Most of us have been animal guardians at some stage in our lives, whether it was for a goldfish or a herd of cattle. Animal guardianship is not limited to ownership of an animal, but also extends to boarding facilities, research centres, veterinarians or any other animal-related facility or occupation. As guardians, we are responsible for the care or welfare of these animals since they are unable to care for themselves.
In the 1960s in the UK, these responsibilities were reviewed by a special committee, and the globally-recognized list of the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare was created. Initially, the list was specific to farm animals, but now includes all types of animals. This means it’s not just important for farmers, but for every type of animal guardian to be familiar with the five freedoms.
The following is the official version of the five freedoms as decided by the Animal Welfare Council in the UK, and as recognized by the World Organisation for Animal Health:
• Freedom from thirst and hunger. This means that we need to provide water and food of enough amount and quality to stay healthy and grow appropriately.
• Freedom from discomfort. We need to provide shelter that keeps the animal in an appropriate environment and a comfortable area to rest.
• Freedom from pain, injury and disease. We need to try to prevent or quickly discover and treat pain, injury, and disease.
• Freedom to express normal behavior. We need to allow enough space, the appropriate facilities and the opportunity to have company with the same kind of animals so that our animals can act as they normally act
• Freedom from fear and distress. Avoiding mental suffering by providing the right care and conditions.
These days, we are more frequently hearing about animal welfare and the five freedoms in the news. Many governments have the five freedoms included in their legislation—with New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the European Union being among the first. Many large corporations are adopting the five freedoms as standards for their suppliers, in response to the demands of their consumers. The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association has made the five freedoms this year’s focus for their Animal Health Week, which runs October 1 to 7.
What about the five freedoms at home—whether it’s an apartment, house or farm? The list is not yet federal law in Canada, but we all have a responsibility to look at the animals under our guardianship with consideration to each of the five freedoms individually. Are we achieving these basic standards of welfare that give animals under our care a life worth living without any undue suffering?
These freedoms are all equal in importance and, while it can be easy to look at factory farms, race tracks or slaughterhouses and point fingers, even the guardian of a goldfish or kitten has the same responsibilities. The pain of dental disease or arthritis, animals kept in hot vehicles in the summer, lack of shelter in the winter for any outdoor animals, or parasites such as fleas, worms or bots are just a tiny sample of what we as animal guardians need to be on the lookout for to ensure our animals are free from hunger, thirst, discomfort, pain, injury and disease, are free to express their normal behavior, and are free from fear and distress.
Dr. Katharine North has been a resident and active participant in the Fort St. John community since her family immigrated to Canada from the United Kingdom as a child. Dr. North spent many hours at the North Peace Veterinary Clinic as a student and joined the practice as a veterinary associate upon graduation.