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Farmed animals: How does factory farming affect animals?

Photo: Andrew Skowron / We Animals Media

Meat and other animal products play a central role in the standard American diet. This diet means high demand for farmed animals, a demand that is met by factory farms. The sad reality for the animals raised within these production systems is widespread and continuous suffering due to both their housing conditions and overall health. Farmed animals are not the only ones who are harmed by our modern food system, however. Humans and wild animals also face threats caused by factory farms.

What is the meaning of “farm animals”?

The term “farm animals” is used to describe any animals that are raised on a farm for the purposes of producing food or fiber for consumption. The term elicits visions of small family farms with rolling hills dotted by fluffy white sheep or happy black and white cows. This is exactly the image that those involved in the production of animal products want to propagate through their use of language and other humanewashing tactics. The ideas encouraged by the term “farm animals” are factually inaccurate and a far cry from the reality for animals raised as part of the modern, industrial food production system.

Instead of using “farm animals” to refer to the living and feeling beings who have been genetically manipulated over generations to serve our purposes, and who suffer immensely as a result, we use the term “farmed animals.” Though this may seem a matter of semantics to some, “farmed animals” recognizes the significance of the animals themselves and highlights the fact that they are being farmed. The term “farm animals” on the other hand implies that there is a certain class of animals that belong on farms, whose natural purpose is to produce for human consumption. The reality is that no animal belongs within a system of production that causes such great suffering.

What are farmed animals called?

The terms “livestock” and “farm animals” are two frequently used names for commonly farmed species and breeds of animals. Both of these terms alienate animals from the actual process of being farmed. The first is a sterile and businesslike term that reduces those animals used to make food to goods or products: “live stock.” The term “farm animals,” on the other hand, implies that the animals belong on the farm and have no other purpose.

Which animals are factory farmed?

If we eat them, then the chances are that they are factory farmed. Some of the most well-known victims of factory farming are cows, pigs, chickens, fish, goats, sheep, and turkeys. However, there are also a number of other species that are also raised on factory farms for human consumption. Examples of animals that are factory farmed but on a smaller scale include rabbits, geese, and ducks. Some creatures are raised on factory farms not for their food but for some other reason, such as minks and other animals farmed for their coats. Though a smaller number of these animals are killed every year for production, they endure horrendous suffering.


Chickens have been genetically modified through generations of breeding in order to make them more economically advantageous to the industry. Two different types of chickens have resulted from this intensive breeding: those who lay a large number of eggs, who are called “layers,” and those who grow very large very quickly, called “broilers.” Though the experience of living on a farm differs for each type of bird, all of them suffer immensely.

Most laying hens spend their lives in battery cages where—for almost their entire lives—they have less space than a standard sheet of printer paper to stand and move around. Some companies are paying attention to consumer demands and slowly starting to shift away from battery cages, but regardless of the housing system in which they are raised, laying hens suffer from physical trauma, such as bone fractures, related to the sheer number of eggs they are genetically modified to produce.1

Chickens raised for their meat endure a different type of suffering, due to their swift growth rate. Because they grow so quickly, these chickens often experience lameness that renders them unable to walk, and heart problems such as ascites and sudden death syndrome.


Cattle are raised on factory farms for two reasons: to be slaughtered for beef, and for milk production. As is the case with chickens, the majority of cattle slaughtered for meat are from different breeds from those raised to produce milk. However, when a dairy cow stops producing enough milk to be considered profitable she is likely to be slaughtered for her body to be processed into ground beef and other meat products. In 2019, about 21 percent of U.S. beef came from dairy cattle, who are typically slaughtered at between four and five years of age unless they are killed earlier due to illness or low production. Breeds of cattle typically raised for beef are usually slaughtered between 7 and 12 years of age.2


Fish can often be overlooked, but they possess the ability to suffer and experience every excruciating moment of life on a factory farm. The scale of fish production is such that they are typically counted by weight and not by individual. In 2018, approximately 81 million tons of fish and other aquatic species were farmed around the world.3

Goats and sheep

In the United States, goats and sheep are slaughtered on a smaller scale than many other types of farmed animal. However, the number killed is still staggering. In just April 2022, 197,500 sheep were slaughtered in the U.S. Despite being raised and slaughtered on a smaller scale than other farmed animals, goats and sheep still suffer while alive. For example, goats raised for milk production have been found to be suffering from claw overgrowth, poor hygiene, and skin lesions.4


The intelligence of pigs is greater than that of dogs, and yet the conditions in which they are kept and raised on factory farms are abysmal. Often mother pigs are confined to small cages and are unable to even turn around as they give birth to litter after litter of piglets who will be mutilated at a young age by being neutered and having their tails docked, only to be slaughtered for meat a few short months later.


At the end of every year a large part of every grocery store’s coolers are inevitably cleared, to be filled with the plastic-wrapped bodies of turkeys. Before they are slaughtered, when they are still young birds being raised within the confines of a factory farm, these birds suffer from head, tail, and wing wounds, immobility, and lameness, and they can often be found in a dirty, featherless, and sick state.5

How many farmed animals are there?

