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What Makes a Pet Happy - Our Duty of Care

Question: My elderly mother has a young Spaniel. She lives alone in a small flat in a remote area and is becoming increasingly less able to look after her pet. Whilst the dog is obviously a lifeline to her can you suggest how I might help her assess whether her pet’s best interests are being met?

Answer: Most pet owners readily recognise that they have a duty of care to their pets. But how difficult it can sometimes be to decide if pets are actually ‘happy’ with their lives.

The Animal Welfare Act - which received Royal Assent at the end of 2006 - will be the most significant piece of animal welfare legislation for nearly 100 years when it is introduced in 2007. The Act will for the first time protect thousands of animals by legally obliging owners to care for their pets properly. The British Veterinary Association Animal Welfare Foundation (BVA AWF) has produced a practical leaflet entitled ‘What Makes My Pet Happy’ that is designed to enable veterinary surgeons to assist pet owners meet the ‘duty of care’ that this Animal Welfare Act will introduce. In addition to the traditional determinants of a pet’s quality of life (welfare) such as feeding, keeping living quarters clean and ensuring veterinary treatment when sick or injured, in future pet owners will be required to meet other possibly less familiar determinants of their pet’s welfare such as the ability to express normal behaviour. The complexities surrounding your situation are great and personal attitudes to your circumstances may vary greatly from one person to another. The best starting point would be to obtain the ‘What Makes My Pet Happy’ leaflet from your veterinary surgeon. To illustrate how this might help, let me run through the main themes of the leaflet which starts by posing a question:

Have your ever wondered whether your pet is happy?

Pets are kept all over the world, and are often loved by their owners and considered as one of the family. But how can you be sure that your pet is happy? What signs are you using to tell you that he or she is?

Animal Feelings

Happiness, welfare and quality of life are all talking about how animals feel. This can seem very difficult to know for sure; animals can’t, after all, tell us how they’re feeling. Fortunately, however, there are now ways of using scientific methods to check that our pets are happy. In many cases we’ll probably find that they are, but in some cases we may find that they’re not. What’s important is that we at least check. Please read on to see how we can approach this important subject.

What do we mean by 'happy'?

How an animal is feeling (its welfare) can range from good to bad, with lots of possibilities in between. When welfare is very bad, we say that an animal is suffering. When welfare is very good, we might say that an animal is happy. Somewhere in between, we might say that an animal is content, which is when it has everything it needs. If we can give our pets more than this, for example, giving a dog a longer walk than it actually needs without harming its health, then great, we can probably make it even happier. But making sure our pets are content and have what they need is what’s most important.

Why is it important to know if our pets are happy and content?

Well, to most people this is hopefully obvious: because we want them to be! But it’s also important because new animal welfare legislation (The Animal Welfare Act) introduces something called ‘a duty of care’. This means that we must, by law, not only prevent our pets from suffering, but we must provide them with the things they need to make them happy and content. This is good news for our pets!

Thinking of everything that matters - The Five Freedoms

The first thing to do is try to think of all the things that can affect whether our pets are happy or not. A useful framework for this is the ‘Five Freedoms’, which is used by governments and animal welfare organisations. Good welfare depends on good physical and mental health, and the Five Freedoms include both of these aspects. The Five Freedoms make sure that we think of all the things that can affect how animals feel. For example, it’s not good to be well fed but in pain, or to feel safe but too cold.

The Five Freedoms

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst
  2. Freedom from pain, injury and disease
  3. Freedom from discomfort (e.g. temperature, floor surfaces)
  4. Freedom to express normal behaviour
  5. Freedom from fear and distress

What does 'freedom to express normal behaviour' mean?

Four of the five freedoms are easy to understand, but what do we mean by ‘freedom to express normal behaviour’? Even though most of our pets are domesticated, and have been born in captivity, they still need to perform some of the behaviour that they would have done if they were born in the wild. Some types of behaviour are so important to animals that if they can’t perform them they will suffer. These behaviours are called ‘behavioural needs’. Exactly which behaviours are important to animals depends on the species of animal (rabbits have different behavioural needs from parrots, for example), but science is being used to find out what these behaviours are. A human example might be social behaviour, that is, the need to have contact with other humans. If you spent your entire life without a chance to meet or speak to anybody would you be happy? So ‘freedom to express normal behaviour’ means ‘able to meet behavioural needs’.

How do I know what my pet's behavioural needs are?

Your vet can give you information about which behaviours are important to different types of pets. The Government is also producing ‘Codes of Practice’ booklets to accompany the new laws. Your vet will be able to tell you where you can get copies of the booklets, or where you can view them online.

How can your veterinary practice help?

Vets and veterinary nurses are trained in many aspects of animal welfare, and have lots of practical experience with animals. Thinking about the Five Freedoms again, they work to achieve ‘freedom from pain, injury and disease’ on a daily basis, and regularly advise on living environments (to achieve freedom from discomfort and freedom to express normal behaviour) and diet (to achieve freedom from hunger and thirst).

Coming back to your question regarding what you can do, may I suggest:

  • Help your mother to assess her pet’s quality of life by using the Five Freedoms like a tick-list.
  • If you think that you aren’t achieving one or more of the Five Freedoms, change the way you keep or look after your pet so that you can achieve them.
  • If you’re not sure whether you’re achieving the Five Freedoms, or you’re not sure how to make changes for the better, ask your veterinary practice for help.