Animal Rights vs. Animal Welfare: What’s the Difference?

“Animal rights” and “animal welfare” may sound similar, but there are key differences between them that are important to understand as you progress in your animal advocacy journey. Why support one over the other? Can you support both simultaneously? Let’s take a closer look at both terms.

Here’s the bottom line: Animal welfare theories take no position on the ethics of animal use, whereas the animal rights theory does. Animal welfare proponents accept that animals have interests but allow these interests to be disregarded as long as there are some benefits to humans that supposedly justify that sacrifice.

Supporters of animal rights believe that animals have an inherent worth—a value completely separate from their usefulness to humans. PETA and Students Opposing Speciesism (SOS) believe that every sentient being with a will to live has a right to be free from pain and suffering.

Here are a few examples:

An animal welfare supporter may focus on improving the living conditions of animals exploited for experimentation, food, clothing, and entertainment but won’t challenge the status quo. Meanwhile, animal rights activists ask, “Why are we using animals in the first place?” Our message is that if animals deserve to be kept in “humane” conditions while they’re in a laboratory or on a factory farm, as animal welfare supporters believe, they shouldn’t be killed for experiments or food at all.

Many animal welfare supporters fall victim to buzzwords like “humane” and “cage-free”—dubious terms that have been created to make consumers believe they’re making kind choices when they’re actually not. As long as profit is involved, animal welfare always takes a back seat.

As animal rights activists, we also believe in animal welfare, but not everyone who supports animal welfare is an animal rights activist (yet).

It’s possible to work for an end to animal exploitation while simultaneously supporting incremental change. Of course, in the long term, we want animal liberation. But we are also pragmatic and realize that because billions of animals are suffering in the experimentation, food, clothing, and entertainment industries each year, we must take immediate action to try to alleviate some of their suffering.

Animal rights activists may campaign against companies like KFC and McDonald’s for improved animal welfare standards while also vigorously promoting a vegan lifestyle as the best way to help animals. Likewise, we campaign for the wool industry to stop mutilating sheep while also urging consumers to stop buying and wearing wool altogether.

By recognizing the distinction between animal rights and animal welfare, more humans will realize that animals are not ours to use. At our core, we are all the same and deserve the same respect, care, and rights. Animal rights is a social justice movement that challenges society’s traditional view that nonhuman animals exist solely for human use.

If you’re interested in getting involved in the animal rights movement, SOS can help you make a difference! Join SOS today and find a hub near you—or even start your own. You can also apply to become an SOS campus rep and get paid to spread the word about speciesism around your school.

And every day, you can stand up for animal rights by choosing to eat vegan.