THE Animal Welfare Act 2006 broke new ground by imposing a duty of care on pet owners to ensure that the five basic welfare needs of their animals are met – in relation to environment, diet, behaviour, companionship and health. Seven years after the Act came into force, one might expect owners’ awareness of those needs, which form a cornerstone for the effective operation of the Act, to have improved. Unfortunately, the latest PDSA Animal Wellbeing (PAW) report, which was published towards the end of last year (PDSA 2013), indicates that this has not been the case; if anything, awareness of pets’ needs has decreased.
The 2013 report is the third in a series which was instituted by the PDSA in 2011 to provide an annual insight into pet health and wellbeing. Focusing on dogs, cats and rabbits, it discusses the results of a survey involving 2149 pet owners, 555 children and 459 vets and veterinary nurses, which was carried out on its behalf by the market research organisation YouGov (VR, December 21/28, 2013, vol 173, pp 592-593). Among the main findings was that only 38 per cent of owners were familiar with the Animal Welfare Act and the animal welfare needs it sets out, compared with the 45 per cent recorded in 2011. As Richard Hooker, the PDSA's director of veterinary services, points out in an introduction to the report, this figure is ‘worryingly low’ and there is still much to be done to improve pet wellbeing. As Mr Hooker remarks, ‘Millions of pets still suffer in silence because their five key welfare needs are not being met.’ Many of the problems seen by animal welfare organisations are ‘entirely preventable’, but, he says, ‘People continue to make misinformed choices at every stage of their pet ownership journey, and consequently pet welfare is being compromised.’
The 2011 PAW report, based on a survey of 10,000 people, drew attention to a nation in which large numbers of pets were ‘stressed, lonely, overweight, bored, aggressive and misunderstood’ (VR, March 12, 2011, vol 168, pp 254, 255-256). Although the 2013 report identifies one or two positive developments, many of the figures presented would seem to support Mr Hooker's comments and suggest that, far from improving, the situation is getting worse. It notes, for example, that, in 2013, 58 per cent of dogs had never been taken to training classes when they were young, compared with 50 per cent in 2011; that the proportion of dogs getting exercise off the lead each day had fallen from 73 per cent in 2011 to 63 per cent in 2013; and that the proportion of dogs regularly left alone for five hours or more had increased from 18 per cent to 25 per cent. In cat-owning households, the survey found that the proportion of households where the number of cats exceeded the number of litter trays provided had increased from 34 per cent to 57 per cent between 2011 and 2013, and that only 5 per cent of owners looked at body shape and weight when deciding how much to feed their cat. Regarding rabbits, it found that 18 per cent of rabbits had no opportunity for exercise, compared with 4 per cent in 2011, and that 65 per cent of rabbits continued to live alone.
The report contains useful information on issues such as uptake of health treatments in different geographical areas, attitudes to ownership, and where owners go for advice about their pets. Like the previous PAW reports, particularly the 2012 report (VR, November 17, 2012, vol 171, pp 486, 487-488), it suggests that there is a mismatch between owners’ views on how animals should be looked after and how they actually behave. With 88 per cent of owners considering themselves to belong to a nation of animal lovers, this, the report makes clear, is largely because of a lack of awareness of animals’ needs. Figures presented in the report also make clear that the majority of owners significantly underestimate the lifetime costs of owning a pet – in most cases, whether the pet is a dog, a cat or a rabbit, by several thousands of pounds.
There can be no doubt that a lack of appropriate knowledge contributes substantially to the welfare and other problems associated with irresponsible pet ownership, and a paper summarised on p 118 of this issue of Veterinary Record, discussing how poor owner knowledge contributes to the high number of accidental litters born to pet cats in the UK, lends support to this view (Welsh and others 2013).
The question is, what should be done about it? The PDSA's report highlights a number of areas where action is needed and rightly points out that education is key. There already exist a number of initiatives, including, among many others, the PDSA's Big Pet Check, National Pet Month and the National Office of Animal Health's ‘I ♥ my pet’ campaign (see p 108 of this issue) as well as information leaflets for owners produced by both the BVA and the Animal Welfare Foundation (AWF). However, the evidence suggests that these in themselves are not enough. At present, despite the efforts being made by animal welfare charities, animal welfare is not part of the National Curriculum. As Tiffany Hemming of the AWF pointed out in a debate at last year's BVA Congress, it should be (VR, December 21/28, 2103, vol 173, pp 579-598). Meanwhile, hardly a day goes by without a pet-orientated story appearing somewhere in the national media; it would be nice to think that, somehow, these could be harnessed more effectively to get the responsible ownership message across. Clearly, a much more concerted, coordinated effort is needed if the problems highlighted in the PAW report are to begin to be addressed.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, “2.7 million healthy, adoptable cats and dogs … are put down in U.S. shelters each year.” That’s about one animal every 11 seconds!
