Why is there no simple way of measuring animal welfare?

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Although the physiological and behavioural changes that can indicate poor welfare are generally agreed upon, using these measures in practice sometimes yields results that are hard to interpret. For example, different types of measure may suggest quite different things about an animal's welfare. Such contradictions are often due to the differing properties of the variables being measured. How each variable responds to a stressor can be affected by several factors - the type of unpleasant stimulus to which the animal is exposed; when and for how long exposure occurs; the animal's psychological state, e.g. does it feel that it is in control?; and the time at which the measurement is made, relative to the stressor. Typical responses also often differ between species and between individuals, and may even change in a single individual over time. Furthermore, some responses used to assess welfare lack specificity: they can be elicited by neutral or even pleasant events as well as by aversive ones. Appreciating these factors is vital when designing experiments, when choosing what to measure along with each welfare variable, and when interpreting results. Even after taking these factors into consideration, interpreting a result can still be difficult. One approach then is to consider the effects on welfare of the changes measured, e.g. if there is immunosuppression, does the animal succumb to disease? Another is to use the animal's behaviour to indicate its preference for, or aversion to, particular environments. Ultimately, however, interpreting welfare measures involves subjective judgements which will be influenced by the nature of our concern for the animal under consideration. By raising these problems, we hope that this review will highlight and clarify the apparent contradictions that sometimes emerge in scientific studies of animal welfare, and help researchers improve the designs of their experiments for the benefit of the animals concerned.