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Is Your Dog Getting His Five Freedoms?

Updated: Feb 21

By: Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

I have been attempting to write this blog for over a month now, and it has been tough focusing and fighting back tears. For those who do not know, our precious 4 year old Kooikerhondje, Beowulf, passed away on 26 January. We made the awful choice – but the right choice by him – to let him go. He had chronic health issues his whole life that veterinarians could not fully explain or effectively treat, despite seeing the some of the best specialists. He had crazy high cortisol and adrenaline since he was a young puppy which originated in his pituitary gland, but they were not sure why since there was not a tumor observed on the CAT scan (although since then he had immediate relatives diagnosed with the same extremely rare condition with a pituitary tumor present). He also developed Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) around 3 years old which caused physical pain. In better times during his life, his physical and medical needs were being mostly met so his pain and anxiety associated with these conditions were pretty well controlled – as best as humanly possible. During these times, we were able to work through behavioral issues and make significant progress, improving his (and our) quality of life. However, as time progressed so did his medical problems. It became clear that his physical pain and anxiety had worsened significantly even while on lots of medications. We had to accept that his conditions would not be improving and most of all, that we could no longer acceptably manage his pain and associated anxiety. Everything about it sucks.

The first questions I ask about any dog I meet are geared toward learning more about the dog’s overall welfare and the dog-human-environment relationships. When there are dog behavioral problems, there is often a “Freedom” that is not being satisfied. The means to satisfy those needs can be highly varied. My inquisitiveness is not from a judgmental perspective. In fact, these are questions I routinely ask myself and assess about my own dogs throughout their lives. Physical, social, and psychological wellness affect one each other and influence observable behavior. Unmet needs may be physical or psychological and can impose significant psychological stress over time if not satisfied. Once needs are met either the problem might go away on its own, or at least, we can now work with an all-around healthy dog to properly address the issue. Unmet needs and behavior issues are closely intertwined. It can be incredibly subtle and difficult to detect welfare issues in dogs – it can slip right under our noses.

Personally, I believe that Beowulf was likely experiencing persistent physical pain in his back for a few months before we realized it. He was still on pain medication which could have also masked it from us, but dogs also are clever at hiding pain. I saw small, fleeting signs earlier on that were indicative of pain, but they were unusual and did not seem consequential at the time. It became more obvious later on when it worsened and we noticed slight physical changes from the cortisol levels returning to unhealthy baseline levels, and very subtle changes at times in his movement and gait. He also had changes in his behavioral patterns toward the very end where small things that bothered him would trigger strong reactions. It was hard to see him like that, as he always strived to do everything I asked of him. He was trying so hard, but he was only getting better at working through worsening pain and anxiety. During his short life, we knew he had unique challenges but we always tried to ensure that his welfare was properly maintained, identifying at times in his life where improvements could be made. Accepting that we could not manage his pain and anxiety and choosing to let him experience peace was one of the hardest things.

The topic of welfare is also variable in interpretation because the needs of individual animals of the same species -- or the same breed -- can be considerably different. People also have different ideas of what is “spoiling” dogs and what constitutes good welfare. Attitudes regarding what constitutes responsible pet ownership/guardianship and the status of working dogs have changed enormously over the last several decades. I am one to allege that while some changes have brought better quality of life to our animals, other changes perhaps have not. Our expectations of animals have also changed. Pets generally lived lives more separated from us decades ago being outdoor dogs. Fast forward to the present day where many pet dogs live side-by-side with us in our homes and bedrooms. In some homes, activities with pets (whether they are activities the dog enjoys or not) are the focal point of all the family happenings. They are dressed up for holidays, thrown birthday parties, driven hours away every weekend to dog shows and dog sport trials, playdates, and taken on trips to visit and stay family and friends. Sometimes, that lifestyle may merge well with the dog’s needs. Other times, it may clash with their individual needs and actually cause significant stress and anxiety.

Fortunately, there is a framework to provide guidance for:

· better providing for the physiological, environmental, and social needs of our animals for their greater happiness

· assessing when re-homing may the best option for the dog

· addressing behavior issues (when unmet needs possibly apply)

· assessing when it may be time to say goodbye to a beloved animal


The Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare – also known as Brambell’s Five Freedoms – were formalized in 1979 by the UK Farm Animal Welfare Council and have since been adopted by professional organizations worldwide that serve both livestock and pet animals, including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). The purpose of the Five Freedoms is to outline the basic requirements for good mental and physical well-being for animals under the control of humans.

1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst – readily accessible water and appropriate diet

2. Freedom from Discomfort – providing species-appropriate environments, safe shelters, and comfortable resting spots

3. Freedom from Pain, Injury, and Disease – preventing illness/disease, providing rapid diagnoses and treatments

4. Freedom to Express Normal Behavior – including providing for social opportunities with – or avoidance of -- one’s own species

5. Freedom from Fear and Distress – providing proper living conditions, healthy interactions, enrichment, hiding places, and prevention of psychological stress

These may sound simple and straight forward, but I will assert that it is typical for animals in loving homes to NOT meet all these criteria. In order to meet these needs someone must actually know what their dog needs, be adept at reading and understanding their animal’s communication, and have good strategies for effectively meeting those needs. Families do not need to be wealthy, but they should be prepared for expenses to meet their dog’s basic needs. Even then, thoughtful consideration is needed because the needs of an individual dog can change throughout his/her life, in different environments, and with changes in health status. The needs of one dog will vary from another depending on breed, age, and individual. Nothing stays the same in life and our own changing life situations can affect pets’ quality of life either positively or negatively, including changes in jobs, work/life balance, new partners, the addition of children or new pets, etc.

Sometimes, good quality of life for an animal is elusive due to lack of money (expenses can become extreme), lack of effective medical treatments available, poor genetics, or something else. No amount of money nor even the best specialists could provide this for my Beowulf. In these situations, difficult decisions may need to be made such as re-homing or possibly end-of-life to ensure that suffering is not occurring. Dogs cannot make these choices on their own so the responsibility rests with us as their guardians, which is not an easy role to fill. These Freedoms provide an excellent framework for evaluating distinctive aspects of welfare and how we can better meet this for our dogs, no matter their stage in life.

Let’s take a look at each Freedom.

Freedom from Hunger and Thirst