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Tough task on pet welfare

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ANYONE who is worried that public interest in companion animal welfare might be in danger of waning would do well to look at the website of the parliamentary Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRACom). At the beginning of February, the EFRACom announced that it would be holding ‘a series of short inquiries on animal welfare’ during the current Parliament, starting with an inquiry on domestic pets, and invited written evidence by the middle of March. Issues in which it was interested included the effectiveness of the 2006 Animal Welfare Act, regulation surrounding the sale of domestic pets (including online sales and advertising), and enforcement of current legislation (VR, February 13, 2016, vol 178, p 152). As a result of its request, the committee received no fewer than 250 written submissions of evidence from individuals, animal welfare organisations and professional associations, including the BVA and BSAVA, all of which are now available to view on its website. In addition, the EFRACom has held two oral evidence-gathering sessions, covering a wide range of topics, transcripts of which are also available on the website. Taken together, the responses not only demonstrate the level of interest in the subject; they also serve to illustrate the complex and in many respects unsatisfactory nature of the situation as things stand.

With regard to the Animal Welfare Act, the key question is, perhaps, not so much whether the Act has been effective, but whether it is being applied to best effect. To be effective, legislation, no matter how well it is drafted, needs to be fully implemented, widely understood and properly enforced. The Animal Welfare Act is primarily an enabling Act, implementation of which depends on secondary legislation and appropriate codes of practice. When the Act was introduced 10 years ago, these had still to be developed and, while some progress has been made since, this has been slow, as illustrated, for example, by the fact that Defra has only recently held a consultation on revising regulations on dog breeding and other animal-related businesses (VR, January 16, 2016, vol 178, p 52). Agreeing codes of practice that are clear and can be readily understood and acted on by owners has proved problematic, and has also hindered application of the Act in the way that was originally envisaged. The Act may have been effective in its aim of bringing most animal legislation under one umbrella, and it certainly broke new ground in placing a duty of care on pet owners to ensure that the needs of their animals are met. However, as the BVA and the BSAVA pointed out in their written evidence to the inquiry, it can also act as a barrier to the development of more specific animal welfare-related legislation, because it can always be argued that, if the Act were being effectively enforced, then, in theory at least, animal suffering should not occur.

As is clear from both written and oral evidence submitted to the inquiry, and as the EFRACom presumably recognised in raising the question, enforcement is an issue in its own right. At the root of the problem is the fact that no single agency has statutory responsibility for enforcing the Act, with the result that enforcement activity is patchy and responsibilities are less than clear cut. This problem is exacerbated by constraints on resources, which continue to affect local authorities and animal welfare charities alike. The difficulties are compounded by differences in animal welfare legislation between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which can cause confusion among owners and, indeed, potentially among those who might be responsible for enforcement.

Education has a role to play in enforcement, not least in ensuring that the requirements of legislation are widely understood. Worryingly, last November, the latest PDSA Animal Wellbeing report (for 2015) suggested that, despite the efforts that have been made in this area, the number of pet owners who were aware of their responsibilities under the Animal Welfare Act was at an all time low (VR, November 28, 2015, vol 177, pp 528, 529-530).

Although the terms of reference for the EFRACom's inquiry were quite specific, the oral evidence-gathering sessions have covered a wide range of topics, dealing with issues such as unlicensed breeding and illegal imports of puppies, the current fashion for brachycephalic dogs, the influence of breed standards on animal welfare, the role of the RSPCA and vets in animal welfare prosecutions, and implementation of the new microchipping regulations. To an extent this reflects the umbrella-like nature of the Animal Welfare Act and the fact that so many of the issues affecting pet welfare are interrelated. The committee has set itself a pretty tough task in holding this short inquiry into what some would see as a very big subject and it will be interesting to see what conclusions it draws from the wealth of evidence presented.

▪ Details of the progress and evidence presented to the EFRACom's ‘Animal welfare: domestic pets inquiry’ are available via www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/environment-food-and-rural-affairs-committee/environment-food-and-rural-affairs-sub-committee/inquiries/parliament-2015/animal-welfare-domestic-15-16. Accessed April 27, 2016

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