Dec 10 / Dr Andrea Breen

How Much 'Well' is in Welfare?

Since the 1960’s, animal welfare frameworks such as the Five Freedoms approach have been used to make the lives of animals in captivity somewhat safer and more comfortable. Welfare approaches are helpful for understanding where we fall short of giving animals—including our pet dogs—the most basic things needed to cope with their lives. Sadly, we fall short far too often. As Zazie Todd (2020) puts it in her book, Wag: The Science of Making your Dog Happy:  
“There are many welfare problems for pet dogs: confrontational dog training methods that risk fear, stress, and aggression; breeding practices that reduce genetic diversity and increase the risks of inherited disease; changes in working lives and living spaces that mean dogs may be left home alone for longer and have to meet many other dogs when on walks; tail docking, ear cropping, and debarking (where these procedures are legal) that cause pain and reduce communicative abilities; and people’s failure to recognize signs of fear, anxiety and stress in their pooch—or even people finding these signs funny” (Todd, 2020).

We need to consider welfare if we are to end suffering. However, when I think about the kind of life I want for my dogs, I find that welfare approaches come up a little short. I don’t just want to avoid causing harm, I want my dogs to thrive.  

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum (October, 2020) has recently proposed a framework designed to ensure that animals live their lives with dignity and are able to flourish, according to the capabilities of their species. Her 10 Central Capabilities include the following considerations:

  1. Life (what is the natural life span of the animal?)
  2. Bodily health (what is the animals’ physical condition?)
  3. Bodily integrity (how are humans interfering with normal and pleasurable movement, bodily integrity and functions?)
  4. Senses, imagination and thought (what kinds of sensory experiences and imagination does the animal seek?)
  5. Emotions (what is it like for that animal to experience happiness, fear, or depression?)
  6. Practical reason (how do they solve problems in natural ways?
  7. How do they direct the course of their own lives?)
  8. Affiliation (What kinds of relationships does the animal seek?
  9. What communication strategies do they use? With which senses?
  10. Other species (Does the animal seek out and experience meaningful relationships with other animals?)
  11. Play (what does it mean for animals of that species to play and enjoy themselves?)
  12. Control over one’s own environment (what does the animal need to control in their environment in order to live well?).


I find Nussbaum’s approach inspiring for thinking about the kinds of lives we owe the dogs in our captivity. There are, of course, limits to this as well as conflicts. For example, in parts of the world where unwanted dogs are a problem, ensuring bodily integrity for an individual dog might conflict with requirements for spay and neuter. It’s true that most pet dogs do not live in circumstances in which they can have complete control over their environment—there will always be limitations to this. However, these 10 Central Capabilities are not meant as absolutes; instead, they provide guidance for for our day-to-day efforts to get life “right” for our dogs.

I think that every pet guardian should be asking, how can we strive to give our dogs lives that go beyond welfare, to consider bodily integrity, their sensory experience, imagination and emotions, their needs for relationships, play, and control over the environment?We need to be making these considerations at the species level, as Nussbaum suggests. We also should be taking into account differences in breeds—our dogs carry the genetic heritage of ancestors that were bred by humans for very specific jobs. Border collies and chihuahuas will need different kinds of lives and experiences in order to live with dignity and thrive. And, of course, we need to consider the individual dog—including their individual desires and preferences, as well as their age and stage of life.

Many pet dogs are experiencing extreme suffering; and most are living in ways that severely limit possibilities to imagine, form relationships, play, and control their environment. Welfare frameworks provide a good beginning to ensure some basic standards of care for the animals in our captivity, but considerations of welfare don’t go far enough. We owe it to the dogs we bring into our lives to do our very best to provide them what they need to live with dignity and flourish.

Martha Nussbaum talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?