Animal and pet ownership, and the relationships we form with our animals can mean different things to different people. For some they are our animals, others a pet, for some they are a member of our family, and for others they are a fur baby.

What is welfare?

Animal welfare is made up of two components – behaviour and physiology. We essentially ask ourselves the questions; “Is the animal healthy, or are any health conditions being effectively managed?” and “Does this animal have what it wants?” [1]. 

Professionals and policy writers around the world have often used the “Five Freedoms” [2] to help assess the way animals are kept and their welfare. These five freedoms are:

  • Freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition – does this animal have ready access to fresh water and a diet which maintains their full health and vigour?
  • Freedom from discomfort and exposure – is this animal provided with an appropriate environment such as shelter and a comfortable resting area?
  • Freedom from pain, injury, and disease – does this animal have health problems prevented, or rapidly diagnosed and treated when they occur?
  • Freedom from fear and distress – does the way this animal is kept and the interactions it has avoid mental suffering?
  • Freedom to express normal behaviour – is this animal provided with enough space, the facilities and company of animals of the same kind, it requires to express normal behaviours?

(The Five Welfare Needs of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 are modifications of these ideas, enacted into law – Ed.).

What is Telos?

The idea of “telos” has been around for thousands of years – and comes originally from greek philosopher Aristotle. Telos is an ethical approach – a sort of thought experiment where we consider and decide what constitutes a “good life” for that particular animal – in their particular environment. Whether that’s in the wild and less controlled by humans, or in captivity and living in situations more controlled by us. 

When we think about an animal’s telos we’re really trying to look at the “nature of the animal” or the “dogness of the dog” the “horseness of the horse” etc. 

This idea of telos can overlap and link with some of the welfare considerations we talked about too. If an animal has all the things needed to “meet” each of the five freedoms it follows that it is more able to be a “doggier dog” or “horsier horse”

What about respect?

Do you think your pet understands or has a sense of dignity? Do you feel your actions with your pet are always respectful? It’s an interesting series of questions to consider – because it changes how we view our actions, and maybe how we will choose to act in future… 

For example if we decide our animal has no sense of dignity, and we act in an arguably disrespectful manner that doesn’t affect their welfare significantly (eg taking a “cat shaming photo for social media) have we done something “wrong”? 

If for example we decide our dog does demonstrate a sense of dignity, and we dress them in a hoody and they can still meet basic welfare needs – move / play /eat / drink etc – is that wrong, is it worse? 

In either case do our actions make that cat “less cat”, or dog “less dog”? If we answer honestly that we’ve made them “less like themselves” then we haven’t really respected them (or their telos). 

Are we respecting them as they ARE not as we think they SHOULD BE?

While some owners may choose to dress their animal in a costume for Halloween or Christmas photos now might want to think about their animal’s telos, perhaps so should owners who choose to recreate or maintain elements from evolution or “natural” conditions – such as keeping feeding raw diets.

Remember when we consider telos, we include the animal’s current circumstances. So using raw feeding as an example – does raw feeding affect the dog’s telos? Having evolved for thousands of years to be domesticated and share resources like dietary sources with humans, are we trying to make them “more wolf” and “less dog” than they really are? Food for thought if you pardon the pun.

Does how we think about them matter?

So let’s go back to how we began with how we describe our animals or think of our relationships with them. I think it’s clear that the owner that views their animal as “an animal” can care for their pet a great deal. They give that pet a great quality of life meeting their welfare needs and giving them the opportunity to be a “doggy dog” just as much as someone who would describe their pet as a fur baby. Perhaps sometimes when we care very deeply about our pets, or our “fur babies” we need to stop and think. Are we impacting their welfare and are respecting their telos in the choices we make for them, and the interactions we have?

Is there an absolute answer?

You’ll notice there aren’t really clear cut answers to the questions we’ve posed in this article.

It’s going to be something you need to think through for yourself. How you see the world, how you define your relationship with your animal, and what you have observed of your animal will affect your answers.

In the end while we’re each taking care of our animals needs and wellbeing, we should respect them, but also each other. With an open mind to listen to those who see things differently we might just learn something new, or think in a new way – which could improve our human-animal relationships, and the quality of life we give our animals.

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References and further reading

  1. Dawkins MS. The Science of Animal Suffering. Ethology [In. 2008 Oct 1 [cited 2021 Jun 11];114(10):937–45. 
  2. Webster J. Animal welfare : limping towards Eden : a practical approach to redressing the problem of our dominion over the animals. Blackwell Pub; 2005 [cited 2021 Jun 11]. 283 p. Available from: