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Concern for animal welfare is often based on the belief that non-human animals are sentient and that consideration should be given to their well-being or suffering, especially when they are under the care of humans. These concerns can include how animals are slaughtered for food, how they are used in scientific research, how they are kept (as pets, in zoos, farms, circuses, etc.), and how human activities affect the welfare and survival of wild species. Animal welfare was a concern of some ancient civilizations but began to take a larger place in Western public policy in 19th-century Great Britain. In the 21st century, it is a significant focus of interest in science, ethics, and animal welfare organizations.

There are two forms of criticism of the concept of animal welfare, coming from diametrically opposite positions. One view, dating back centuries, asserts that animals are not consciously aware and hence are unable to experience poor (or good) welfare. This once-dominant argument is at odds with the predominant view of modern neuroscientists, who, notwithstanding philosophical problems with the definition of consciousness even in humans, now generally hold that animals are conscious. However, some still maintain that consciousness is a philosophical question that may never be scientifically resolved. The other view is based on the animal rights position that animals should not be regarded as property and any use of animals by humans is unacceptable. Accordingly, some animal rights proponents argue that the perception of better animal welfare facilitates continued and increased exploitation of animals.Some authorities therefore treat animal welfare and animal rights as two opposing positions. Others see the increasing concern for animal welfare as incremental steps towards animal rights. The most widely held position in the western world is a mid-way utilitarian point-of-view; the position that it is morally acceptable for humans to use non-human animals, provided that adverse effects on animal welfare are minimized as much as possibleProviding good animal welfare is sometimes defined by a list of positive conditions which should be provided to the animal. This approach is taken by the Five Freedoms and the three principles of Professor John Webster. The Five Freedoms are:

Freedom from thirst and hunger by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour
Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area
Freedom from pain, injury, and disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
Freedom to express most normal behavior by providing sufficient space, proper facilities, and company of the animal's own kind
Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering

John Webster defines animal welfare by advocating three positive conditions: Living a natural life, being fit and healthy, and being happy.
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