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Are they getting the care they deserve?

Using the Five Freedoms to ensure quality of life for animals in our care

In my days working in a shelter, when I turned out the lights and left at the end of the day, I would ask myself one very important question: “Did I give each and every animal the best possible care today?” 

I’m guessing you do the same. But how can we be certain? How do we know for sure that any animal is living a good quality life, let alone an animal living in a shelter environment? The answer lies in something called “The Five Freedoms.”

Back in 1964, a woman named Ruth Harrison was terribly concerned that small family farms across England were being quickly replaced by large industrial farming operations that saw animals as mere products, not as living beings. She wrote an expose entitled Animal Machines: The New Factory Farming Industry, which sounded the alarm and prompted so much public outrage that the government commissioned a panel of experts to study animal welfare. Led by Professor Roger Brambell, the panel determined that animals only have a true quality of life if they have:

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst
  2. Freedom from discomfort
  3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease
  4. Freedom to express normal behavior
  5. Freedom from fear and distress

These became known as the Brambell Commission’s Five Freedoms, and were later codified and used to monitor livestock production. 

But these Five Freedoms extend far beyond farm animals—they apply to every living thing, from cats and dogs, to rats and parrots, to horses and snakes. What’s more, they apply in every setting—whether an animal is living on a factory farm, in a testing laboratory, in an animal shelter or in our own home. Without all Five Freedoms, an animal can’t experience a truly quality life. And animals not experiencing a good quality of life are, by definition, suffering. 

You may think the Five Freedoms are just ivory tower concepts—nice to think about, but not really applicable to your day-to-day work. They have become embedded into every modern sheltering and rescue best practices paradigm. The Association of Shelter Veterinarians’ “Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters” (one of the most critical resources for shelter, rescue and sanctuary personnel to read and apply), for example, is premised on the Five Freedoms, and more recent efforts like the Million Cat Challenge cite them. They are, without question, the best tool we have for answering that pressing question—did I give every animal what he or she needs to have a good quality of life today?

Some of the Five Freedoms are easier to provide than others. Freedom #1, for example, ensuring animals have fresh food and water, is fairly straightforward. But we still need be mindful of individual animal needs—if it’s a hot day and dogs are playing outdoors, we may have to fill their water bowls more often; likewise, if we are caring for livestock during wintertime, we may need to provide water heaters for water troughs to prevent freezing. We now have shelter medicine experts who can guide us through proper disease prevention and treatment protocols, satisfying Freedom #3, but it’s incumbent on us to stay on top of, and implement, current best practices like vaccinating virtually every animal immediately upon intake.

With respect to #2, Freedom from Discomfort, the ASV Guidelines provide recommendations for safe, appropriate animal housing. Spoiler alert: crates and carriers are NOT acceptable animal housing! But we also have to look at our facilities themselves, and do so from the animals’ perspectives: Is the temperature appropriate? Are they getting a full cycle of daylight and darkness each day? Are we doing all we can to reduce noise? How about separation of predator/prey species—are we housing that adorable little family of hamsters right alongside the aquarium holding a boa constrictor? I’m guessing that’s not fun for any of them! 

Freedom #4 has two parts: first, animals must be able to move freely and fully and be able to engage in the same activities as others of their species. Ask yourself can every cat in your facility stretch out fully from the tip of their toes to the end of their tail, reach up to scratch, even just hold their tails upright? Second, animals need to be able to interact with—or avoid—others, as normal. Group housing/communal kennels can satisfy the need for interaction, but if we are adding too many animals into the mix, chances are they won’t be able to avoid interaction when they want (or need) to.

Stress is inevitable in our field, whether an animal is coming into a shelter environment or a new foster homes, so satisfying Freedom #5 requires identifying signs of stress and acting on them. We generally recognize behaviors like over-grooming, lack of appetite, spinning, etc., as stress indicators. But what about more subtle signs, like cats lying in their litter boxes? I have yet to meet a housecat who chooses to spend all day sitting in her litterbox! Doing it in the shelter, then, is abnormal cat behavior, and a red flag that something is amiss.

How do we alleviate stress? One of the most useful techniques is providing an enriched environment. Newsflash: Enrichment is not optional! It’s not something you do if you have time, or if the volunteers show up. Every animal needs physical and mental stimulation each day. Shelters tend to focus on dog-walking as satisfying their canine guests’ enrichment needs, but think that through—even if your facility is fortunate enough to have your dogs walked for 20 minutes, three times a day, what does that dog experience the other 23 hours of the day? He’s stuck staring at the same boring walls and the obnoxious guy housed in the run across the aisle! So is it any wonder he doesn’t want to go back politely into his kennel?

To satisfy Freedom #5, we need to provide mental stimulation each day, making the inside of the kennel as exciting as the outside. Get creative! Blow non-toxic bubbles around the room, cut holes in the middle of toilet paper rolls and put kibble or a toy inside for cats to bat around, freeze food rations in water or turn your stainless steel bowls over and create your own “slow feeders.” Anything you can do to give the animals a new experience, or better yet, force them to engage their brains, is valuable enrichment.

If you’re 100 percent confident you are providing all five freedoms to every animal—congratulations!!! But if you’re reading this and thinking, “hmm, I’m just not sure,” that’s ok! It means that you have opportunities to do an even better job for those in your care. If your cages are too small to allow cats to stretch fully, install portals. If your kennels are unbearably noisy, incorporate kennel quieting techniques. If you have so many animals in your care you can’t provide the daily enrichment they need, look for ways to achieve your humane capacity by decreasing your intake and increasing your outflow. Animal Sheltering magazine has amazing stories of groups that have implemented innovative programs that are proven effective at doing both without sacrificing animal safety or welfare, from easy enrichment and stress reduction techniques to better options for single and community housing -- you don’t need to reinvent the wheel, or go it alone!

The Five Freedoms truly are our answer to the question “Did I give each and every animal the best possible care today?” Use them each and every day to make sure the animals you are working so hard to save are truly living their best possible lives. 

How do you ensure you are utilizing the Five Freedoms in your shelter?

About the Author

Inga Fricke is Director, Sheltering Initiatives and Outreach, at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).  She has served on the Board of Shelter Animals Count, a non-profit organization formed to create and share a national database of sheltered animal statistics, and as Chair of the Society of Animal Welfare Administrators’ CAWA Exam Preparatory Resources Committee. Prior to joining The HSUS, Inga served as Administrator of the Wyandot County Humane Society/H.O.P.E. Clinic, helping to found the Wyandot County Equine Rescue, and as Shelter Manager for Loudoun County Animal Care and Control.