Many billions of animals endure life in a factory farm every single year. In 2021, 9.3 billion chickens, 33.9 million cows, 391,300 calves, 129 million pigs, and 2.26 million sheep and lambs were slaughtered in just the United States.

What animal is farmed the most?

Chickens are the most heavily farmed species of land animal. In 2021 a total of 9.3 billion chickens were slaughtered in the United States alone. The other animals found in factory farms in the largest numbers are fish and other marine life. In 2019, 170 million tons of fish were raised on farms.

What animals are protected by law?

In the United States, there are only a handful of laws that protect farmed animals, and oftentimes these laws fail to prevent suffering. The Animal Welfare Act, which is the primary law federally protecting the rights of animals in the United States, excludes animals used for the production of food or fiber from the definition of “animal”—meaning that farmed animals are not protected under the law. Some states do offer additional protections to farmed animals.

Which laws protect farmed animals?

The two federal laws that aim to protect farmed animals are:

  • The Twenty-Eight Hour Law. This law prohibits the transport of animals for longer than 28 hours without a break. However, with most animals being transported by trucks and not trains, enforcement is difficult due to a lack of clarity over how long animals have been in transport.
  • The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. This law requires that animals raised for food (not including poultry) must be stunned prior to slaughter; however, enforcement is often lax and animals are not always stunned successfully prior to slaughter.

How does factory farming affect animals?

The health of animals raised for production is severely impacted by factory farming. Wild animals also face serious consequences from industrial farming.

Health of farmed animals

One area of major impact can be seen in farmed animals’ health. The genetic modification that they have endured in order to boost production also makes them more susceptible to diseases. Currently, the worst outbreak of avian flu ever recorded in the United States is sweeping the nation. Over just the 2022 Thanksgiving weekend, 175,000 turkeys in South Dakota and 1.7 million laying hens in Nebraska died or were killed due to the disease; many of these birds had not yet been infected but rather were slaughtered as a precaution to prevent the disease from spreading further, as required by the USDA.

Habitat loss of wild animals

The animals being farmed are not the only ones impacted by factory farming; wild animals also suffer due to the profound impacts on the ecosystems they call home. For example, cattle ranching is the largest driver of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, one of the most biologically diverse places in the world.

How does factory farming affect humans?

In addition to the profound impact that factory farming has on animals, industrial food production also seriously impacts humans in a variety of ways.

  • Pandemic risk. The way that animals are farmed in industrial settings increases the risk of another global pandemic. Factory farms provide ideal environments for the transmission of zoonotic diseases from animals to people.
  • Antibiotic resistance. The use of antibiotics in animals, whether for prevention of disease in filthy conditions or as a growth promoter, is a significant contributor to antibiotic resistance, a global crisis that is spreading quickly and becoming increasingly serious.
  • Climate change. Factory farms contribute heavily to climate change and cause other environmental damage. They release large quantities of greenhouse gases, use land and water on a massive scale, and cause air and water pollution.

How can we stop the abuse of farmed animals?

One of the most obvious actions we can take to end the abuse of farmed animals is to change our eating habits. Whether we choose to consume animals raised by the tiny percentage of more humane and sustainable farms, or reduce or eliminate animal products from our diets, we are taking a stand and making our voices heard using the thing that the animal agriculture industry finds most powerful: money.

Aside from using your money to make your voice heard, you can also make a change by holding accountable companies that use humanewashing to sell their products. Consumers shouldn’t be lied to about the conditions in which the animals raised for their food lived their lives.

Finally, you can encourage institutions that serve food to you—whether restaurants, schools, or businesses—to shift their institutional food policies.


Every year millions of animals in the United States suffer miserable lives on factory farms as part of our food system, in an industry that grants them few legal protections. This status quo has serious consequences for the health of the environment, people, and animals, both in factory farms and in the wild.



Michael J. Toscano et al., “Explanations for Keel Bone Fractures in Laying Hens: Are There Explanations in Addition to Elevated Egg Production?,” Poultry Science 99, no. 9 (September, 2020): 4183–4194,


Ligia C. Moreira, Guilherme J. M. Rosa, and Daniel M. Schaefer, “Beef production from Cull Dairy Cows: A Review from Culling to Consumption,” Journal of Animal Science 99, no. 7 (July, 2021),


FAO. “World Fisheries Production by Capture and Aquaculture, by ISSCAAP divisions (1950-2018).”


Melissa N. Hempstead et al., “Welfare Assessment of 30 Dairy Goat Farms in the Midwestern United States,” Frontiers in Veterinary Science 8 (April, 2021),



Joanna Marchewka, Guro Vasdal, and Randi O. Moe, “Identifying Welfare Issues in Turkey Hen and Tom Flocks Applying the Transect Walk Method,” Poultry Science 98, no. 9 (September, 2019): 3391–3399,