Five fundamental freedoms Print E-mail
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Friday, 04 December 2020 16:00
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Dr Liesel van der Merwe is a small animal medicine specialist. Send her your questions: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Dr Liesel van der Merwe

People have pets to fulfil many roles. As vets and people we have to be careful not to judge this. As long as the dog or cat or horse is not suffering any harm, let them wear a frilly T-shirt for whatever pleasure that gives the owner.

Animal welfare organizations work with criteria aligned to the five animal freedoms and these fundamentals must be considered when judging quality of life for pets.

Freedom from hunger and thirst
This means ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain health and vigour. It doesn’t mean that the dog or cat needs to be on a premium diet. If what is affordable by the owner is allowing the pet to have a good body weight and hair coat and isn’t causing gastrointestinal signs, then that is fine.

The cheaper foods are sometimes not tolerated by certain individual dogs and then a diet change is required. If an owner wants to use a raw diet – as long as it is balanced and fresh – then I have no problem. It may not suit my lifestyle, but it is not an incorrect way to feed your dog. These variations are ascribed to owner preference and cost.

However, a vegan diet is not ideal for feeding a dog. Although dogs are omnivores, they are healthier with some meat protein in their diet. A vegan diet is absolutely incorrect when feeding cats, which are obligatory carnivores. They can only obtain most of their amino acids – the building block to proteins – from their diet.

So, although your pet can adjust to some of your lifestyle choices, there are compromises they should not have to make.

Freedom from discomfort
Discomfort should not be equated to pain. Discomfort may occur when a pet doesn’t have adequate shelter from the elements or doesn’t have adequate freedom of movement for a large part of the day.
So, not a life-threatening issue, but one that will impact on quality of life. Here, once again, some situations are open to individual interpretation.

Freedom from pain, injury or disease
Here the line becomes a little blurred. Obvious injuries, such as fractures, bite-wounds and medical illnesses, are easy to notice. The more insidious, chronic conditions, such as arthritis, visual impairment, deafness and cognitive dysfunction, can severely impair quality of life.

These may need to be addressed, but are often not picked up by owners because they think the dog is “just getting on a bit”. Sometimes little can be done, but in many cases treatment can improve the patient’s quality of life for months or years.

Another side to this coin is what I am often confronted with at work: Soft-hearted vet students who feel that any pain is unacceptable. Any surgery or treatment process may be associated with pain or discomfort. That is unavoidable. The criteria should be: Are we managing it as best we can? Is there a good option for recovery at the end of this process?

Each owner has a different personal level at how much they want their pet to “suffer” before they decide it is time to euthanize. I have seen this line extend from a patient, which is not even ill yet but has a growth, all the way to a dog which I so badly wanted to euthanize, but the owner, so reluctant to let go, said: “He still has some good days”.

Some cases can become ethical issues – when life is dragged out when there is no option of any kind of recovery and the patient has poor quality of life. Sometimes the decision for euthanasia is made based on owner issues and sometimes it is made on patient issues. Owners are unable to manage the stress of watching their pet being ill or alternatively, unable to let go.

In some cases, where finances are restricted, freedom from pain, injury or disease may result in euthanasia. This is hard for everyone – the owner and the vet. It is hard to euthanize a two-year-old dog for a fracture where the owner does not have the financial wherewithal to pay for surgery. The truth is that vets have bills to pay and although most of us do a “freebie” every now and again, we cannot do it in every case.

So, although hard, euthanizing a patient which is in pain, with a fixable condition, which, for whatever reason, cannot be fixed – is the right thing to do. That animal is no longer feeling pain. It may have had a short life but it was a happy one. 

Here, however, the question becomes: Is this a recurrent problem. Are the owners taking steps to avoid a recurrence of the situation with the next dog? If no effort is made, and pet after pet comes through your door with bite wounds or fractures from car accidents, and the home situation doesn’t change – then, even though we are treating the individual patient, we would be remiss in our duty if we were not addressing the cause of the situation at home. We would not be doing what is necessary to prevent pain and injury to the dogs in that household.

Freedom to express normal behaviour
Dogs are pack animals and they need companionship. I see many cases where the dogs have become children or the baby in the family. Although this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, these dogs are happy. They are enjoying the attention and companionship.

As long as they are allowed some freedom to move around by themselves and go outside onto the lawn – by all means, push them around in a pram when you take them out. Just don’t equate feeding with love and cause them to become obese.

Dogs left to their own devices in the yard, as only pets with working owners, are actually much more negatively affected by their living conditions. Dogs need companionship, human or another animal.

Big dogs are lazy, so they can be perfectly content in a small property, as long as they get a walk every day or so. Small dogs are often the worst dogs for a townhouse complex – they are active and bark. It is the nature of the dog that determines the lifestyle it requires, not only the size (this determines cost of feeding).

Daschunds, terrier breeds, working breeds (collies, pointers, Weimaraners) all need structured activity as part of their day. They were made to work and be active. In the absence of something to do, they will find something to do: Digging, running up and down along the fence, chewing themselves, barking at everything that moves.

Cats are a different story. They can be quite contented as only pets. Some people advocate a total indoor lifestyle for cats due to fear of disease and injury. How awful, one may think – cats love to roam and play outside. Yet cats are lazy. They sleep most of the day. If small improvements are made to an apartment, such as adequate litter trays, interactive toys, a room with a view, no overcrowding, meals on demand, then most cats settle in very happily.

Freedom from fear and distress
Anger towards the pet by the owner when they are behaving in a certain way, due to a lack of training on the owner’s part, is something we see all too frequently. Your dog will not miraculously follow commands and walk on a leash for the first time at the vet or in the dog park. These actions need to be gradually trained into your pet. 

Raised voices and the stress of the experience will just act as a deterrent for the next time the lead is brought out. We are the ‘adults’ in the relationship. It is the exception when the problem is due to the pet and not how the pet was raised.

You should take responsibility when you realise that there are problems between the dogs you have. There are many people and vets who have qualifications in animal behaviour. They may often have good insight into how the situation can be managed – before you have to go to the lengths of rehoming.

Fights between certain individuals are not always preventable. They sometimes just don’t like each other. Sometimes animals need to be separated; sometimes homed out elsewhere. These are painful decisions, yet you as owner are the one responsible for these animals and have to do something, rather than allowing the ‘abuse’ of the one dog to continue because you will “miss it” or because you don’t want to remove the aggressor. 

Some aspects of these above freedoms are truly black and white. Many of them, however, can be influenced by the owner’s lifestyle choices. A farm dog is not treated the same way as a Maltese poodle owned by an elderly lady as a companion. But, in both cases the essence of the freedoms are being upheld.

We see it all in our practices and often I have to try to separate what is just a difference in what I think is appropriate from what is actually an infringement of my patients’ freedoms.

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