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A job to do on pet welfare

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LIKE previous reports, the PDSA's Animal Wellbeing (PAW) report for 2016, which was published last month,1 contains a wealth of statistics relating to the health and welfare of pets in the UK, covering issues such as pet obesity and behaviour, and owners' attitudes to preventive healthcare. However, more than anything else, the figures presented in the report highlight the importance of more owners being made aware of the needs of their pets, ideally before they buy them. If owners don't know what their animals' needs are, how can they look after them properly? In the year that marks the 10th anniversary of the Animal Welfare Acts (VR, November 5, 2016, vol 179, p 446), which introduced a requirement for owners to meet the five welfare needs of their animals, this message seems particularly relevant. At the same time, the figures given in the report indicate the scale of the task ahead.

The PAW report has been produced annually since 2011, on the basis of surveys of pet owners, vets and veterinary nurses. Among the findings highlighted this year are that:

▪ There has been a slight increase in the proportion of pet owners reporting that they are familiar with the Animal Welfare Acts and the five animal welfare needs as defined in the legislation, with 35 per cent reporting that they were familiar with the Acts compared with 31 per cent in 2015. However, this still means that about two-thirds of pet owners are unfamiliar with the Acts – and 26 per cent of respondents said they hadn't even heard of them.

▪ Owners who were unaware of their responsibilities under the Acts were less likely to have provided preventive healthcare to their pet than those who had heard of them.

▪ Ninety-eight per cent of pet owners underestimated the costs of owning a pet, with 12 per cent believing that it would cost only £500 over the pet's entire lifetime.

▪ Fifty per cent of owners would consider getting a pet from an online advert on a classified website, and 28 per cent would consider getting a pet imported from outside the UK.

▪ Almost a quarter (24 per cent) did no research before choosing their pet, and only 5 per cent of owners went to a vet for advice.

These and other findings discussed in the report indicate that more needs to be done to make more owners aware of their responsibilities towards their animals and to promote responsible pet ownership generally, but where is this information to come from? When asked who should be educating pet owners about the concept of the five animal welfare needs, 95 per cent of 700 veterinary professionals who responded to the PDSA's survey said practising vets, 91 per cent said veterinary nurses, 91 per cent said animal charities, 84 per cent said the media and 84 per cent said pet shops and breeders. Interestingly, there is no mention in the report of the role of government in this context, which could indicate that the Government is seen as being unlikely to provide the necessary information. That said, 94 per cent of the veterinary professionals said that learning about the five welfare needs should be a compulsory part of the school curriculum.

The role of the media should not be underestimated in all this, as illustrated, perhaps, by reports this week that there has been a surge in the number of searches for boxer dogs on the Kennel Club's Find a Puppy website following the release of John Lewis's much-hyped Christmas advertisement featuring Buster the Boxer. Meanwhile, the section on behaviour in the PAW report notes that 12 per cent of dog owners hadn't trained their dog in any way and that almost two thirds (66 per cent) said their dog displayed at least one behaviour that they would like to change. In view of this, and given the media's current interest in all things to do with pets and vets, maybe there's a case to be made for a prime time television show called Strictly Come Dog Training. This would probably be better than the Great British Bark Off.

The PDSA's report rightly emphasises the importance of owners doing some research before obtaining a pet, noting that, with little or no prior knowledge about where to get a pet from responsibly, how much it will cost over a lifetime and what its needs are, animal wellbeing is likely to be compromised. It points out that vets are well-placed to help owners with their prepurchase choices but, with many pets being bought on a whim, and only 5 per cent of owners seeking advice from a vet beforehand, this clearly presents some challenges. The PDSA draws attention to the types of prepurchase information that practices already offer to prospective owners, while also drawing attention to a framework it has developed to help practices guide clients in the process of taking on a pet (‘Which Pet?’, www.pdsa.org.uk/get-involved/our-current-campaigns/pdsa-animal-wellbeing-report/which-pet; see also pp 555-556 of this issue).

Although much of the information in the report relates to dogs, cats and rabbits, other species are considered as well. A worrying finding, given the increasing number of non-traditional (exotic) species being kept as pets, was that only 17 per cent of owners felt that enough information was available to help people choose an exotic pet responsibly.

The section on obesity includes the statistics that only 52 per cent of pet owners knew their pet's current weight, and only 18 per cent knew their pet's body condition score. Nevertheless, 79 per cent believed their pet was at its ideal weight.

The PAW Report for 2016 suggests that one or two things may have improved since the first report in 2011 while also making clear that there is much that has not. Ten years after the introduction of the Animal Welfare Acts there is still much to be done in terms of increasing owner awareness, and a long way to go in improving wellbeing among pets in the UK.

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