The Five Domains Model Aims to Help Animals Thrive

An updated approach to animal welfare includes opportunities for positive experiences for our companion (and other) animals.

Good animal welfare includes positive experiences, like for this border collie, according to the five domains model

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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“…the overall objective is to provide opportunities for animals to ‘thrive’, not simply ‘survive’” (Mellor, 2016)

The Five Freedoms

Animal welfare is traditionally defined by the Five Freedoms. These are
  • Freedom from hunger and thirst
  • Freedom from discomfort
  • Freedom from pain, injury and disease
  • Freedom to express normal behaviour
  • Freedom from fear and distress
The original list is on the – now archived – page of the UK’s Farm Animal Welfare Council and the Council’s 2009 report on farm animal welfare in Great Britain. You will also find them listed on many SPCA and humane society websites, including by the BC SPCA and the ASPCA, because the Five Freedoms frame how they look after the animals in their care.

The Five Freedoms have defined animal welfare internationally, not just for farmed animals but also for our companion animals. Each of the Freedoms has a corresponding Provision that enables the Freedom to be met. For example, ‘freedom from hunger and thirst’ has the provision “by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.”

Updating the Five Freedoms

You might have already noticed that most of the Freedoms are ‘freedom from’ something unpleasant. Research by Professor David Mellor (Massey University) suggests improvements that include positive welfare as well.

There are two main disadvantages to the Five Freedoms approach, according to Mellor (2016).

The first is that some people have taken them to mean something that is an absolute, rather than an ideal. This is despite the fact the FAWC says “These freedoms define ideal states rather than standards for acceptable welfare.”

Mellor says that some people even see them as ‘rights’ for the animals. However, he says, some of these are biological drives – if animals did not feel thirst, they would never drink, for example. So we can’t expect that an animal would never feel thirst; it’s more that they should never get too thirsty, because water should be available to them when they do feel thirst.

The second disadvantage is that the approach focusses on problems. Mellor says it’s because that is what was important at the time, and that the Five Freedoms have been very successful.

However, now we are more aware of the idea of providing positive experiences, and so they should be incorporated into our model of good animal welfare.

Two black poodles playing - opportunities to thrive, not just survive, are important for good animal welfare

The Five Provisions and Welfare Aims

The updated set of Five Provisions/Welfare Aims incorporates positive experiences as well as minimizing negative ones. It is designed to be easily understood and memorable, just like the original Five Freedoms.

A table to explain the model of good animal welfare
Reproduced from Mellor (2016) under Creative Commons licence

Professor David Mellor told me in an email,

“An animal’s welfare refers to what it experiences. Experiences can be negative or positive. An early idea was that animals should be kept free of conditions inside and outside their bodies that lead to negative experiences. We now know that some internal conditions and related negative experiences are needed to keep animals alive. For example, breathlessness helps to regulate breathing, thirst ensures that animals drink enough water, hunger gets them to eat enough food, and pain drives them to avoid or withdraw from things that cause injuries. So we cannot eliminate these experiences, but we can avoid extremes of them. Thus, good care can ensure that such negative experiences stay at low levels, but are still available to get the animals to behave in particular ways that help to keep them alive. Regarding hunger, you should be careful not to overfeed your pet.

"Other negative experiences are due to an animal’s external circumstances. These may arise when animals are kept alone in a small, featureless area with little to do, or when they feel threatened in various ways. Loneliness, depression, boredom, fear and anxiety are examples of these experiences. Fortunately, if the animals are given congenial company, plenty of space, a variety of things to do and feel safe and secure, these negative experiences can be replaced by positive feelings of comfort, pleasure, interest, confidence and a sense of control.

"The aims of animal care should therefore be both to keep the negative experiences generated within the body at low levels, and to replace various other negative experiences by providing comfortable, congenial, interesting and safe surroundings.

"The Five Provisions/Welfare Aims approach helps us to do this. The Provisions guide the way we care for animals by ensuring they have good nutrition, good environment, good health, appropriate behaviour and positive mental experiences. The Welfare Aims linked to the provisions direct our attention to the experiences we want to reduce to low levels and to the other experiences we want to encourage.”

The Five Provisions/Welfare Aims are consistent with the Five Domains Model of animal welfare that is an update to the Five Freedoms. The Five Domains are nutrition, environment, health, behavior, and mental state, and you will notice that the names of the Five Provisions map onto these domains.

Illustrating the Five Domains Model

A paper by Kat Littlewood and David Mellor provides an example of how the new approach works. They take a fictional scenario of a working farm dog called Jess who gets injured. They walk the reader through the dog’s welfare at six different stages in her life. The scenario was chosen so that it does not present an ideal, and both positive and negative aspects of welfare are assessed. It is the first use of the new Five Domains model.

The paper follows Jess from her initial working role herding sheep on a farm, through a traumatic injury caused by getting stuck on a barbed wire fence, subsequent emergency veterinary care, having to have a front leg amputated, six weeks recovery time in a new home, and then her subsequent life as a tripod pet dog.

Positive welfare is important for dogs, like this happy wet tripod dog at the beach

At each stage, Littlewood and Mellor illustrate how to assess Jess’s welfare in terms of both the compromises and enhancements that apply.  Compromises in each of the five domains are assessed using a letter scale from A (meaning no compromises) to E (very severe compromises). Compromises include states such as being hungry and thirsty, as well as affective responses such as fear, anxiety and boredom.

