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A rare opportunity

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PLANS to update rules on the licensing of dog breeding and other animal-related businesses by local authorities, as outlined by Defra in a consultation document issued at the end of last year, present a rare opportunity to improve regulation in this area, and it is important that this is used to best effect. This point comes across clearly from a joint response to the consultation from the BVA, the British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA) and the British Veterinary Zoological Society (BVZS). In a detailed and thoughtful response, which was submitted to Defra last week, the three organisations welcome plans to update the rules, which they agree are out of date. However, as well as commenting on Defra's specific plans, they also make some additional suggestions which, if adopted, could further improve measures aimed at safeguarding the welfare of animals sold and kept as pets.

Not least among these is a suggestion relating to the registration of dog breeders. In its consultation document, Defra proposed strengthening the rules on dog breeding by banning the sale of puppies less than eight weeks old, and by requiring anyone in the business of breeding or selling dogs, or producing three or more litters from their dogs in a 12-month period, to be licensed. This would apply to online and home-based businesses as well as other premises (VR, January 2, 2016, vol 178, p 5; January 16, 2016, vol 178, p 52).

While broadly welcoming these and other proposals relating to dog breeding, the BVA, BSAVA and BVZS draw attention to the importance of the rules being properly enforced, and to the difficulties of identifying everyone who should be licensed, which will be fundamental to enforcement. With this in mind, they suggest that anyone breeding from a dog should be required to register with their local authority (preferably online). This would mean that the local authority had a list of contact details for dog breeders in their area, aiding enforcement bodies and helping to ensure that breeders were aware of their responsibilities. They also suggest that there should be a publicly available list of breeders, both to assist enforcers and allow the public to check the list. If the threshold of three litters per year were met, this would trigger a licensing inspection.

At the heart of Defra's plans are proposals to replace and update the existing rules governing the licensing of pet shops, animal boarding establishments and dog breeders by introducing a single generic ‘Animal Establishment Licence’ under the Animal Welfare Act. The BVA, BSAVA and BVZS endorse this approach, while pointing out that there are a number of other activities and types of establishment to which it might be usefully applied, including, for example, animal rescue and rehoming centres, pet fairs, the breeding and sale of cats, dog grooming centres and dog training.

Commenting on some of the specific questions in Defra's consultation document, the three organisations support a proposal to use Model Licensing Conditions to help raise welfare standards and promote consistency in inspection and licensing standards. However, they note that these can take a long time to develop and need to be periodically reviewed. They firmly endorse proposals to require those selling animals to provide new owners with written information detailing their responsibilities for their animals and how to meet their animals' needs. However, they further recommend that sellers should require owners to fill in a questionnaire to demonstrate that they understand their responsibilities before buying an animal, as well as undertake ‘a period of reflection’ to prevent impulse purchases.

The three organisations express concern about a proposal to increase the maximum length of a licence that local authorities can issue to up to three years; they note that much can change in three years and suggest instead that the inspection regime should be based on risk assessment. They also disagree with a proposal to allow a licence to be transferred to the new owners of a premises, on the not unreasonable grounds that the knowledge and experience of an owner is critical in maintaining animal welfare.

They express reservations, too, about proposals to allow an exemption from licensing requirements for businesses affiliated to a body accredited by UKAS, noting that this could cause problems if several UKAS-accredited schemes were operating (for example, covering different species in pet shops). They suggest instead that UKAS-accredited schemes could be used as part of the local authority licensing risk assessment framework.

On the matter of enforcement, the three organisations note that there is little point in introducing new legislation if it is not properly enforced, and that this requires appropriate resources. At a time when both Defra and local authorities are financially hard-pressed, they warn against the changes being used as a cost-cutting exercise.

In its consultation document, Defra explained that the aim of the updating exercise is ‘to modernise the animal licensing system to relieve the administrative burden on local authorities, simplify the application and inspection process for businesses, as well as maintain and improve existing animal welfare standards’. There is nothing wrong with those aims, although it might have been better if animal welfare had been listed as the first priority. It is clear from the response from the BVA, BSAVA and BVZS that there is considerable scope for improving animal welfare standards when the legislation is updated, across a wide range of species, and that the veterinary profession has much to contribute in this area. The aim of the exercise might be to reduce red tape and tidy up the law, but it could potentially achieve much more than that, and the Government should make the most of the opportunity available.

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