Merriam-Webster defines welfare as the “state of being happy, healthy, or successful”. Obviously, this definition is geared toward a human perspective. Then what defines animal welfare? Perhaps the closest we have are a set of principles for basic animal care called the Five Freedoms. The concept of the Five Freedoms originated in a 1965 report to improve care of livestock animals in the UK. The freedoms are as follows; Freedom from Hunger and Thirst, Freedom from Discomfort, Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease, Freedom to Express Normal Behaviour, Freedom from Fear and Distress. These freedoms have served as guidelines for the development of animal care protocols across species. Long term animal housing facilities ranging from laboratory animals to zoo species have also taken from these principles. The Guidelines for Standards of Care of Shelter Animals was written with these tenets at the basis of each section. Although the five freedoms prescribe what every animal needs to have minimally acceptable welfare, there are no guidelines on how to implement them.
So let’s apply these freedoms to my cat. 1) Freedom from hunger and thirst. Easy, he gets free choice dry and two bowls of water. 2) Freedom from discomfort. Pesco has a number of soft places to sleep many of which are me. However, occasionally I will take him on a five hour car ride home, palpate his abdomen, or attempt to trim his nails, all of which he finds highly disagreeable. 3) Freedom from pain, injury, or disease. Pesco has FIV and dental disease, one of which is being addressed by providing veterinary dental care. 4) Freedom to express normal behavior. Pesco gets to run, stretch, sleep all day, scrape up his litterbox, and scratch his nails on his cardboard. If he tries to scratch the carpet, I chase him around the house. If I’m not home, I’m sure he is quite pleased with himself. 5) Freedom from fear and distress. One phrase: the vacuum cleaner.
I have hopefully used the example of my own cat to highlight the difficulties of maximizing animal welfare. These challenges are quite evident in the shelter setting where we insult animal welfare daily. Noise, cleaning, handling, surgery, even physical examinations can violate 1 or 2 of an animals freedoms but are unavoidable and help maintain the other freedoms that an animal deserves. Animals don’t understand the being uncomfortable to achieve a happy goal. The only understand that they are currently uncomfortable. Maximizing animal welfare can therefore have profound effects on the behavioral and physical health of an animal by minimizing said discomfort. One way that you can maximize animal welfare on a daily basis is to perform daily rounds. Visualizing each animal allows you the opportunity to ask yourself “What does this animal need to move through the shelter?” and “What can I do for this animal right now?”. Even in small shelters where we believe we have a firm grasp on who every animal is and what we think they may need, it is surprising how much can fall through the cracks and how much things can change. Daily rounds enables us to keep track of the animals passing through our doors as well as giving us the immediate opportunity to fulfill their needs.