As a society, we have long known the importance of emotional wellbeing for human happiness and health, but there is a growing awareness that this is just as important for our pets. Caring for pets involves much more than attending to their physical needs; animals also need to feel positive emotions and to express natural behaviours if they are to have a good quality of life. Without this, they are at risk of distress, ‘problem behaviour’ and even poor health.
Animal welfare – what does it actually mean?
The RSPCA defines what good animal welfare is: “Ensuring good animal welfare goes beyond preventing pain, suffering or distress and minimising negative experiences, to ensuring animals can express their natural behaviour in an enriching environment, feel safe, have healthy positive experiences and a good quality of life.” Animal welfare science tells us that when an animal’s mental state (how they feel) is negatively affected, this can result in physical changes, such as through a physiological stress response. An example is cats who develop urinary problems when they are stressed, which can be due to living in a crowded environment with no privacy or ability to seek refuge.
The modern approach to animal welfare is based on the Five Domains model, which focuses on the need for mental wellbeing and positive experiences in the domains of nutrition, physical environment, health and behavioural interactions (with the environment, other animals and humans). An animal’s mental state, which is the fifth domain, determines their overall welfare and is a result of their experiences in the other four domains. This model provides a useful framework for ensuring we are supporting the emotional wellbeing of our pets.
Safe, nutritious food and 24-hour access to fresh water is essential for our pets, but beyond this, we can also vary the texture and type of food and the way we feed them. Your veterinarian can advise about a balanced diet to meet your dog or cat’s individual health needs, age, and size. Eating and drinking are not only required for good health – they also bring pleasure and a nice sense of fullness, and the way food is offered can provide opportunities for enrichment. Dogs and cats have hunting instincts that can be expressed through puzzle feeders or hidden treats that provide mental stimulation as they work for their food.
The natural feeding behaviours of cats mean they have some specific requirements - for health reasons, their diets must include meat and they prefer to eat alone, consuming small amounts regularly (rather than two large meals a day). To accommodate this, cats need their own individual food, water bowls, enrichment such as puzzle feeders, and somewhere to eat away from other cats. Any pets who have gone off their food or appear over or under their ideal bodyweight should be assessed by a veterinarian. Obesity is unfortunately a widespread problem in both dogs and cats that not only reduces their quality of life but also their lifespan. Knowing the impact diet can have on mental as well as physical state, regular veterinary checks can help to keep track of your pet’s weight. Your veterinarian can advise on energy requirements and a safe, gradual weight loss program as needed.
Just like us, our pets’ wellbeing is influenced by their physical environment. Dogs and cats both need a safe place to rest indoors without interruption and their bedding should be washed regularly to help prevent external parasites. Those with painful conditions such as arthritis may need environmental adjustments including more comfortable and supportive bedding (such as pet orthopaedic beds), ramps and non-slip flooring. Animals are susceptible to extreme weather such as cold, rain, wind, heat, and humidity. It is best to ensure they are kept indoors under these conditions but when outdoors, they need to be protected from these risks, such as heat stress or hypothermia, and need shade and housing such as a weatherproof kennel.
Your pet’s environment must be large enough to meet their needs for exploration and exercise, as well as privacy and/or alone time. For dogs, this means access to a yard that is well fenced to prevent them from escaping and potentially being injured. Cats can be well accommodated by being kept contained at home – ideally with secure outdoor access but otherwise indoors - as this protects them from accidents such as being hit by a car or attacked by other animals. The best environment to meet your cat’s needs would offer plenty of indoor opportunities to express natural behaviours, such as through horizontal and vertical climbing spaces, hiding spaces for privacy, scratching posts, a safe spot to view the outside world and an area to bask in the sun. Outdoor access can be added via a cat-proof balcony or verandah, an enclosed cat run or specialised fencing that prevents your cat from leaving the property. Cats in multi-cat households can be more prone to stress so it’s essential for their wellbeing to protect each cat’s privacy, choice and space. This can be done by having at least one litter tray for each cat plus one (e.g., two litter trays for one cat, three litter trays for two cats, and so on), a food bowl, water bowl, scratching post and bed for each cat, plus at least one spare, with litter trays cleaned daily and kept away from eating and resting areas.
Another important aspect of your pet’s environment is a calm and relaxing atmosphere. You can set this up by establishing routines and protecting pets from unpredictable events that could be frightening or stressful. In the case of unavoidable adjustments, such as new members of the household or a household move, your veterinarian can advise you on ways to help your pet adapt.
The aim of good health care is to keep your dog or cat fit and comfortable, free from pain and able to enjoy their lives through the expression of normal behaviours. A healthy pet should be alert, enjoy their food and engage with life. The best way to achieve this is to keep your pet’s vaccinations and preventative treatments up to date (including dental care and protection against internal and external parasites), ensure their diet is nutritious, that they have adequate exercise, are within the healthy weight range and have at least annual veterinary checks (biannual or more frequent for older pets).
Having your pet desexed can reduce the risk of mammary cancer, ovarian and uterine disease in females and of testicular cancer and prostate disease in males, but it’s important to discuss the timing of desexing with your veterinarian. Being alert to when your pet is feeling unwell is the key to getting prompt treatment. There are many signs that suggest a pet may be unwell or in pain, such as lethargy, loss of interest in food, trembling, drooling, or sleeping or hiding more. So, the best course of action is to be alert to any change in behaviour and have your pet assessed by a veterinarian. Recognising pain in cats can be tricky, so be on the lookout for any changes in vocalisation, activity levels, daily behaviours (such as eating, drinking, grooming, sleeping or litter box use) and facial expressions.
An enriched environment that allows your pet to have choice, variety, enough space to engage their curiosity and explore, exercise, and enjoy other natural behaviours will stimulate them and promote their emotional wellbeing. Without this enrichment, pets risk becoming bored, frustrated, lonely, anxious, and stressed and may withdraw or develop problem behaviours. Also important to your pet’s wellbeing are their interactions with humans and with other animals. The key to having positive interactions with humans starts with confident but gentle handling, giving the animal final choice about when, where and how to interact with you. This promotes trust and a sense of safety rather than fear. Attending puppy or kitten preschool or asking your veterinarian to demonstrate low-stress handling can set you up with good habits. There are also useful resources online to show you how to handle cats respectfully and how to read your dog’s body language.
Children must always be supervised around pets because they can behave in ways that may startle and provoke fear and even an aggressive reaction in animals. All training should be based on reward-based training, which uses rewards to encourage desired behaviours and does not use punishment. Reward-based training can be used to train cats as well as dogs. And a great way to promote positive interactions with your pet is to play with them in ways they enjoy! When there is more than one pet in the household, positive interactions can be promoted by considering the potential compatibility of new with existing pets, ensuring introductions are gradual and supervised and reducing competition by providing for each pet’s needs.
Apart from setting up your pet’s home and lifestyle in ways to support their emotional wellbeing, it’s also important to be on the alert for signs of stress, which indicate a negative mental state. Common signs of stress include excessive grooming, changes in vocalisation, inappropriate urination, and destructive or other problem behaviours. The best approach is to be aware of any unexplained change in behaviour and to visit your veterinarian in the first instance so they can assess for a medical cause and help you address any other issues that are having a negative impact on your pet.
Committed to our pets’ safety and happiness
There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing our precious dogs and cats enjoying their lives! Working to ensure our pets’ emotional wellbeing is well worth the effort and can strengthen that special bond we share with them.
The unexpected can always happen, so having pet insurance is another way to support your pet’s wellbeing. If you’re with RSPCA Pet Insurance, a portion of first-year premiums will go towards supporting the RSPCA.
24 Nov 2022