Is Income (In)Equality Linked to Animal Welfare?

Are societies that are more equal for people also better for animal welfare?

Free range chickens foraging under the watchful eye of a ginger cat
Photo: Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

Many of the organizations that look after homeless companion animals also advocate for other kinds of animals, including farm animals, wildlife, and animals used in experiments. Earlier research has suggested that, at an individual level, there could be a link between how people treat animals and how they treat people. A new paper by Michael Morris (University of Canterbury, New Zealand) investigates whether or not this is also the case at a societal level; in other words, if societies that are more equal for people are also better for animal welfare.

The idea came from something called the Environmental Kuznets Curve, “the hypothesis that as the per capita income for countries improves, their effect on the environment initially increases as polluting industries grow, but then it starts to decline again after a threshold of income is reached.” For example, technology may improve and consumer attitudes to environmental protection could change as a society gets richer.

Although the EKC is not proven, Morris wondered if the same thing would apply to societies: perhaps as societies get richer, changes in technology, attitudes and legislation might have an effect on animal welfare.

One of the interesting things that Morris does is to consider both total wealth and the distribution of wealth in society. He suggests several ways in which unequal income distribution might affect animal welfare: those who are struggling to get by might not have time to volunteer with animal charities or the funds to support animal welfare; societies that are seen as less caring for people may also care less for animals; control of resources may mean that some organizations have a greater influence on animal welfare than others.

The research looked at the most wealthy countries. Income equality was measured by something called a Gini coefficient, which is calculated by the United Nations Human Development Index.   A lower value means that income distribution is more equal.

How do you define animal welfare on a societal level? Morris looked at the kinds of regulations often recommended by humane societies and SPCAs, including bans on sow crates, farrowing crates, battery cages, colony cages for hens, veal crates and the consumption of foie gras. Of these, the only one that had a relationship to income inequality was that of battery cages: countries with a lower Gini coefficient were more likely to have a ban on battery cages.  

The study also looked at overall meat consumption within a society, and the percentage of calories obtained from meat. Although not significant, the results suggest that in more equal societies people eat less meat overall. Morris acknowledges there could be several reasons for this, including better awareness of the health benefits of less meat in the diet.

Finally, Morris also looked at animal experimentation, although this is difficult to measure for some countries because of differing legal requirements. Looking at European Union countries, where regulations require standardized reporting of animal testing, there was some support for a Kuznets-type curve. The use of cats and dogs in experiments increased with increasing income, but levelled off for the highest income countries. For New Zealand, the results showed a significant link between experiments on cats and dogs and changes in the Gini coefficient over time, with fewer experiments when society was more equal.

This is a thought-provoking paper because it considers how animal welfare might be affected by society as a whole. It’s also interesting to think that while we might consider whether, for example, meat consumption is or is not linked to an individual’s attitudes to animal welfare, we can also ask the same question at a national level. In fact Morris suggests that individual feelings of powerlessness and distrust within an unequal society may affect attitudes to animal welfare, and this is a topic for future research.

The availability of data is obviously a limiting factor. It would be interesting to include companion animal welfare, such as the numbers of homeless animals or the percentage that are euthanized each year. These are difficult to measure, but a recent paper estimated the number of homeless animals in the UK (Stavisky et al 2012) and changes in overall wealth due to recession are thought to have negatively impacted companion animal welfare (Morris and Steffler 2011; Weng and Hart 2012).

What kind of thing do you think is a measure of how well a society treats animals? And do you think it is more important to consider companion animals, farm animals, wildlife, or a combination?

Weng, H. Y., & Hart, L. A. (2012). Impact of the economic recession on companion animal relinquishment, adoption, and euthanasia: a Chicago animal shelter's experience. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 15(1), 80-90.
Morris, G. D., & Steffler, J. (2011). Was pet relinquishment related to foreclosure?: a spatial research note from California during the height of foreclosure. The Social Science Journal, 48(4), 739-745.
Morris, M. C. (2013). Improved nonhuman animal welfare is related more to income equality than it is to income. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 16(3), 272-293.
Stavisky, J., Brennan, M. L., Downes, M., & Dean, R. (2012). Demographics and economic burden of un-owned cats and dogs in the UK: results of a 2010 census. BMC Veterinary Research, 8, 1-10.

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