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Encouraging responsible pet ownership

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THE Animal Welfare Act 2006 broke new ground by imposing a duty of care on pet owners to ensure that the five basic welfare needs of their animals are met – in relation to environment, diet, behaviour, companionship and health. Seven years after the Act came into force, one might expect owners’ awareness of those needs, which form a cornerstone for the effective operation of the Act, to have improved. Unfortunately, the latest PDSA Animal Wellbeing (PAW) report, which was published towards the end of last year (PDSA 2013), indicates that this has not been the case; if anything, awareness of pets’ needs has decreased.

The 2013 report is the third in a series which was instituted by the PDSA in 2011 to provide an annual insight into pet health and wellbeing. Focusing on dogs, cats and rabbits, it discusses the results of a survey involving 2149 pet owners, 555 children and 459 vets and veterinary nurses, which was carried out on its behalf by the market research organisation YouGov (VR, December 21/28, 2013, vol 173, pp 592-593). Among the main findings was that only 38 per cent of owners were familiar with the Animal Welfare Act and the animal welfare needs it sets out, compared with the 45 per cent recorded in 2011. As Richard Hooker, the PDSA's director of veterinary services, points out in an introduction to the report, this figure is ‘worryingly low’ and there is still much to be done to improve pet wellbeing. As Mr Hooker remarks, ‘Millions of pets still suffer in silence because their five key welfare needs are not being met.’ Many of the problems seen by animal welfare organisations are ‘entirely preventable’, but, he says, ‘People continue to make misinformed choices at every stage of their pet ownership journey, and consequently pet welfare is being compromised.’

The 2011 PAW report, based on a survey of 10,000 people, drew attention to a nation in which large numbers of pets were ‘stressed, lonely, overweight, bored, aggressive and misunderstood’ (VR, March 12, 2011, vol 168, pp 254, 255-256). Although the 2013 report identifies one or two positive developments, many of the figures presented would seem to support Mr Hooker's comments and suggest that, far from improving, the situation is getting worse. It notes, for example, that, in 2013, 58 per cent of dogs had never been taken to training classes when they were young, compared with 50 per cent in 2011; that the proportion of dogs getting exercise off the lead each day had fallen from 73 per cent in 2011 to 63 per cent in 2013; and that the proportion of dogs regularly left alone for five hours or more had increased from 18 per cent to 25 per cent. In cat-owning households, the survey found that the proportion of households where the number of cats exceeded the number of litter trays provided had increased from 34 per cent to 57 per cent between 2011 and 2013, and that only 5 per cent of owners looked at body shape and weight when deciding how much to feed their cat. Regarding rabbits, it found that 18 per cent of rabbits had no opportunity for exercise, compared with 4 per cent in 2011, and that 65 per cent of rabbits continued to live alone.

The report contains useful information on issues such as uptake of health treatments in different geographical areas, attitudes to ownership, and where owners go for advice about their pets. Like the previous PAW reports, particularly the 2012 report (VR, November 17, 2012, vol 171, pp 486, 487-488), it suggests that there is a mismatch between owners’ views on how animals should be looked after and how they actually behave. With 88 per cent of owners considering themselves to belong to a nation of animal lovers, this, the report makes clear, is largely because of a lack of awareness of animals’ needs. Figures presented in the report also make clear that the majority of owners significantly underestimate the lifetime costs of owning a pet – in most cases, whether the pet is a dog, a cat or a rabbit, by several thousands of pounds.

There can be no doubt that a lack of appropriate knowledge contributes substantially to the welfare and other problems associated with irresponsible pet ownership, and a paper summarised on p 118 of this issue of Veterinary Record, discussing how poor owner knowledge contributes to the high number of accidental litters born to pet cats in the UK, lends support to this view (Welsh and others 2013).

The question is, what should be done about it? The PDSA's report highlights a number of areas where action is needed and rightly points out that education is key. There already exist a number of initiatives, including, among many others, the PDSA's Big Pet Check, National Pet Month and the National Office of Animal Health's ‘I ♥ my pet’ campaign (see p 108 of this issue) as well as information leaflets for owners produced by both the BVA and the Animal Welfare Foundation (AWF). However, the evidence suggests that these in themselves are not enough. At present, despite the efforts being made by animal welfare charities, animal welfare is not part of the National Curriculum. As Tiffany Hemming of the AWF pointed out in a debate at last year's BVA Congress, it should be (VR, December 21/28, 2103, vol 173, pp 579-598). Meanwhile, hardly a day goes by without a pet-orientated story appearing somewhere in the national media; it would be nice to think that, somehow, these could be harnessed more effectively to get the responsible ownership message across. Clearly, a much more concerted, coordinated effort is needed if the problems highlighted in the PAW report are to begin to be addressed.

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