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Companion animal surveillance

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MUCH attention is devoted to disease surveillance in farm animals, though arguably not as much as there should be. Less effort has been devoted to surveillance in companion animals, where attempts to develop systems for monitoring animal health and welfare still have a long way to go.

In a presentation at the bva Council meeting earlier this month, Professor Ed Hall, president of the British Small Animal Veterinary Association, discussed the disease risks associated with pet travel (see pp 65-66 of this issue). The number of animals travelling into and out of the UK has increased significantly since the introduction of the Pet Travel Scheme (pets) in 2000 — and the risk of new diseases being imported has increased as a consequence. Traditionally, attention has focused on rabies, which the pets and Britain's quarantine rules are designed to prevent. However, as Professor Hall pointed out, it is not just rabies that is of concern. Unfortunately, and as was predicted, a number of other diseases have been brought into the uk following the introduction of the pets, some of which, such as leishmaniosis and ehrlichiosis, are potentially zoonotic. Animals are being taken over longer distances, to different environments, and bringing back diseases which have not been seen in the uk before, and there is a real risk that some of these diseases could become endemic. There is a need to keep track of what is happening, and for more research into the epidemiology of these diseases, as well as better ways of diagnosis and treatment.

This is not to say there is no surveillance for diseases in companion animals. In 2003, acknowledging that new diseases might be introduced following the introduction of the pets, defra, with encouragement from the bva and the bsava, set up the dactari reporting scheme (for Dog and Cat Travel and Risk Information). This records incidents of the diseases considered to be of most concern, namely, leishmaniosis, babesiosis, ehrlichiosis and dirofilariosis. However, as the bva C==ouncil meeting heard, this is a voluntary scheme and diseases are almost certainly under-reported. It also heard that the information on the dactari website (www.defra.gov.uk/animalh/diseases/veterinary/dactari/index.htm) is not updated as often as might be considered desirable. There is a need to increase awareness of the scheme, and consider ways in which it can be improved, perhaps by developing stronger links with independent diagnostic laboratories.

Some of the challenges of surveillance in small animals are highlighted in a recent report from the Companion Animal Welfare Council (cawc). The report summarises the results of a scoping exercise undertaken by the CAWC and deals specifically with surveillance for companion animal welfare.* It rightly points out that knowledge of the nature and prevalence of the main animal welfare problems is crucial in focusing effort on where it is most needed, but also points out that there is very little formal monitoring of companion animal welfare in the uk or elsewhere in Europe. It notes that developing a comprehensive welfare surveillance system would be a huge undertaking and that several categories of problems can be foreseen, such as those associated with the great diversity of species to be considered, the large number and diversity of specific welfare problems for each species and breed, and the fact that welfare assessment involves subjective judgement. Further problems relate to the difficulties of establishing appropriate systems of detection and monitoring, and challenges in raising funds for initiatives in this field. The report suggests that one of the problems is that ‘There is no compelling economic, or other societal, driver for the establishment of a welfare surveillance scheme (in contrast, for example, with the establishment of surveillance for serious livestock epidemics).’

Given the scale of the challenge, the cawc does not believe it is realistic to establish a comprehensive companion animal welfare scheme from scratch, although it does outline a number of ways in which progress could be made, suggesting, for example, that more could be made of existing sources of information and that the task could be made more manageable by adopting a targeted approach. It suggests that efforts need to be coordinated, and that somebody ought to take the lead, and recommends that ‘organisations representing the keepers of various breeds or other taxa who believe they might be able to help in starting and developing a welfare surveillance initiative should liaise and try to find a way, working with experts in epidemiology and both health and behavioural aspects of welfare assessment, to set up and initiate a programme.’

Not all of the observations in the cawc report are directly applicable to disease surveillance, but some of them are, and the report is well worth reading for this reason, as well as in its own right. The Government, traditionally, has been reluctant to fund initiatives relating to companion animals, although where diseases of public health significance are concerned, and following the introduction of the Animal Welfare Act, there is still a case to be made. In the meantime, efforts need to be coordinated and, whatever help may or may not be available from government, surveillance needs to be improved.

    Footnotes

    • * ‘Companion animal welfare surveillance — a scoping report published by the Companion Animal Welfare Council’. Available from the CAWC Secretariat, The Dene, Old North Road, Bourn, Cambridge CB23 7TZ, e-mail: cawc{at}cawc.freeserve.co.uk

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