Monday, June 20, 2016

Do we know what companion animals need?

Poppy loves people, but she also needs to socialise with other dogs regularly.
Do we know what companion animals need to enjoy good welfare, and are they getting it? In studying animal welfare it’s fascinating that there are extensive standards, guidelines and codes of practice regarding the care of farm animals, laboratory animals, animals used in entertainment and teaching, but few guidelines when it comes to the care of companion animals.

I believe this is because of a fundamental assumption that companion animals are pets, they’re loved, so they’re being looked after – we don’t have to worry so much.

But affection for companion animals can be misinformed and misguided. The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) produces an annual report based on the “five needs” of companion animals.

What are these five needs anyway?
  1. The need for a suitable ENVIRONMENT
  2. The need for a suitable DIET
  3. The need to express normal BEHAVIOUR
  4. The need to LIVE WITH or APART FROM other animals

The PDSA report is not a quick vox pop. The PDSA surveyed 53 THOUSAND pet owners (you can download a PDF of the report for 2015, and those of previous years, here).

The bad news is that there is a high prevalence of preventable welfare problems in companion animals.
“So many problems that are seen by animal welfare organisations across the UK are entirely preventable. People continue to make misinformed choices at every stage of their pet ownership journey, and consequently pet welfare is being compromised…love is not always enough. Pets deserve a life where all their physical and emotional needs are provided for, so they can live healthy and happy lives.”
The good news is that these reports provide really valuable insights, and suggest areas for potential improvement.

For example, the 2015 report found that more than 2.7million dogs in the UK are not given the opportunity to exercise off lead outside the home or garden. More than 60 per cent of dogs never attend training classes within their first six months of life. Many are not microchipped.

When it comes to cats, more than half of cats had to share food and water bowls (they’re not into this) and 50 per cent had to share litter trays (a recipe for so-called inappropriate urination).

Over half (57 per cent) of rabbits live alone, despite being a species that thrives on companionship. A large number (29 per cent) are fed rabbit muesli (not a suitable diet) – but this is an improvement from 2011 when 49 per cent of rabbits were fed such a diet.

Veterinarians, myself included, do tend to focus on the physical needs of animals (ensuring they are free from pain, injury and disease and treating these conditions when they do arise) but these reports show the veterinary profession can play a role in reminding owners – and ourselves – about the five welfare needs.