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Laying down a marker on welfare

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THE Animal Welfare Act 2006 broke new ground in legal terms by placing a duty of care on pet owners to ensure that the basic needs of their animals – defined along the lines of the ‘Five Freedoms’ already applied in the farm animal sector – were met. The Act was widely welcomed, but has it actually improved companion animal welfare, and are owners sufficiently aware of their responsibilities and the needs of their pets?

Answering those questions is not necessarily as easy as it sounds. As the Companion Animal Welfare Council has pointed out, to detect an improvement, it is necessary to have a picture of the existing situation and to be able to ‘measure’ animal welfare in the first place (VR, February 7, 2009, vol 164, p 159). As it also pointed out, baseline data are currently lacking as, indeed, are the structures and systems needed to obtain such data. The absence of baseline information presents a real problem in measuring progress under the Act, but a recent report from the PDSA makes a good start in helping to put that right.

The PDSA Animal Wellbeing (‘PAW’) report, which was published last week,1 discusses the results of an online survey of dog, cat and rabbit owners undertaken in October/November last year. The aim was to assess owners' awareness of their animals' needs, regarding their environment, diet, behaviour, level of companionship and health, as set out in the Act. The survey was carried out in conjunction with YouGov and more than 11,000 pet owners took part (see p 255 of this issue). For each of the five animal welfare needs ‘an ideal case scenario’ was formulated, and responses were scored against these to give a score out of 100. The results shed light on the current level of awareness among owners of their responsibilities to their animals, as well as identifying areas of concern to which attention must be devoted in future.

A key finding highlighted by the PDSA is that awareness of the Animal Welfare Act among pet owners in the UK is low, with just 45 per cent feeling that they are familiar with it. This adds weight to the view, expressed by some of those consulted by Defra last year about how well the Act was working, that more needs to be done to make people aware of the legislation and its requirements.2

Using the scoring system to quantify how well animals' welfare needs are being met, the report gives overall national index scores of 62 out of 100 for dogs, 65 for cats and 53 for rabbits. Dogs fared better than cats in terms of their environmental needs being met, scoring 71 compared to 64 for cats, while cats fared better than dogs in terms of their need for companionship, scoring 70 compared to 49 for dogs. The relatively low scores recorded for rabbits are perhaps understandable given the recent rapid rise in their popularity as pets, but are worrying nonetheless. They highlight the need for rabbit owners in particular to be better informed about the needs of their animals. They also make it difficult to understand why, following the introduction of the Animal Welfare Act in 2006, Defra does not have any plans to produce a code of practice setting out the welfare requirements of rabbits, as it has done for dogs, cats and horses (see p 256 of this issue).

The report provides useful insights into the way pets are being kept and cared for in the UK and, in doing so, highlights how much has still to be achieved. It contains much that will be of interest to veterinary surgeons as well as owners. Discussing the need to protect animals from pain, suffering, injury and disease, for example, it gives useful information about the proportion of animals that are not vaccinated or treated for worms and fleas, and how many are not registered with a vet. It also gives an indication of the proportion of owners who do not insure their animals and shows how most owners dramatically underestimate the cost of owning a pet. Perhaps its greatest value, however, will be in providing the kind of benchmark data that are needed for progress in this area to be measured. The PDSA intends to repeat and possibly extend the exercise in future years and it is to be hoped that others might be inspired by and build on its example.

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