Enhancements in each domain are graded on a four-point scale from none to high level enhancement, and take account of the extent to which the animal has choices (“agency”).

They say enhancement “includes the genetically pre-programmed, or learned, affectively positive impulses to engage in rewarding behaviours, and it also includes positive affects related to anticipation, goal achievement and memory of success.”

Assessment in any domain involves looking at both compromises and enhancements.

Throughout the fictional scenario, there are times when some aspects of welfare are better than others. The time of the traumatic injury is the worst and several domains are graded as D (marked or severe compromise) with no enhancement.

In the final stage, after the leg amputation and recovery period, Jess is in her new home. She is allowed to sleep inside the house, has a Fox Terrier for companionship, and can even herd sheep from to time. Her welfare in her new home is not compromised, and is rated as having high level enhancement.

The paper provides a very detailed and helpful assessment of overall welfare, which shows how to apply the model to each stage of Jess’s life. This illustration will enable others to make good use of the Five Domains model in different situations.

Implications of the Five Domains Model

The Five Domains model has broad implications, including for animal cruelty investigations.

Kat Littlewood and David Mellor told me in an email,

“The Five Domains Model for welfare assessment recognises the dynamic integration of the basic functional processes within the body, the experiences animals may have and interactions between function and experience. Thus, biological function can affect animals’ subjective experiences, and their subjective experiences can affect their biological function. For example: shortage of oxygen can lead to breathlessness, dehydration to thirst and injury to pain; and emotionally threatening circumstances, giving rise to anxiety and/or fear, and injury-induced pain can lead to elevated heart rate, blood pressure and blood levels of stress hormones.

"In terms of prosecutions for ill treatment of animals it has been, and is still, common for biological function to be the basis of assessments of detrimental welfare impacts. This created difficulties for the Prosecution because Defence lawyers can and do challenge expert witness testimony based on interpreting such functional changes in terms of what the animals may have experienced: How can you be sure that this increase in heart rate or stress hormone level or other such measurement shows that the animal was actually experiencing severe suffering? And often, by the time these offences are brought before the court the animal has received the care and attention it needed so that its welfare state has improved significantly. In such cases, a retrospective welfare assessment is required.

"However, it is now possible to align the presumed welfare insult, the animal’s behaviour and our well-developed understanding of the brain processing involved in expressing these behaviours in ways that provide convincing support for animals having the particular negative experiences caused by the particular form(s) of ill treatment as described. The Five Domains Model and our understanding of the science that underlies it facilitate this process and as this paper shows, these assessments can be carried out retrospectively. Dr Rebecca Ledger in Canada has found this approach to be most successful.”

Positive welfare is important for our pets, like this sleepy cat on the bed

Dr. Rebecca Ledger spoke to Pete McMartin of the Vancouver Sun about her use of modern behavioural science in successful animal cruelty prosecutions. She told him, “I believe we are the first people in Canada to apply behavioural evidence in these kinds of cases and to infer emotional suffering based on behavioural evidence.

“I think the reason it’s taken up until now for these kinds of charges to be laid and accepted was that people were always concerned that we might be anthropomorphizing, because we can’t ask animals directly how they feel. But just like us, they can communicate in other ways. They can react to a negative situation with a physiological stress response, for example. And that physiological response is measurable.”

The New Five Domains Approach to Animal Welfare

Although the Five Freedoms have been around for some time, a recent UK report found that 65% of pet owners are not aware of their legal requirements regarding animal welfare, as explained in this article by Pete Wedderburn. So there is obviously work to do to inform pet owners about the Five Provisions/Welfare Aims and what it means for their responsibilities to their pets.

However, the idea that animals should have positive experiences is one that I think many pet owners will be happy to hear about and keen to adopt.

The Five Freedoms have made a tremendous contribution to animal welfare. Prof. Mellor’s approach updates them to take account of scientific advances in how we understand animals, and to incorporate positive experiences. The Five Domains model is a significant development in animal welfare that many people will be interested to learn about. The Five Provisions/Welfare Aims incorporate this model and are designed to help ordinary people understand this approach. A 2020 update also looks at the role of human-animal interactions in animal welfare

Both of these papers therefore make an important contribution to the literature in and of themselves, as well as showing how to communicate these new updates in a way that people can understand.

If you want more information on the research discussed in this post, you’ll be glad to know the articles are open access and you can read them via the links below. You can also learn more about the Five Domains model in another 2016 paper by David Mellor (also open access). And you can follow Kat Littlewood on twitter and Facebook.

If you liked this post and want to learn more about how to apply this model to your own pet's life, check out my books. 

If you're a dog person, you'll love my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog calls it “The must-have guide to improving your dog’s life.” 

If you're a cat person, you might like to check out my book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. Dr. Sarah Ellis says, "Purr is definitely a book your cat would want you to read!"

What do you do to ensure your pet has positive experiences?

You might also like: Why don't more people use positive reinforcement to train dogs? and 'dominance' training deprives dogs of positive experiences.

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Littlewood, K., & Mellor, D. (2016). Changes in the Welfare of an Injured Working Farm Dog Assessed Using the Five Domains Model Animals, 6 (9) DOI: 10.3390/ani6090058
Mellor DJ (2016). Moving beyond the "Five Freedoms" by Updating the "Five Provisions" and Introducing Aligned "Animal Welfare Aims". Animals : an open access journal from MDPI, 6 (10) PMID: 27669313
Photos: Dora Zett (top), Daz Stock (middle) and endlesssea2011 (

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