Australia is a nation of animal lovers with an estimated 29 million pets, so we know the joy and comfort furry friends can bring.
But do we stop to ask if our pets are happy?
Often, we inadvertently make our pets fit into our lives without considering what is truly best for them, however animal welfare science provides a good framework to help us answer this question.
The basics of animal care
For many years animal welfare was assessed on basic indicators that focused on the physical state of an animal.
All that was considered was whether the animal was provided with adequate food, water, shelter, health care and a safe environment, basic standards of care that are still critically important today.
Ensuring your pet has adequate food and water, a safe environment and is protected from disease or illness is the foundation for a good life. But as science has evolved, so has our understanding of all the things required to achieve good animal welfare.
Going beyond physical needs
Most scientists now accept that an animal's mental state is just as important as their physical state.
Animals have the same ability to feel negative and positive emotions as humans. That means they can experience an extraordinary range of feelings; from pain, distress and frustration to comfort and contentment.
The capacity for animals to feel is defined as sentience and is critical in helping us understand how to provide a good quality life for our pets.
Good animal welfare goes beyond merely preventing pain, suffering or distress and minimising negative experiences, and extends to ensuring animals can express their natural behaviour in an enriching environment, feel safe, have healthy, positive experiences and a good quality of life.
Sentience and our pets
The most common way scientists asses an animal's sentience is by observing and analysing behaviour. For example, animals experiencing a positive mental state are more likely to play, explore and have close social contact with other animals and humans.
Conversely, when an animal is frightened, they usually display a fight, flight or freeze response.
The exact same indicators can be used when considering the welfare and happiness of your pets at home.
Taking note of their behaviour and how they respond to different stimulus is key in giving them a good life.
Every pet is unique
What makes one animal happy may not work for another. Observation is crucial in learning what creates the best living experience for your pet.
For example, how confident is your dog around people? When you invite people to your house, take the time to consider how your animal responds. Are they spending hours with you and your guests, seeking attention and companionship? Or do they retreat to a safe room in your house for the duration of the visit?
Consider how you could make changes to their routine or environment to help them feel more comfortable or at ease in busy situations going forward.
Learn animal body language
As much as we may like to, we can't have a conversation with our pets. Our next best communication tool is learning to observe our pets' body language.
Spend some time researching common ways your animal may display different emotions such as happiness, sadness or anxiety. For example, when stressed, cats may hide in closed spaces in your house, or overgroom themselves. They may eat more or less than normal, have toileting trouble (such as urinating in places other than the litter tray) or begin throwing up excessively.
These small signs are important indicators your precious pet may not be as happy as you think.
The good news is we can make changes to improve our pets' quality of life.
The RSPCA's Knowledgebase www.kb.rspca.org.au is full of tips and educational content to help you better understand your pet and provide them the best welfare possible.
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