Animal Welfare and Human-Animal Interactions

The OHAIRE lab has a dedication to understanding and maximizing animal welfare during human-animal interaction.

Learn more about the OHAIRE lab's current research on this topic.

Read the OHAIRE lab's published research on this topic.

What is animal welfare?

Animal welfare refers to how an animal is coping with its current conditions and refers to the state of the current animal [1]. Promoting animal welfare involves providing for an animal’s individual physical and mental needs. Typically, an animal is considered to have good welfare if it is physically healthy, able to express highly motivated natural behaviors, and generally experiences positive emotions [2]. An example of a highly motivated natural behavior would be scratching behavior in domestic cats; cats are highly motivated to do this behavior in the wild and would be frustrated if prevented from doing this behavior in captivity.

The best way to determine animal welfare is to view an individual animal directly using species-specific information. Although it may be easier to determine how much an animal is fed or the amount of time it may be taken for walks, individual animals may react differently. For example, if an animal is fed the “correct” amount, but remains underweight then it does not have the best physical welfare, perhaps a veterinary exam is necessary to determine underlying conditions. Alternatively, if the animal gets a daily 30-minute walk to allow it to perform the natural behavior of sniffing, but spends the walk cowering and fearful of its conditions, then it does not have the best mental welfare. A daily 30-minute walk could also be beneficial for one species (dogs) but harmful for another species (guinea pigs).

Animal welfare can be variable between concepts, time, and different animals. Animal welfare can range from poor (large degrees of suffering) to fair (minimal suffering) to good (mainly positive experiences and emotions). Animal welfare can change from day to day, or even hour to hour. An animal can have good physical welfare, but poor mental welfare. Animals involved in animal-assisted interventions should have good welfare overall.

How does animal welfare relate to Animal-Assisted Intervention (AAI)? Why should I care about welfare?

Animal-assisted intervention by definition involves animals. Depending on how the animal is incorporated, animal-assisted intervention has the potential to either improve or diminish animal welfare [3, 4].

  • Allowing domestic animals that are highly motivated to interact with humans to interact with them more often
  • Increasing variety and decreasing boredom
  • Providing personalized, positive, and predictable training/enrichment
  • When animals are purpose bred (such as guide dogs or service animals), organizations can help reduce incidence of genetic diseases and improve temperament
  • Some animals involved in animal-assisted intervention may be provided with higher levels of care

Animal-assisted intervention may worsen/diminish animal welfare by:

  • Causing negative emotional states such as fear in certain if animals if the individual animals temperament/training/socialization is not sufficient or if the humans interacting with the animal do not use best practices/technique
  • Animal fatigue and burnout especially in animals that work longer hours or more frequently
  • A potentially unpredictable or uncontrollable environment which can be aversive to some animals
  • For programs not following best practices: possible aversive training, lack of care, or neglect
  • Not following principals listed below in "How can I improve my animal's welfare?

How can I tell if my animal has good welfare?

To assess welfare you must look at an individual animal using species-specific information. Like people, animals have individual characteristics that affect them and the way they handle certain activities. For example, some dogs may enjoy visiting with strangers while other dogs may be fearful of new people.

For best practice, try to answer the following 3 questions for your animal [2]:
  1. Is my animal physically healthy?
    1. This may include looking at your animal's body weight, disease status, & physical fitness.
  2. Does my animal feel well?
    1. Ideally, you want your animal to mainly experience positive emotions and avoid prolonged or intense negative emotions.
    2. This question is usually answered in practice by observing animal behavior.
  3. Can my animal perform highly motivated & preferred natural behaviors?
    1. Consider what your animal would prefer to experience in nature in terms of environment, social grouping, and behaviors. You may want to provide the opportunity for these where possible.

Get professional, scientific help to answer each question as needed. Ask your veterinarian to help you answer question #1. Your vet, online resources, and training experts may be able to help you answer questions #2 and #3. For example, here is a link to an article on the key determinants of dog and cat welfare.

How can I improve my animal's Welfare?

Scientific research has developed several recommendations that can improve animal welfare across species in general [5] and specific to animal-assisted interventions [6]. Additionally, The International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organizations (IAHAIO) produced a white paper in 2014 with guidelines for the wellness of animals involved [7]. Animal owners and individuals interacting with animals should have the necessary skills and knowledge to promote animal welfare. It is important that animal handlers are trained in animal behavior and health so they are able to detect signs of discomfort, stress, and potential risks in their individual animal species.

The physical environment (walking & resting surfaces, temperature, and humidity) and management practices should:

  1. Good health
  2. Comfortable, safe resting and movement
  3. Natural behaviors
  4. Positive social behaviors for social species & individuals
  5. Access to appropriate food & water
  6. Positive human-animal relationships
  7. Breeding that uses genetic selection to improve health & welfare rather than for aesthetics


  1. Potential for injuries
  2. Diseases and parasites
  3. Isolation of social species
  4. Negative human-animal interactions
  5. Unnecessary stress
  6. Burnout & fatigue
  7. Zoonotic disease transmission from human to animal
Furthermore, the decision as to when to retire an animal from its animal-assisted intervention tasks can be difficult. Animals should be retired if their work is negatively affecting their welfare. However, it is important to ensure that after retirement they still receive appropriate mental and physical stimulation. For decisions about animal retirement, we recommend the thoughtful review by Dr. Ng and Dr. Fine [8].


Written by Megan R. LaFollette and the OHAIRE Group


  1. American Veterinary Medical Association (n.d.) Animal welfare: What is it? American Veterinary Medical Association.
  2. Fraser, D., Weary, D. M., Pajor, E. A., & Milligan, B. N. (1997). A scientific conception of animal welfare that reflects ethical concernsAnimal welfare, 6, 187-205.
  3. Iannuzzi, D., & Rowan, A. N. (1991). Ethical issues in animal-assisted therapy programs. Anthrozoös: A multidisciplinary journal of the interactions of people and animals, 4(3), 154-163.
  4. Glenk, L. M. (2017). Current perspectives on therapy dog welfare in animal-assisted interventions. Animals, 7(2), 7.
  5. Fraser, D., Duncan, I. J., Edwards, S. A., Grandin, T., Gregory, N. G., Guyonnet, V., Hemsworth, P. H., Huertas, S. M., Huzzey, J. M., Mellor, D. J., Mench, J. A., Špinka, M., & Whay, H. R. (2013). General principles for the welfare of animals in production systems: The Underlying science and its application. The Veterinary Journal,198(1), 19-27.
  6. Fine, A. H., Beck, A. M., & Ng, Z. (2019). The state of animal-assisted interventions: Addressing the contemporary issues that will shape the future. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(20), 3997.
  7. Jegatheesan, B., Beetz, A., Ormerod, E., Johnson, R., Fine, A. H., Yamazaki, K., & Choi, G. (2015). The IAHAIO definitions for animal assisted intervention and guidelines for wellness of animals involved. Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy, 415–418.
  8. Ng, Z. Y., & Fine, A. H. (2019). Considerations for the retirement of therapy animals. Animals, 9(12), 1100.

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