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Education and pet ownership

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IN 2011 the PDSA, in conjunction with the market research company YouGov, undertook a nationwide survey of pet owners. 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 Animal Welfare Act, to provide a snapshot of animal health and wellbeing. In addition, the charity hoped to provide baseline data on which to measure progress under the Act, which would be assessed by conducting similar surveys in future years. More than 11,000 people took part in the survey which, as the PDSA put it at the time, revealed a nation in which large numbers of pets were ‘stressed, lonely, overweight, bored, aggressive and misunderstood’ (PDSA 2011; VR, March 12, 2011, vol 168, pp 254, 255-256).

The PDSA has now published the results of a follow-up survey conducted in 2012, which focuses on some of the issues identified last year in more detail (PDSA 2012). Nearly 4000 pet owners took part, along with about 500 children and 500 vets and veterinary nurses. Although the two surveys are not directly comparable, its 2012 report paints an equally bleak picture, suggesting that large numbers of pets are being inadequately trained and inappropriately fed, with insufficient attention being devoted to safeguarding their health (see p 487 of this issue). The point is made in the report that, in most cases, this is not because owners deliberately set out to cause suffering, but because of a lack of understanding of their animals' needs.

The report contains a wealth of statistics and provides some useful insights into owners' attitudes and behaviour. It also identifies areas where, through better understanding, animal wellbeing might be improved.

Among the many observations in the report is that there is often a mismatch between owners' views and actions. Thus, for example, while more than 90 per cent of the owners surveyed agreed that all pet owners should have a basic understanding of the welfare needs as set out under the Animal Welfare Act, more than two thirds were not familiar with the Act. Similarly, the PDSA reports that, while more than 90 per cent of owners understood that overweight pets would live shorter lives and risk ill health due to obesity, this was not being translated into positive action, with pets' diets being influenced by human emotion rather than by an understanding of what they needed.

Regarding dog behaviour, the PDSA notes that problem behaviour in dogs is most often due to lack of training and socialisation. Those taking part in the survey were clearly concerned about problem behaviour in dogs. However, on the basis of the results, the PDSA estimates that 5.3 million of the nation's 8.3 million dogs never attended training classes during their first six months of life.

Some of the most worrying statistics concern the ways in which owners might obtain a pet, with 24 per cent indicating that they would consider getting a dog from a puppy farm, and 42 per cent saying they would consider getting a pet from the internet. Twenty-three per cent of owners did no research at all before choosing a pet, and 15 per cent spent less time choosing a pet than deciding on Christmas presents or holidays.

Also worrying are the circumstances under which they might give pets up. The 2011 and the 2012 surveys both found that a large proportion of pet owners significantly underestimate the lifetime costs of owning a pet. This year's survey also found that 17 per cent of owners would consider giving up their pet if the associated costs became too much.

Figures presented in the report indicate a slight increase in the proportion of animals registered with a vet since 2011, along with increases in the proportion being vaccinated, microchipped and neutered, trends which the PDSA describes as encouraging. However, overall, the report serves to emphasise a point made during a debate at this year's BVA Congress that too many animals are suffering through a lack of knowledge, and that much more effort needs to be devoted to educating owners on the importance of disease prevention and the responsibilities of owning a pet (see pp 493-494 of this issue). This, inevitably, will be a long process and cannot be considered as a one-off exercise, as new people take on pets all the time.

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