© 2015 The Author. BioEssays published by WILEY Periodicals, Inc.
Progress in improving animal welfare is currently limited by the lack of objective methods for assessing lifetime experience. I propose that telomere attrition, a cellular biomarker of biological age, provides a molecular measure of cumulative experience that could be used to assess the welfare impact of husbandry regimes and/or experimental procedures on non-human animals. I review evidence from humans that telomere attrition is accelerated by negative experiences in a cumulative and dose-dependent manner, but that this attrition can be mitigated or even reversed by positive life-style interventions. Evidence from non-human animals suggests that despite some specific differences in telomere biology, stress-induced telomere attrition is a robust phenomenon, occurring in a range of species including mice and chickens. I conclude that telomere attrition apparently integrates positive and negative experience in an accessible common currency that translates readily to novel species - the Holy Grail of a cumulative welfare indicator.