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Pet assurance schemes could increase welfare

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By Josh Loeb

Pet welfare initiatives akin to farm assurance schemes such as Red Tractor and RSPCA Assured are needed to help ‘signpost’ clients towards higher welfare dog breeders, BVA past president Sean Wensley has said.

Speaking last week at a BVA congress debate, held during the London Vet Show, about large scale puppy farming and whether it could ever be justified, Wensley questioned whether vets should ‘accept’ the current level of demand for dogs. He suggested they might instead want to make efforts to reduce that demand.

Wensley drew a comparison with the BVA’s ‘less and better’ policy on meat consumption, which advocates people reducing their overall consumption of animal-derived products, while maintaining their proportional spend on these products so as to purchase higher welfare ones.

Perhaps society needed fewer dogs overall, but more dogs produced to higher standards, he said.

His comments were intended as a counterargument to a talk at last year’s BVA congress given by vet and crossbench peer Lord Trees who argued that encouraging responsible puppy farming in the UK could help reduce the smuggling of pets across Europe.

Lord Trees, who is also the veterinary editor-in-chief of Vet Record, acknowledged that the phrase ‘puppy farming’ had negative connotations but said introducing the measure in the UK would cut the profits made by the black market trade in dogs bred overseas.

Wensley acknowledged that this idea had its attractions but said the veterinary profession should be redoubling its efforts in other areas before advocating such a course.

‘It’s very seductive to look at this problem and say, let’s go for the lesser of two evils and try and crank up domestic production [of dogs] and take some anticipated hits [on welfare],’ Wensley said.

We need to address demand and better match people to pets that fit their lifestyle in the first place

However, he suggested ‘a better and more animal welfare-friendly thing to do’ would be to crack down on illegal importation while offering more pre-purchase consultations to ‘address demand and better match people to pets that fit their lifestyle in the first place.’

Wensley said new dog breeding licensing regulations, which mandate a star system whereby establishments are scored according to their welfare standards, needed to be ‘adequately enforced’ and harnessed more effectively by vets.

‘Could we realistically shrink the demand?’ he asked. ‘Could there be earlier intervention to try to motivate people to visit us [vets] at an early stage of thinking about getting a pet?

‘What about signposting clients more confidently to some of the smaller scale breeders who are given a five-star rating under the new regulations?’

Some assurance schemes the likes of which Wensley advocates already exist, albeit in a relatively early form. For example, the Scottish SSPCA Assured Puppy Breeder scheme was launched last week, and the Kennel Club also has an assurance scheme.

Animal welfare enforcement officer Rob Quest, who spoke alongside Wensley, said that encouraging the production of puppies on a larger scale in the UK would not necessarily solve the problem of illegal importation, since, if done ethically, the costs might rise beyond what people would be prepared to pay.

‘Will the public still pay if they can get cheaper puppies from Ireland and other EU member states?’ Quest asked. ‘If we do it [puppy farming] properly on a large scale, the price of those dogs is inevitably going to go up by a lot.

‘If we ban the import of puppies under six months of age, either directly or through the third party sales ban which comes in in April, how do we stop smuggling?

‘If there’s such a price differential between dogs available here and dogs available elsewhere, including in Ireland, we need good border control – because they will be smuggled in.’

Robin Hargreaves, another BVA past president, said in questions after the event: ‘People are prepared to pay a fortune for a dog that looks a certain way. If only we could change that around and get it so that people would pay a fortune for something that was actually bred for welfare, with good socialisation...and we could make it a selling point that these animals are healthy and aren’t going to come back with health problems.’

However, on the question of whether vets should be trying to reduce demand for dogs, Hargreaves added: ‘I’m not comfortable with the idea that a roomful of vets should be discouraging people from owning pets when I've spent the past five years extolling the virtues of pet ownership and how good it is for individuals and society. I want it recorded that I don’t want fewer dogs around – I love dogs.’•

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