WEEK, the Companion Animal Welfare Council convened a major
conference at the Royal Society in London to discuss the latest
research into animal welfare both in the home and in animal
welfare establishments such as sanctuaries and dogs’
and cats’ homes, writes Charles Hampton.
This was a fascinating day that asked some fundamental questions, many of which may have considerable impact on the way in which people think about pets. Pet owners instinctively know that the needs of cats and dogs are significantly different. The range of needs of all pet animals are very often not fully taken into account by their owners and the advice often given, particularly to those pets that are regarded as almost disposable, is often inaccurate.
All the speakers stressed that there was still a great deal to do but there was no doubt that there was a great deal of misunderstanding about the nature of stress and about the ways in which it could be measured.
Clinical measurements were seldom reliable and observation was affected by the ongoing relationship the animal had with the observer. There were some principles but there was concern that even these were not taken into account in the building of pet or domestic animal housing. There needed to much more consultation and discussion between consultants, architects and pet care professionals.
One of the concerns of many of those presenting papers was the extent to which a pet's welfare is compromised by being left for long periods of time. Separation anxiety in dogs is becoming an increasing problem and a whole industry of canine behaviourists and councillors has grown up in the last few years based almost entirely on responses that might not exist if they were not left on their own (the same is becoming increasingly true of cats but of course the fundamental reasons for their behaviour is not separation anxiety but generalised stress in not being able to behave in the way that they naturally would do).
An extraordinary and unexpected result of the research that has been done over the past five years is that mongrels are very much more susceptible to separation anxiety than pedigree dogs. The reasons for this are not clear. It may be that pedigree dogs are bred in such a way that their dependence on humans is reduced because they were originally bred for specific requirements. When breeds are crossed they may revert to a dependent and physiologically regressed stage that makes then much more dependent on either human or same species companionship.
It was also pleasing to learn that although in some ways cross bred dogs did have a degree of hybrid vigour, overall, except in specific cases where the breeding of deleterious characteristics was an important part of the breed or where there were specific genetic malfunction, generally pedigree dogs were not "less healthy" than cross bred dogs and certainly their greater stability when being left alone in some ways made them more suitable pets.
In the question and answer sessions the discussion turned to licensing and to standards of care. David Cavill pointed out that The Pet Care Trust had codes of practice and standards of care for most species already available and the Trust's proposal of a pet animal licensing agency was greeted with approval. Most delegates agreed that the issue should be pressed with DEFRA in the development of the new animal welfare bill.
This was a valuable conference. There is no doubt that academics, although concerned about the welfare of animals and anxious to promote best practice and discover what is the best way of caring for pets both in the home and in confirmed environments, are nevertheless quite narrowly focused on issues of animal welfare which many within the industry not only take for granted but also naturally apply to the well being of the animal.
It was interesting that in hunt kennels, in zoos and in racing stables it was the professionals (the grooms, keepers and kennel staff) who were the first to realise that animals were showing signs of stress, disease or injury. They might not be able to diagnose precisely what the problem was, but they were quicker than veterinary surgeons in realising that a problem existed. This of course is not unexpected but it shows how important it is that staff in pet shops and at boarding kennels and catteries are not only experienced but also well trained.