owned. These include 9 million dogs and 8 million cats. [Source – Estimated figures from the Pet Food Manufacturer’s Association’].

In 2019, the RSPCA investigated more than 93,362 complaints of alleged cruelty, and secured 1,425 convictions by private prosecution to protect animals against those who break the laws.


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