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Time for reform

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INCIDENTS involving dog attacks are frequently in the news, as are calls for reform of dangerous dogs legislation. Even so, a recent call for the main political parties to work together to improve and update the current legislation is worthy of note.

In a joint statement last week, a group of 20 organisations, including animal charities, unions and law enforcement agencies, drew attention to the inadequacies of the existing legislation in protecting both humans and animals and called on the Government to act. Specifically, they said, 'We believe that irresponsible dog ownership, whether it is allowing dogs to stray, be dangerously out of control or indiscriminately breeding them, causes significant problems for the safety and welfare of both humans and animals. Current legislation is proving inadequate in many cases to ensure sufficient protection.

'We believe that both the provision of sufficient resources at a local level for local authorities and the police, and updated and consolidated legislation that has a genuine preventative effect, are needed to address this problem.

'We call on the coalition Government to act and bring forward legislation that addresses these areas effectively.'

The BVA was among the organisations signing up to the statement (VR, September 4, 2010, vol 167, p 357), having pressed for reform of the legislation for some time.

The call is timely, and not just because reform is long overdue. The coalition Government has made much over the past few months of the need for politicians to set aside party political differences and work together for the common good. Adequate legislation in this area is in everyone's interest and, while this may be a complex and emotive issue, it is not one on which opinions should divide along party political lines. Nor is there room for the kind of knee-jerk reaction that led to the current Dangerous Dogs Act being introduced in the first place, with all the problems that have ensued. Instead, all the facts need to be considered carefully, problems identified and legislation drafted accordingly. What better an issue on which to demonstrate how the coalition's principles can be applied to good effect?

It is also timely because, a couple of months before the General Election in May, Defra launched a consultation seeking views on reforming dangerous dogs legislation in England and Wales (VR, March 13, 2010, vol 166, p 311). By the time the consultation closed in June, more than 4000 responses had been received, giving a clear indication of the scale of interest in the subject. Defra is expected to publish a summary of these responses in the autumn, although it is not clear at this stage how the new Government intends to proceed.

The BVA believes that the problems caused by dangerous dogs will never be solved until dog owners appreciate that they are responsible for the actions of their animals. It also believes legislation should be based on 'deed not breed', rather than being breed-specific as at present, and that the current Dangerous Dogs Act fails to protect the public because it focuses resources on banning specific breeds rather than dealing with individual dogs. In a detailed response to Defra's consultation, supported by evidence provided by the BSAVA, the BVA argued that there is no rational basis for breed-specific legislation, nor is there any evidence that the breed-specific legislation contained in Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act has been effective in reducing the incidence of aggressive behaviour in dogs or bite-related injuries. As an alternative, it suggested that new legislation should include the compulsory microchipping and registration of all dogs, along with a system of dog control notices for dogs which are out of control and measures to educate the public about responsible pet ownership.

There are many reasons why the need to reform the legislation is pressing, and it is hoped that the Government responds positively to the call from the 20 organisations last week. In the meantime, dangerous dogs will be among topics discussed at the BVA' s annual congress in Glasgow later this month, where a debate will consider some of the problems being encountered under the law as it stands, from an animal welfare perspective and in terms of the practical implications for practising vets. Details of the congress are available at www.bva.co.uk/congress

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