These statistics are staggering and wholly unacceptable nowadays especially when there are so many ways to help reduce the number of pets that may become homeless or end up in shelters.
Two main reasons for pets being in shelters are that guardians give them up, not wanting to care for these loyal pets anymore, or animal control finds them alone on the street.
ASPCA statistics show that only 10 percent of the animals turned over to shelters have been spayed or neutered, which contributes to overpopulation and the high intake and euthanasia rates in overcrowded shelters.
But guess what? There are a number of strategies available today that can help end pet homelessness and you can help them succeed. Just take a look at these 10 simple ways to help!
1. Be a Lost Pet Advocate
If you find a lost pet, try helping them get home first before dropping them off at an animal shelter. Here’s something to think about — about 30 percent of lost dogs and 5 percent of cats will be reclaimed at shelters by their guardians. With your help, shelters can be less overcrowded and more pets might be able to find their way home faster.
2. Say NO to Irresponsible Breeding
When you support anti-puppy mill initiatives, you are working against irresponsible breeding and animal cruelty. Say no to this horrendous industry by standing up to the estimated 10,000 puppy mills in the United States and avoid buying animals from pet stores. You can also partake in pet store protests held by local anti-puppy mill groups like metro Detroit’s Puppy Mill Awareness of Southeast Michigan.
3. Go to Bat for Cats
About 70 percent of shelter cats end up being killed; this statistic includes strays, feral and surrendered cats. Join a local cat initiative to keep cats safe from being put down by promoting trap-neuter-return (TNR) for feral cats and practicing responsible pet guardianship.
4. Volunteer to Find Forever Families
In order for off-site pet adoption events and programs to be successful at finding homeless pets forever families, volunteers like you and organization partnerships are needed. Such events partner with agencies with similar animal welfare concerns to work together to make a difference.
5. Opt to Adopt, Not Shop
Unfortunately, many pets bought from pet stores have health issues that can result in pain and suffering and even death. Save healthy homeless pets from being euthanized at overcrowded shelters by giving them a permanent, loving home. Don’t buy a pet, adopt!
6. Fund an Awesome Rescue Group
Alongside animal shelters, there are also rescue groups that rescue dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, and other small pets that are breed or issue specific. Shelters and rescue groups are essential in the long term care of animals. By funding animal rescue groups, you can help homeless pets by providing them with needed veterinary care and supplies during their adoption journey. Check out these amazing rescue groups for starters:
7. Become a Foster Parent
Help to socialize and care for homeless animals by becoming a foster parent to a shelter pet. Being a foster pet parent will lead to fewer shelter pets being euthanized and gives pets more time to find their forever homes while being in a temporary home filled with love.
8. Be a Self-Appointed Pet Reporter
Lost and stray pets can get scared and run away from help and may end up reproducing with other street animals, thereby contributing to even more pet homelessness. If you are unable to locate guardians on your own or an animal appears threatening, report any domestic animal you see roaming around your neighborhood to animal control.
9. Curb Pet Homelessness with Spaying and Neutering
The homeless pet population can be significantly reduced simply by having your adopted pets spayed or neutered. Not only will this stop overpopulation, but fewer animals will accidentally be born only to be taken to the shelter. Spay and neuter is a proven way to reduce pet overpopulation and can ensure that every pet has a family to love them. If you already spay and neuter your companions, then consider supporting local spay/neuter initiatives through volunteer and awareness-raising efforts, or simply by making a monetary donation.
10. Be a Responsible Pet Guardian
Don’t be a part of the problem by being an irresponsible pet guardian. Be responsible by micro-chipping your companions, updating pet identification tags, spaying or neutering, and choosing to adopt a pet if and only if you plan to care for them for the remainder of their life.
With these ways and more to help end pet homelessness, all of us at One Green Planet encourage you to participate in World Spay Day observed today, Feb. 25, 2014!
Image source: Klearchos Kapoutsis/ Flickr