Of all reasons to reduce meat consumption, the welfare of animals is the most likely to attract judgment and divisiveness from all parties to the discussion. While whether or not we are “morally obligated" to care about the wellbeing of animals may be debated elsewhere, there are certainly logical arguments to be made that reducing meat consumption can benefit the wellbeing of animals – animals that, to the best of our scientific knowledge, do experience some sort of feelings and have the capacity to suffer. By reducing the demand for meat, it is possible to either improve the welfare of specific animals, or at least to reduce the number of animals experiencing pain- and stressful conditions. The following is a short, incomplete summary of the most notable negative impacts of the animal product industry on the welfare of a few specific species.

1.     The living conditions of egg-laying hens:

In order to meet growing demand, most industrially produced eggs now come from hens kept in “battery cages” – rows of small cages piled on top of one another. The effects of these living conditions on the hens’ welfare are generally adverse with small quarters greatly reducing their mobility and ability to complete normal biological functions, such as standing, turning, stretching, preening, foraging, and dust bathing.[1][2][3][4] These conditions often result in physical damage to the body, with one study finding 29% of live battery hens to have at least one broken bone.[5] In such confined quarters, hens typically become aggressive, pecking at one another in competition for space. In response to this, “debeaking,” in which the tip of the beak is cut off, has become common practice. Multiple studies have concluded that debeaking is painful for hens both in the immediate and long-term, noting the sensitivity and concentration of nerve endings in that particular part of the body.[6][7][8] Finally, in order to increase egg production, hens regularly undergo “forced molting,” a process wherein hens are purposively placed under stressful conditions, including food deprivation and changes in lighting and sleep cycles, in order to induce changes in their biological processes.[9][10]

2.     The living conditions of chickens raised for meat:

In an effort to increase efficiency of meat production, broiler chickens – those raised for their meat – have been selectively bred over generations for faster growth and greater muscle to bone ratio. In both broiler chickens and turkeys, this rapid growth combined with crowded conditions results in high rates of leg injury, broken bones, immobility, and death.[11][12][13][14][15]

3.     The living conditions of dairy cows:

Selective breeding of dairy cows, as with broiler chickens, has resulted in significant health problems for the typical dairy cow. With ever-increasing udder size, rates of mastitis, a painful infection of the udder, have grown,[16][17] with one study finding that nearly 50% of all US dairy cows are infected at any given time.[18] Additionally, likely due to greater amounts of time spent standing, without moving, on hard, artificial surfaces, modern dairy cows have a high prevalence of hoof problems, such as sole hemorrhages, resulting in high rates of lameness.[19][20][21][22][23] Finally, in order to maintain milk production, dairy cows must give birth. Soon thereafter, the cow and the newborn calf are separated, an experience that many studies have found to be stressful for the mother and, likely, the calf.[24][25][26]

4.     The living conditions of domestic pigs:

Pigs, particularly sows during their gestation (pregnancy), farrowing (birth), and lactating phases, are comparably impacted by their housing. Small “gestation crates,” which offer sows little mobility, are seen to cause higher rates of skin lesions.[27][28][29][30][31] This lack of mobility further limits their ability to interact with newborn gilts. Sows will often respond to such conditions by biting the tails of those in nearby crates, behavior atypical of sows in other conditions.[32][33] In an effort to prevent such behavior, many farms respond by docking, or cutting off a portion of, the animals’ tails, an experience found by multiple studies to be painful and stress inducing.[34][35][36] Similarly, castration of juvenile pigs – as well as that of cattle – has been found to cause significant pain to the animal.[37][38][39][40]

5.     General slaughter conditions:

The exact conditions of slaughter vary greatly between animals. Generally, however, even when efforts are made to ensure that the moment of slaughter is painless, the overall process can be quite stress- and painful for the animals.[41][42][43][44] Livestock are typically removed from their farm or feedlot and herded, or, in the case of poultry, often grabbed and thrown, into a vehicle. Once in the vehicle, animals are transported, often for many hours in crowded and partially climatically exposed conditions. At the point of slaughter, attempts are made to stun the animal prior to slaughter, though the first attempted stunning is occasionally ineffective and must be repeated. Even when effective, however, the act of stunning – using electricity or gas for poultry and captive bolt pistols for cattle – itself has been shown to produce some level of pain and stress in the animal.[45][46][47] By decreasing one’s own consumption of animal products, even slightly, one lowers the overall demand for these products, thus helping to reduce the number of animals who experience these oftentimes painful living and slaughter conditions.

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