I talk about animal welfare a lot; a lot of people talk about animal welfare. It’s a topic that’s hard to ignore, whether you’re a pet owner, a meat and dairy consumer, or you just really like “cute” videos on the internet.
But what is animal welfare? What’s our standard? One man’s bare minimum may be another man’s above-and-beyond. What’s the standard? 3 walks a day for your dog? Two? Do you tell your cat “I love you” at least once a day?
In 1965, the U.K. Government tasked Professor Roger Brambell to investigate just that: what is animal welfare? His investigation was specifically regarding livestock, and the initial response was that animals should have the freedom to “stand up, lie down, turn around, groom themselves, and stretch their limbs.” Source These freedoms became known as “Brambell’s Five Freedoms”.
The initial idea of these five freedoms later evolved to the five freedoms we know now, which are:
1) Freedom from hunger and thirst
2) Freedom from discomfort
3) Freedom from pain, injury, or disease
4) Freedom to express normal behavior
5) Freedom from fear and distress
These five freedoms provide the baseline standard for animal welfare. Whether it’s livestock, wild animals, or pets, animal welfarists believe any sentient being has the right to these five freedoms. As a side note, obviously, we have very little control over how well animals in the wild are fed or whether they have fears or are in distress, but we do have control over non-domesticated animals held in captivity, such as animals in sanctuaries and zoos, or non-domesticated animals being kept as pets, such as foxes and wolves/wolfdogs, servals, etc.
As with all baselines and blanket terminology, you have to use discernment in your interpretation. My dog has freedom to express normal behavior, but if her normal behavior involves her running headlong into traffic, then I’ve broken freedom number 3 while allowing freedom number 4. My dog has the right to be free from fear and distress, but if she’s afraid of the vet, I cannot give her freedom from disease without breaking freedom number 5.
None of these 5 freedoms will be upheld to 100% during the course of our pets’ lives. At some point or another, one will be in direct conflict with the other. That’s why these freedoms are a baseline, and that’s why you need to use discernment. There is a benefit/aversive ratio at play here that you need to be able to assess and act upon. At what point does freedom 4 infringe on the other freedoms? At what point is upholding freedom 5 more or less important than upholding freedom 3 or freedom 2?
The Five Freedoms are blanketed by one simple rule: you are responsible. You are responsible for correctly weighing the benefits and risks. You are responsible for recognizing when the animal is hungry and thirsty. You are responsible for helping an animal overcome discomfort and fear for their own benefit. You are responsible for creating a safe and controlled way for them to express their natural behavior, or else channel that behavior. You are responsible for taking precautions to protect them and/or others around them.
But what is most important, is that you are responsible for knowing what is normal to them. It is your responsibility to know what healthy and secure behavior looks like, compared to scared and sick.
Use the five freedoms to ask yourself:
1) What does it look like when this animal is hungry and thirsty? How much of each do they need and with what frequency? What sort of nutrition do they require, and in what form?
2) What does discomfort look like in this animal? How do they express it, and what triggers it? What shelter and level of comfort do they require to rest easy?
3) What diseases is this animal susceptible to, and how can I prevent it? What symptoms should I look for? What are common injuries and how can I avoid them?
4) What behaviors does this animal tend to exhibit? What kind of space do they need? Do they need to be surrounded by their own kind? What sort of enrichment is necessary to best satisfy their genetic, species-related needs?
5) What does this animal usually fear? How do they express fear, and how can I avoid triggering it? At what stage is it best to introduce new stimuli to build up an immunity to potentially fearsome sounds and objects? If the animal is afraid, how can I help them overcome it or else help them avoid the object of fear?
If you can answer these questions, then you are well on your way to providing adequate animal welfare for the animals in your care.
Broom, D.M., 2006: The evolution of morality. Applied Animal Behavioral Science, 100, 1–2, 20–28
Cooper, J.E., Cooper, M.E., 2007: Introduction to Veterinary and Comparative Forensic Medicine. Wiley-Blackwell, 415 pp.