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Research article2021Peer reviewedOpen access

Towards a positive welfare protocol for cattle: A critical review of indicators and suggestion of how we might proceed

Keeling, Linda; Winckler, Christoph; Hintze, Sara; Forkman, Björn


Current animal welfare protocols focus on demonstrating the absence (or at least low levels) of indicators of poor welfare, potentially creating a mismatch between what is expected by society (an assurance of good animal welfare) and what is actually being delivered (an assurance of the absence of welfare problems). This paper explores how far we have come, and what work still needs to be done, if we are to develop a protocol for use on commercial dairy farms where the aim is to demonstrate the presence of positive welfare. Following conceptual considerations around a perceived “ideal” protocol, we propose that a future protocol should be constructed (i) of animal-based measures, (ii) of indicators of affective state, and (iii) be structured according to indicators of short-term emotion, medium-term moods and long-term cumulative assessment of negative and positive experiences of an animal's life until now (in contrast to the current focus on indicators that represent different domains/criteria of welfare). These three conditions imposed the overall structure within which we selected our indicators. The paper includes a critical review of the literature on potential indicators of positive affective states in cattle. Based on evidence about the validity and reliability of the different indicators, we select ear position, play, allogrooming, brush use and QBA as candidate indicators that we suggest could form a prototype positive welfare protocol. We emphasise that this prototype protocol has not been tested in practice and so it is perhaps not the protocol itself that is the main outcome of this paper, but the process of trying to develop it. In a final section of this paper, we reflect on some of the lessons learnt from this exercise and speculate on future perspectives. For example, while we consider we have moved towards a prototype positive welfare protocol for short-term affective states, future research energy should be directed towards valid indicators for the medium and long-term.


animal welfare; welfare assessment; dairy (cows); positive emotion; animal-based measures; affective states

Published in

Frontiers in animal science
2021, Volume: 2, article number: 753080

    UKÄ Subject classification

    Animal and Dairy Science

    Publication identifier


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