Forensic Behavioural Analysis: Using the Five Domains Model to Assess Suffering in Animals (Part 1)
World Small Animal Veterinary Association Congress Proceedings, 2019
R. Ledger
Animal Behaviour and Welfare Consulting, Animal Cruelty Behavioural Forensics, Vancouver, BC, Canada


Federal and provincial animal welfare legislation refer to various terms, including suffering, distress, hardship, fear and pain.

For example, under the Criminal Code of Canada 445.1,1 “Every one commits an offence who (a) willfully causes or, being the owner, willfully permits to be caused unnecessary pain, suffering or injury to an animal or a bird.”

Using the British Columbia’s Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act as an example of provincial legislation (PCA Act, RSBC 1996, Chapter 372, Part 1.1.2.b), an animal is defined as being in critical distress, “if it is injured, sick, in pain or suffering.”

Historically, expert reports and subsequent animal cruelty charges have focused on whether an animal is physically sick or has been physically harmed as a result of (a) being injured or diseased, (b) being provided with inadequate nutritional (lack of food, water, etc.), or (c) kept in substandard environmental conditions (e.g., a lack of shelter etc). Case law has generally omitted references to animal suffering or negative affect that do not involve physical harm. This is reflective of how up until 20–30 years ago, animal welfare scientists focused their assessment of animal wellbeing on the animal’s “biological functioning.”

However, over the last 20 years, animal welfare science has evolved. Our understanding of animal suffering has become more comprehensive, with most consideration now being placed on the internal mental experiences of animals, or their feelings. Suffering or distress specifically describe the negative mental or affective experiences of animals. Various frameworks that allow for the assessment of animal welfare have also since been developed and validated.

Despite advancements in animal welfare science, the intangible nature of suffering and distress—concepts that are based on inference as opposed to clinically measurable parameters—have deterred animal experts (most of whom have been veterinarians) from providing opinions on how an animal may have suffered as a result of cruel acts inflicted on them. Terms such as ‘feelings’ and ‘suffering’ have often been regarded as being anthropomorphic, and nonscientific conjecture.

Furthermore, the lack of training for veterinarians (professionals whose primary focus is physical wellbeing) in these updated animal welfare concepts and current affective neuroscience, has led to affective states not being given due consideration in cases of animal cruelty. A review of 42 animal cruelty cases expert reports by veterinarians, published by Baumgaertner et al. (2016), highlights this. The researchers reported that, while physical and/or clinical observations were clearly reported in all cases, the severity of suffering was omitted in 38% of reports; duration was omitted in 31% of reports; the nature of the suffering was omitted in 33% of reports; the necessity of the suffering was omitted in 36% reports; and external scientific references supporting the expert’s opinion were provided in only 31% of reports. Furthermore, where suffering and distress were commented on, experts frequently disagreed on their definitions.

The failure of an expert to opine on animal suffering will limit the type of cases that are investigated, the cases for which charges are recommended and approved, and ultimately, the sentencing imposed by courts.

This series of presentations aims to provide animal experts with (a) a current, evidence-based understanding of suffering and distress in animals, (b) frameworks for demonstrating to courts if, how and to what extent an animal has suffered, and (c) examples of legal cases where these frameworks have been successfully applied.

How Do Animals Suffer?

It is well established in peer-reviewed scientific literature that suffering is a collective term that infers an unpleasant state of mind. An animal is regarded as suffering when it experiences unpleasant feelings or negative affective states (Gregory 2004; Panksepp 2004; Mellor 2015; Ledger 2018).

Negative feelings are unpleasant, and thus motivate the animal to avoid potentially life-limiting conditions, such as asphyxiation (which causes the negative affects of breathlessness and panic), injury and disease (which cause the negative affects of pain, nausea, dizziness, debility, lethargy and weakness), malnourishment (which causes the negative affects of hunger and weakness), dehydration (which causes the negative affect of thirst), and threats (which cause the negative affects of anxiety, fear and also panic), (Mellor 2015; Hemsworth et al. 2015).

The ability to suffer from these various negative affects is an essential part of all terrestrial animals’ capacity to survive. Animals are genetically preprogrammed to experience negative feelings or affects, and without them they could not survive (Mellor 2017).

The scientific field of affective neuroscience has clearly established the neural processes that underlie positive and negative affective experiences in all mammals (Adamec 1991; Panksepp 2004). These processes include the neural pathways that pick up the disturbances in the body (such as dehydration or injury), and that are transmitted up the spinal cord and into and throughout brain systems (Panksepp 2004), where they are perceived as being pleasant or unpleasant. Suffering refers to these unpleasant or negative sensations and emotions, or affects.


1.  Adamec R. (1991) Individual differences in temporal lobe sensory processing of threatening stimuli in the cat. Physiol Behav. 1991;49(3),455–464.

2.  Baumgaertner H, Mullam S, Main DCJ. Assessment of unnecessary suffering in animals by veterinary experts. Vet Rec. September 24, 2016.

3.  Gregory NG. The Physiology and Behaviour of Animal Suffering. UFAW Animal Welfare Series. Oxford: Blackwell Science Publishing; 2004.

4.  Mellor DJ. Positive animal welfare states and reference standards for welfare assessment. N Z Vet J. 2015;63(1):17–23.

5.  Panksepp J. Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions (Series in Affective Science). New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2004.

6.  Hemsworth PH, Mellor DJ, Cronin GM, Tilbrook AJ. Scientific assessment of animal welfare. N Z Vet J. 2015;63(1):24–30.

7.  Ledger RA, Mellor DJ. Forensic use of the Five Domains Model for assessing suffering in cases of animal cruelty. Animals. 2018;8:101.


Speaker Information
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R. Ledger
Animal Behaviour & Welfare Consulting
Animal Cruelty Behavioural Forensics
Vancouver, BC, Canada

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