The Five Freedoms: A history lesson in animal care and welfare

The Five Freedoms have been the basis of animal welfare since the 1960s. Learn about what they are and why they have endured.

Concern about animal care and welfare is not a new topic for those who raise animals, but it continues to be of greater concern for the general public. More and more people want to know and understand how animals, especially those raised to enter the food chain, are cared for, where and how these animals live, and what a modern farm is like. The answers to these questions do not have one single, correct answer. In reality, there are innumerable correct ways to raise animals depending on the animals’ breed and “job” (e.g., cattle raised for dairy production verses cattle raised for beef production) size, location, climate, facilities, staff, goals of a farm and several other factors. What remains the same across all farms is that farmers care about the animals they raise and want animals thriving. One way to ensure animals are in a positive state of welfare is to use the Five Freedoms as benchmark for meeting animals’ needs.

To understand the importance of the Five Freedoms and why there were developed, let’s turn back to 1964 when Ruth Harrison, a British woman, wrote “Animal Machines.” The book described intensive livestock and poultry farming practices of the time. The outcry of the British public regarding the information in the book prompted the British government to appoint a committee to look into the welfare of farm animals. In 1965, the committee, chaired by professor Roger Brambell presented the 85-page “Report of the Technical Committee to Inquire into the Welfare of Animals Kept under Intensive Livestock Husbandry Systems,” which became known as “The Brambell Report.”

In summary, the report stated that animals should have the freedom “to stand up, lie down, turn around, groom themselves and stretch their limbs.” These freedoms became known as “Brambell’s Five Freedoms” and were expanded on to create a more detail list of the needs. The Farm Animal Welfare Advisory Committee was created in response to Brambell and colleagues’ report to monitor the livestock production sector. In 1979, the name was changed to the Farm Animal Welfare Council (now Committee) and by the end of that same year, the initial Five Freedoms had been codified into the format below.

The welfare of an animal, which includes its physical and mental states, how it is coping with its environment, and involves human experiences and ethics to evaluate animal welfare through observation and interpretation of an animal’s behavior and health status. The codified Five Freedoms are as follows:

  1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst: by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor.
  2. Freedom from Discomfort: by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  3. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease: by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
  4. Freedom to Express Normal Behavior: by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
  5. Freedom from Fear and Distress: by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

The Five Freedoms are used as the basis in writing animal care protocols and expectations for many professional groups, including veterinarians as noted on the American Veterinary Medical Association website. They have been adopted by representative groups internationally including the World Organization for Animal Health and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Most of the animal welfare audits developed for implementation on farms and in processing facilities are based on the Five Freedoms.

The impact and use of the Five Freedoms is widespread across the world. An upcoming article from Michigan State University Extension will focus on recognizing how animal caregivers, especially youth in 4-H animal science projects, use the Five Freedoms every day in caring for animals.

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