Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Breeders, vets and companion animal overpopulation: just who is responsible?

A purebred sphynx cat.
UPDATE: The Centre for Veterinary Education recorded this and has made it available online! You can watch the panel discussion here.

Do we breed companion animals ethically? The answer depends substantially on what you mean. It was the subject of the annual Robert Dixon Memorial Symposium yesterday and gee it opened several cans of worms (not literally, that would have been disgusting and raised some welfare concerns in itself).

The panel consisted of Dr Linda Beer (vet and dog breeder), Dr Andrew Cornwell (NSW MP, Chair of the NSW Companion Animal Taskforce), Ms Maryann Dalton (Pet Industry Association of Australia executive officer), Dr Karen Hedberg (vet, breeder, judge and Chair of the Canine Health and Wellbeing Committee), Bidda Jones (RSPCA Australia Chief Scientist), Professor Richard Malik (small animal specialist from the Centre for Veterinary Education) and Professor Claire Wade (geneticist).

I took down around twelve pages of notes during the session but that is far too long for a blog post, so I am going to attempt to summarise the key points here. I should say at the outset that in doing so it is possible that I fail to convey the exact meaning of the speakers so do read this cautiously, but here goes…

Question 1: to what extent are breeders and vets responsible for the health and welfare of companion animals?

Some panellists felt that vets had a role in educating owners, while, as Dr Jones said, “We know an awful lot about some of the problems that exist in companion animal breeding but we’re not doing enough about it.”

Ms Dalton suggested that everyone is responsible, breeders need to breed sound animals and vets should pick up health problems as they present, but backyard breeders who don’t bother visiting vets (and don’t register as breeders or get involved with professional organisations) slip through the net.

Dr Beer suggested that some young veterinarians had negative attitudes about breeders, and were happy to say things about them to colleagues without necessarily confronting breeders, or, instead, make harsh demands on breeders. 

“Unfortunately the veterinary profession is pushing [breeders] away and not bringing them in and that is a failing,” she said. Instead, veterinarians should be comfortable working with breeders, making positive suggestions.

Dr Hedberg added that registered breeders would produce less than 20% of the puppies in Australia, and therefore should not be saddled with sole responsibility for companion animal overpopulation.

In her view, owners need to do their homework when purchasing an animal – is it suitable for their back yard? Has it been socialised? Can you meet the parents?

Cute puppies, but have you met their father?
“There is a lot of information that people fail to get when they buy a dog these days,” she said.

Dr Cornwell discussed recent NSW State Government changes currently going through parliament, including $800K funding for school education programs.

Dr Jones suggested that in the same way we need to be ethical consumers of meat, eggs and other foods, we need to be ethical “consumers” of companion animals.

“You need to find out where these animals come from because if you don’t you’re just perpetuating the problem.”

Resources such as the RSPCA’s Smart Puppy Buyer’s Guide can be helpful.

Professor Wade made the insightful point that while breeder registration is an excellent idea, a large number of people responsible for companion animal overpopulation would “never consider themselves a breeder so they would never register.”

Question 2. How can the numbers of companion animals bred annually in Australia be justified?

Well, one answer was “they can’t be”. Dr Hedberg cited difficulty in controlling unregistered breeders selling animals to people who don’t do their homework.

“People need to get off their butts, see the parents and see the conditions they are raised in,” she said.

The bad news is that if the conditions are horrible, people “pity buy” – relieving that animal of its awful predicament and giving the breeder more money and more incentive to do it all again [I have been guilty of this previously; once with a guinea pig and once with a cockatiel]. 

Dr Jones said she was constantly amazed that so many people don’t understand that entire animals reproduce. The RSPCA has been actively promoting the early desexing of animals (before they reach sexual maturity) to reduce the likelihood of breeding. Other positive steps include the registration of companion animal breeders, compulsory microchipping and the inclusion of breeder data on the microchip database so an animal can be traced back to the source.

Many of these suggestions will be implemented in New South Wales legislation shortly, Dr Cornwell said – with one warning: “We need to be careful that we don’t demonise pet ownership. If you over-regulate you will reduce pet ownership opportunities. Pet ownership is good for you, it is something that should be encouraged.”

Dr Beer pointed out that it was impossible to justify numbers of animals bred without knowing what these numbers are. But she also raised a controversial point: “In some parts of the world desexing is considered something you do in a bitch with pyo and at no other time.”

Question 3: Is some loss of young companion animals inevitable because we can’t expect them all to fit in behaviourally?

The answer, unfortunately, was almost resoundingly yes. Unrealistic owner expectations were identified as a big part of the problem. Dr Beer said prospective owners would often base their choice of a pet on appearance without factoring in temperament and normal "dog stuff".

You might love the look of this Border collie...but can you give him enough exercise and stimulation?
“There will always be loss when there are incorrect expectations of what the behaviour of a dog is…the do chew on things…they do poo on the carpet.”

Dr Hedberg added that many dogs in pounds had ended up there because they were simply bored to death. Owners would not or could not provide an appropriate environment. “They’re not being occupied, not being kept busy…a lot of these dogs don’t suit small backyards,” she said.

The subject of dog bites was raised and I was heartened to hear that Dr Cornwell’s message that he takes into government is that five things contribute to dog bites:
  • Failure of early socialisation
  • Genetics
  • Failure of later socialisation
  • Medication conditions
  • Victim behaviour

Anyone can affect the way a dog might behave towards an individual, and can end in an animal being destroyed unnecessarily or avoidably because of something that ultimately we have done.

Question 4: whose job is it to ensure that companion animals are bred fit for purpose?

There was detailed discussion around this point. Dr Beer, a breeder herself, used some examples to demonstrate that breeder and owner intended purposes could be very different.

Dr Cornwell suggested that pet purchase is “buyer beware: you have to make sure you purchase an animal that is fit to your purpose…then ensure you undertake appropriate socialisation of that animal.”

Dr Jones raised the issue of breed standards – a set of arbitrary rules that had nothing to do with aspects that buyers were looking for – i.e. does it bark? Does it shed? How does it fit into their life?

“The standards are mostly about appearance,” she said. “They make it very difficult for people to breed for temperament.”

Of course with all decisions we need to understand the way they are made. And we don't always like to question our own motives.

Professor Malik pointed out that pet ownership is an emotional decision, not a rational decision. “It’s a bit like buying a car,” he said. 

That is, you know you should see a mechanic first, and follow her advice if she tells you that this isn’t the car for you. But in truth, if your heart is set on the car, the sound advice from your mechanic may not alter your decision at all.

As a cat vet he said he had come to advocate for adoption of moggies over purebreds. No matter how detailed and sound the advice, potential owners are often refractory “because they love a Burmese”.

The discussion ended there, although it could have easily continued for some hours. Due to time constraints many issues around ethical breeding could not be addressed. 

SAT is interested in hearing your views about the scope of the problem and potential solutions.