Updated: Feb 20
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
Dogs should be fed a diet appropriate to their species, size, age, health needs, and activity level. The right food for one dog may not be appropriate for another. The food your dog eats now may not be the best one for him a year from now if his health status or activity level change. A qualified veterinarian is your best resource for identifying the right diet for your dog. Someone’s personal beliefs should not be the main source driving a particular diet for their pet, yet this is common and has fueled the marketing of every type of dog food imaginable. Additionally, water should always be readily and easily accessible freely, not in a location that requires human intervention to access it. Unfortunately, it is not unusual to walk into a home where the water is on the countertop, the water is outside, or the water bowl is empty and the dog must bang the bowl to ask for water. Owners complain the dog is drinking too much or dripping water on slick floors. If your dog is drinking (and/or urinating) too much this is a red flag for a possible medical issue.
Make an appointment specifically for this issue. Just because your dog went to
the vet for shots and they did not mention a medical issue does not mean it is there. That is similar to the doctor for the flu, but they doctor’s missed that the person had colon cancer because they were not investigating that sort of issue. Your dog is relying on YOU to describe your observations to the veterinarian so he/she can be thoughtfully evaluated. Dogs already lack control over most aspects of their lives. Has your dog recently opened the fridge and decided what he wants to eat and when? Has he recently taken the car keys and decided he is leaving right now to go visit some friends at the park down the street? Put down a rug if they make a mess in that area and allow them free access to quench their thirst whenever they feel they need to do so.
Freedom from Discomfort
Dogs should be provided with environments that are appropriate for their species, age and individual needs. This should include comfortable and safe shelters and resting places. It does not mean that all dogs need to live indoors in a palace. After all, some dogs actually work and live outdoors. Still, comfort and good well-being should be provided for them. Dogs should not be in tightly confined spaces such as crates for long hours as this would cause discomfort and is not species-appropriate for dogs who need to move and exercise freely. Being in a tightly confined space for most of the day is not a normal behavior pattern of dogs and prevents them from performing natural behavior patterns like exercising, scavenging, chasing, as well as having autonomy and choice, etc. If your home has hard floors, rugs can be great to provide better comfort and traction for dogs as they move about the home. Orthopedic beds in secluded, quiet spots can help dogs rest comfortably. Regular grooming should be maintained so dogs are free from matted fur and nails are kept at appropriate lengths. Dogs who cannot jump due to age or injury should be afforded ramps or baby steps for climbing onto beds or sofas. Age and/or medical issues can cause pain or discomfort with longer distance walks. Strollers can be an excellent option for helping dogs to enjoy enrichment outside the home.
Freedom from Pain, Injury, and Disease
There is not a cure for cancer and we will never eliminate the chances of our dogs becoming ill or injured. However, responsible breeding practices that only breed dogs of sound structure, health, and genetics can reduce the chances of dogs suffering later in life from pain, injury, or disease. Routine preventative veterinary care and careful attention from the owner can provide rapid diagnoses to help provide treatment and pain relief before issues worsen. This does not require that owners have endless sums of money to spend on their pets, but when obtaining a dog, owners should have money set aside for regular care and catastrophic expenses. Injury and illness will happen when we least expect it and dogs are relying on us to take care of them. If you can see that your dog is in pain then it is very serious at that point. Dogs are masters at hiding pain and illness, so early signs are likely subtle. If you notice new and/or odd behavior, do not assume that your vet would have found any medical problems at your last veterinary appointment for an unrelated health issue.
I have noticed that owners sometimes avoid taking dogs to the veterinarian – explaining that the vet already saw the dog recently for something else -- until problems are staring them in the face. This does not help pets and likely will not save the owners any money. Issues that are further progressed may be problematic to treat. Serious behavior issues can also arise with medical issues, which is sometimes the motivation for finally seeking
medical care for the animal when it becomes a problem to the human. This is sad because we owe it to our pets to be their advocate. They cannot pick up the phone, book an appointment, and drive themselves there. They also cannot verbalize to the pet parents or veterinarians what they are feeling. They are not going to complain if we do not take them to the vet, but it is our responsibility to do so when changes are noticed to ensure they can enjoy life. Owners are the expert when it comes to knowing what is normal or not for their dog. They may even need to press the issue with their veterinarian if nothing is found at an appointment yet the problems are persisting.
