Pet Connections

The Five Freedoms and the Welfare of Pets

One of the things that has really stuck with me over the years as a shelter veterinarian is the concept of “The Five Freedoms.” Initially developed in 1965, The Five Freedoms is a model made in response to public outcry about inhumane conditions that farm animals suffered. The initial Freedoms were “to stand up, lie down, turn around, groom themselves, and stretch their limbs” – extremely basic and minimal welfare standards that we should all agree animals deserve. The Farm Animal Welfare Council, formed a little over a decade later, expanded upon the Freedoms by addressing both the physical and emotional needs that will support the positive welfare of all species of animals. Those Five Freedoms that were developed more than 40 years ago are what we still use (or should use) today. 

The first three of the Freedoms focus on physical well-being. It should be obvious that animals need potable water, a proper diet, and an environment that allows them to rest comfortably, but I have seen some very sad examples of shelters not even reaching this very low bar. One shelter kept cats in cages that didn’t even fit a litterbox, let alone a towel for them to lay on. This is the reason that we must spell things out sometimes, so that there are no assumptions being made and even things that seem obvious are addressed. Luckily, that shelter is not representative of the majority, and most pets have the first two Freedoms met.

The third Freedom, “freedom from pain, injury, or disease,” refers to providing proper preventative care to help pets avoid getting sick and the prompt treatment of sick or injured animals to prevent unnecessary suffering. I work with a lot of amazing small rescue organizations that, despite having very few resources and a shoe-string budget, do an outstanding job with the third Freedom. Shelters and rescues that follow the guidelines established by the Association of Shelter Veterinarians (ASV) give vaccinations as soon as dogs and cats enter (or ASAP) to minimize the risk of viral infections. These organizations also have protocols for sanitation, to reduce the spread of disease, and may have treatment protocols based on common conditions that are seen in the shelter setting (made in conjunction with veterinarians). In addition to those, we also have a protocol for administering pain medication and other emergency treatments so that animals do not have to wait if a veterinarian cannot be immediately reached.

What may not always be front and center in our minds is that animals, like us, can suffer mentally. That means that their emotional well-being is just as important as their physical health. The last two Freedoms address the need for animals to express their natural behaviors and to be considerate of what may cause them to be distressed. While some fear and stress are inevitable when an animal enters a shelter and during the everyday lives of all animals (fireworks anyone?), the goal is to do our best to avoid triggering negative emotions and allowing animals some control in coping with stressors. For example, a fearful cat or dog in the shelter will feel much more comfortable if they are afforded a place to hide. Rather than separating them in the shelter, placing two bonded dogs in the same enclosure can go a long way to minimizing stress. Meeting the emotional needs of pets may not always be clear cut but knowing what behavioral signs to monitor while trying to address these needs can be invaluable. A great resource to learn more about these behaviors to reduce FAS (fear, anxiety, and stress) is the “Fear Free Shelter Program” training online. This short course was developed by board certified veterinary behaviorists and is free of charge for anyone working at or volunteering with a shelter or rescue.

Being educated in the Five Freedoms and learning how we can best support both the physical and emotional needs of animals can greatly improve their quality of life. It is up to us to speak for them and do our best to provide the well-being that they deserve.

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