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Codes and welfare

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CODES of practice for the welfare of dogs and cats, which were published by Defra this week, are in some ways welcome; in others they represent a missed opportunity.

They are welcome, first, because they are necessary.

The codes, along with a similar welfare code for horses, have been drawn up under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to provide practical advice to help dog and cat owners fulfil their duty of care to their pets and ensure that their animals’ needs are met. One of the consequences of this Act, which came into force in April 2007, was to make it an offence to fail to provide for the needs of an animal, making it possible for enforcement agencies to take steps to prevent animal suffering, rather than only act afterwards as had been the case previously. To fulfil their duty of care, owners need to know what their animals’ needs are, and one aim of the codes is to set out their responsibilities and explain what the animals need in terms of a suitable environment and diet, protection from pain and suffering, being able to exhibit normal behaviour and being housed with, or separately from, other animals.

Although it will not be an offence to fail to comply with the codes of practice, they could be used as evidence in court to support a case of poor welfare brought under the Animal Welfare Act, which could lead to a prosecution for animal cruelty.

The second reason they are welcome is that they are better than previous drafts, on which Defra consulted in November last year. These were rather forbidding documents; they were long and prescriptive, not altogether consistent and in some areas went into more detail than seemed necessary or wise (VR, November 15, 2008, vol 163, p 581).

Following input from a number of organisations, including the RSPCA, Dogs Trust, Kennel Club, PDSA, Feline Advisory Bureau, BVA and others, the revised documents are improved. However, they still suffer from having to fulfil a dual purpose, that is, providing practical guidance to owners while also providing guidance that enforcers and the courts can refer to when making judgements on whether the relevant welfare standards stipulated in the Animal Welfare Act have been met.

To be effective, the codes will need to be widely accepted, assimilated and understood. While better than the original drafts, some people might still find the published codes intimidating and, in this respect, Defra might have done well to follow the example of Wales, which, in publishing its own welfare codes in December last year, also provided advice to owners in a more ‘user-friendly’, summary form. No matter how good the codes are, there will always be the problem that while responsible owners who already take good care of their animals will read them and take note of the contents, irresponsible owners will not.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the codes – and this is where an opportunity has been missed – is that they do not include advice on good breeding practice. There is no doubt that inherited diseases can adversely affect the welfare of pets and other animals, and that many problems could be avoided if potential owners had access to better information before purchasing their pet. For these reasons, the BVA, along with a number of other organisations, recommended that owners should have a duty to ensure that unhealthy animals with known hereditary diseases were not used for breeding and that the codes should include advice on screening for such diseases. Defra argued that this was not possible on legal grounds, which seems unfortunate given the high profile afforded to breeding issues over the past 18 months and in view of the fact that there is unlikely to be any new legislation on dog breeding in the near future.

In view of the importance of breeding issues to companion animal welfare, and continuing interest in the subject, it makes sense for the BVA to call on the Government, as it did earlier this week, to review the welfare codes in 12 months’ time, to see whether further advice on breeding issues can be included (see p 700 of this issue). As the Association’s President, Bill Reilly, remarked, the codes represent an important tool for educating dog and cat owners about their responsibilities for the health and welfare of their pets, and it is vital that Defra keeps them under review to ensure that they actively promote responsible ownership.

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