Just how important to animal welfare is knowledge of the ‘five freedoms’? - Veterinary Practice
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Just how important to animal welfare is knowledge of the ‘five freedoms’?

Periscope continues the series of reflections on issues of current concern

THE recent PDSA Wellbeing
Report has revealed “disappointing
and worrying” levels of public
awareness of their pets’ welfare
needs.

In particular, the number of pet
owners aware of the Animal Health
Act has declined from 45% to 38%
since 2011 and only 7% of children
have heard of the five welfare needs.
Frankly, in the latter case, I am amazed that it is
as high as 7%. I am fairly
certain that none of my
own children, now all young adults,
would have any idea of what I was
talking about if I asked them to name
an animal’s five welfare needs. Have I
then failed in my attempts to bring
them up correctly and to instil in them
a knowledge and respect for the
correct care of any pets they may take
on in the future? I like to think not.

It is very easy to get hung up on
things like the “five welfare needs” or
the “five freedoms”. What one has to
remember is that these are just words
and phrases. They do not encompass
any naturally occurring laws or
requirements; they are “man-made”,
by someone or a group of people to
try and encapsulate an animal’s
requirements in a simple repeatable
mantra. But they are not set in stone.

Those responsible for them could
just have easily come up with seven
freedoms or 10 freedoms, come to
that. The animals themselves would
not be able to define their own
welfare needs yet, presumably, if any
of this is to make sense, their lives are
made better if those needs, as defined
by humans, are met.

Not automatic

It is important to recognise that being
able to articulate an animal’s five
welfare needs is not automatically
going to translate into good welfare
for the animals owned by the person
who has that knowledge. Similarly, an
inability to define those needs that are
enshrined in law, or even a lack of
knowledge of the existence of the law
itself, doesn’t automatically mean that
animals are going to suffer.

As an example, I have been to
farms where the owner has been
highly educated and could almost
certainly quote chapter and verse on
the various welfare codes applicable to
the species concerned. However,
because of the type of husbandry system employed and in particular the
lack of time for the stockmen to care
for the animals as individuals, one
could not put hand on heart and say
that the welfare of the animals
concerned was unequivocally good.

Conversely, I know farmers who
would struggle to name more than
one or two of the five freedoms but who, by dint of their knowledge,
stockmanship, empathy and
conscientiousness, provide an
environment and a level of care to
their stock that promotes exceedingly
good welfare. Presumably such
farmers would, in a survey of a similar
nature to that conducted by the
PDSA, be seen as part of the problem
rather than as exemplars of good
welfare providers.

Definition difficulties

This problem is not confined to
animal welfare. I have seen in many
walks of life people get completely
bogged down over the meaning and
definition of certain words. This is
apparently what can make or break
hugely important international
agreements such as peace or trade
treaties: e.g. argument over the precise
meaning or interpretation of a
particular word, or in some cases the
latitude for different parties to put
their own interpretation on the form
of words chosen.

As another example closer to
home, I have in the past sometimes
been required to mark essays as part
of student exams on the road to those
students achieving a degree. I was
amazed (and confused) by the vast
array of words that fellow examiners
seemed able to define far more
precisely and authoritatively than I
could.

They could expand for hours on
the difference between such words as
“explain”, “describe”, “analyse”,
“elucidate”, “comprehensive”,
“extensive”: all of which seemed in
their minds to have precise definitions
and to display differing depths of
knowledge for which a different level
of marks would be achieved.

Conversely, when I was reading
someone’s essay I had no idea at
which point what the candidate had written changed from
“explanation” to “analysis”, or
from “comprehensive” to
“extensive”. It seemed to me
that most essays contained
some of each and it was open
to interpretation as to where one
ended and the other began.

What I was most interested in was:
Is this essay any good? Does this
person know what they’re talking
about and can they back it up with
evidence?

Which seemed far too simplistic an
approach to my colleagues and did not
allow me to win friends and influence
people. But as I tried to point out to
them, what they were spending so
much time arguing about were simply
words whose meaning and
interpretation could
and did evolve and
change over time.

So coming back
to the PDSA survey,
let us consider
whether it shows a
worrying trend of a
slippage in pet
welfare terms or if it
is likely to be of
little relevance to the
actual lives lived by
those animals owned by the people
surveyed. Surely what is really
important to the welfare of animals is
how they are cared for on a daily
basis.

If you were to ask any of my
children what animals need to be
properly cared for, they would probably come up with things like:
appropriate and sufficient food and
water; clean and comfortable place to
sleep; warmth; exercise;
companionship; prevention of disease
and treatment when they become ill;
kindness from their owner; etc.

Most or all of these will be encompassed within the
five welfare needs and there
will probably be little
missing from their list that
the five welfare needs
would include. Yet if you
had asked them what an
animal’s five welfare needs
were they would most likely
have been stumped.

What I’m saying is that
surveys of this kind need to
be taken with a pinch of
salt. Like many surveys and
indeed political referendums, the answer you get
depends very largely on the question
you ask. The welfare of pet animals
depends on the outcomes achieved
from the care that is given, not on
one’s ability to rigidly define in words,
in line with current legislation, what a
pet’s welfare needs are.

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