Dogs cannot speak up for themselves, and veterinarians also only see a tiny snapshot of the dog’s behavior at a veterinary appointment. I know this from experience, having gone through multiple veterinarians who were dismissive when I said that Beowulf had health issues, possibly related to cortisol. I made lists of the physical and behavioral things I noticed with him and found a veterinarian willing to perform a specific test, as none of them were willing to think outside the box to see what was wrong with him. They said he was “too young” to have an issue like Cushings. Unsurprisingly, all of his tests came back that he had extremely high cortisol levels that would be classified as Cushings levels that were far beyond what could be explained by stress. That was just the beginning. Then we had to find veterinarians willing to actually find ways to pursue the cause and treat it. The medication that helped Beowulf the most was one that I heard about at an animal behavior conference and I asked my veterinarian if she would prescribe it. No owner should ever have to do this to get care for their dog, but that is the state of veterinary medicine right now where veterinarians tend to be newer, younger, and in extremely busy clinics with little mentorship and guidance from experienced veterinarians. There is also a lack of continuing education, particularly related to behavior issues and psychopharmacology. Beowulf was suffering every day in distress as well as serious physiological issues from the extremely high cortisol, and local veterinarians chose not to pursue diagnosis and treatments for his glaring medical issues when they did not understand them. They just did not know what to do, and were unwilling to say “I don’t know” and to seek out additional information. Thankfully, our veterinarian was compassionate and willing to try different things. This medication lowered his baseline cortisol, giving him a couple more years of life with us. Eventually, we sought out a wonderful veterinary behaviorist out of state who was compassionate and provided wonderful insight and care.
One vet even missed that Beowulf was going into liver failure when we brought him in for gastro-intestinal issues and a wobbling, drunk-like gait. We had brought him in repeatedly over a few days for the issue, as it was worsening. She wanted to send him home with pain-medication for his legs. We insisted on a blood test and at first she condescended us and told us we were being ridiculous. We said that if she did not do the blood test that we would drive to the Emergency Vet down the street to have it done. She finally did the blood test and came bursting into the room with a white, terrified face, telling us to rush him to the Specialty Center as he was going into liver failure. He was there for nearly a week and barely survived. Owners know their dogs and likely know when something is seriously wrong, even if a medical professional does not take them seriously. It is not easy, but our dogs deserve nothing less than this from us than insisting on answers. Doing the right thing by them could be asking for a second opinion, doing research to find additional therapies, and never giving up if we know that we see something that is wrong with our dogs.
Freedom to Express Normal Behavior
Normal behavior varies drastically between dog breeds, but that can be news to pet owners. A large portion of the behavior issues that I am contacted about are based on a lack of understanding of what is normal behavior for a particular dog and breed. There may also be a failure to allow the dog to practice normal behaviors, or a failure to train/create opportunities to practice those behaviors in desirable ways. Some normal behaviors are more ancient canid behaviors, like scavenging, digging, predation, and biologically-driven behaviors like sex. Humans selectively bred dogs to exhibit very specific behavior patterns throughout the history of domesticated dogs, and especially over the last few hundred years, changing dogs’ social behaviors toward one another and shaping the level of the predatory sequence that we observe in specific breeds’ behaviors. I observe this in my own breed – Kooikerhondjes – with their wariness of unfamiliar dogs, reservedness with strangers, and high prey drive toward small animals. They were used for luring ducks into traps, guarding the property from poachers, and keeping the place free of vermin. Responsible breeders select dogs of good temperament to breed who will succeed in the modern homes in which they are placed.
Like in Kooikerhondjes, human-selected behavior patterns are heavily engrained genetically in other modern dog breeds. As a result, we have dogs who are excellent at herding, pointing, scent work, retrieving, bull baiting, killing vermin, killing other dogs or large animals, and guarding persons, flocks, and property. These were the primary purposes for which they were bred, so clashes with modern living situations frequently ensue. Do not get a dog of a particular breed unless you plan to train from an early age, put management in place for safety (especially with dogs who have strong predatory drives), and make accommodations for normal behaviors. For dogs that were bred to kill other animals (like other dogs, wild hogs, etc) extreme caution and management should be used so these dogs NEVER have the opportunity to perform these behaviors in the community. I believe it is unfair to breed dogs with these genetic tendencies as pets because the dog is often set up for failure and unfulfillment, and owner negligence can result in serious dangers to the community. However, owners can find other opportunities for practicing those parts of the predatory sequence, such as with flirt poles, tug toys, food toys, items for chewing and consumption, etc to help maintain a quality, fulfilled life for these pets in their managed environment.
It is crucial to give dogs outlets to express their natural behaviors frequently, such as through a dirt pit for digging in the backyard, scavenging or hunting for carefully placed food, herding classes, lure coursing, scent work, ratting events in urban areas, or hunting. Dogs also have varying social needs that fall under this freedom to express normal behavior. This can
include social opportunities with – or avoidance of – other dogs and/or humans. We often can teach ways to fulfill behaviors/purposes that dogs have been bred for in a desirable way, such as through trained fetching of items when asked, agility training, providing a trained alert when people enter the property, training fulfilling behaviors for a guarding/protection breed dog, training replacement behaviors for guarding/predation/herding, etc. However, you cannot train an extremely predatory dog to reliably not chase, grab, and kill things. It is an involuntary reflexive behavior, and also highly rewarding chemically when the behavior pattern is performed with releases of pleasing chemicals like dopamine.
Freedom from Fear and Distress
Poor living conditions, unhealthy interactions with humans/other animals, genetics, lack of socialization, maternal stress while in utero, trauma, chronic pain, endocrine conditions, and unsuitable environments can bring about fear and psychological distress in dogs. Some of this can be controlled by the owner by proper socialization BEFORE your dog receives all of his vaccines and continued socialization afterward. Owners can also bring home dogs that are suitable for their physical and social environments and lifestyle. They can create healthy routines and human-dog and dog-dog interactions through positive training that does not involve intimidation, coercion, or punitive techniques. Ensuring that the other freedoms are met can go a long way in preventing fear and distress. A dog likely has no way to meet his
own basic needs (all of the above “Freedoms”) himself since owners control nearly everything about a dog’s life and situations. Unmet needs can create significant psychological stress. Chronic pain and medical conditions can also be a major contributor to distress, as they were for Beowulf. Several times per week I meet fearful dogs whose owners are looking for answers, only to find out that their dogs have likely been suffering chronic pain that heavily contributes to their distress and fearful behavior. For Beowulf, he was in distress every day from the time he was a puppy from his body’s own hormones putting him on constant alert in a fight/flight response, as if he was living in a war zone and not a quiet home environment. Then, when he developed Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) he had worsening physical pain that eventually was unable to be controlled with medications. The physical pain caused his cortisol levels to continue rising, despite the medications that had previously kept the cortisol levels in check.
What if these Freedoms Cannot Be Met?
Usually, behavior consultants are able to find ways to work with clients to modify emotional responses, alter environments, identify unmet needs and fulfill them, teach new behavior patterns, promote healthy relationships and interactions, work with veterinarians and other professionals to ensure health issues are addressed, and help dogs overcome their fear and distress. Sometimes re-homing may be a good choice if there is a breakdown in the relationship that cannot be repaired, or if the home environment or lifestyle does not meet the dog’s needs. However, sometimes a suitable home does not exist. There are a lot of rescue advertisements looking for “one-dog only” homes without children in a rural setting. Sometimes nothing we do will fix the problem because the medical knowledge to diagnose and address the problem does not exist. Not everything is in the human’s control, and sometimes there are underlying issues cannot be addressed enough to give a dog a life where he can have all of these basic needs acceptably met.
Sometimes we have to make a call on whether the dog’s needs are being met well enough to where he has good quality of life, or to decide if it is time to say “good bye”. Obviously, this issue is not black and white, and individuals may have differing opinions while looking at the same case as to whether a dog has good quality of life. The Five Freedoms is a good framework for assessing where a dog is throughout his life and what changes can be made to improve quality of life for that individual dog. The framework can also help to decide when it is time to let them go before unnecessary suffering takes place.
In Loving Memory of
"Beowulf" (Moonstruck's Amazing Beowulf)
10/17/2017 - 1/26/2022
Today (26 Jan 2022) coincidentally, is four years to the day that I picked up Beowulf in Miami. He showed us what love and loyalty were made of with his big heart and infinite capacity for love. He stayed glued to me as I healed through multiple surgeries losing my breasts. His heart was forever steadfast focusing on us even as he fought through chronic pain and health issues that seemed to only worsen over time despite all the best care with specialists, local veterinarians, and our best efforts. We wished he could stay with us forever, but it seemed selfish to ask him to do so. He deserves to be free of pain. He would have gladly kept pushing through it for us as he had been. He overcame obstacles in life including overcoming behavior issues, making lots of friends as he became less fearful. As it came closer to the end, it was clear that he was only learning to work through pain. Our hearts are shattered to lose this little boy. He loved agility, walks, catching balls, running, scent work, flying in the Piper Comanche to new places. Toward the end, these activities were becoming too painful for him to enjoy. His passing has left our hearts shattered.
Please hug your pets and loved ones tightly tonight and give them a kiss. Each day is a precious gift.
“Five Freedoms”. ASPCA. https://www.aspca.org/sites/default/files/upload/images/aspca_asv_five_freedoms_final1.ashx_.pdf
“The Five Freedoms for Animals”. Animal Humane Society. 2022. https://www.animalhumanesociety.org/health/five-freedoms-animals