Recently I had the great pleasure of attending the first ever 'Dogs in Society' conference arranged by APGAW - the All Party Group for Animal Welfare - a group of MPs, animal welfare organisations, and campaigners using the influence of politicians and experts to raise welfare of animals both nationally and internationally.
Meeting every few months in the House of Commons APGAW discusses all aspects of animal welfare from fox hunting to ritual slaughter, animals used in experiments to puppies sold in pet shops. I've been an active member of APGAW ever since I started lobbying for improved dog welfare a few years back and this conference was a result of many a dog-themed meeting clearly not having the necessary discussion time post-meeting to really achieve any proper results.
Dogs in Society was well attended by representatives of most of the major canine organisations including Kennel Club, RSPCA, Dogs Trust, Battersea, as well as passionate campaigners like myself (PupAid), CARIAD, The Karlton Index, Vets Get Scanning, Hidden-In-Sight, animal welfare lawyers, as well as politicians, and representatives from trade/industry including Pets at Home, Pedigree, and Pet Industry Federation (PIF).
APGAW's co-chair MP Henry Smith opened the conference stressing the importance for everyone to "work together" which should be obvious as we're all dog lovers right? Wrong - but I'll come back to that shortly.
The next speaker was one of my favourite politicians Angela Smith MP, previously Shadow DEFRA Minister, who ran through some of the recommendations from last year's APGAW report, reporting an overall "progress in small steps rather than giant leaps", and asking everyone present to "keep up the pressure". The delay in the much anticipated Puppy Contract was highlighted, as well as the simple but important observation that as well as stressing shortage of Local Authority resources, that also "no legislation is worth the paper it's written on if it can't be enforced."
Angela also emphasised that regarding Government taking action of any sort, there must be "consensus" when it came to dog welfare groups, which is currently sadly still lacking. Ms Smith also stressed how we need to be pragmatic about what can be achieved and invited back a dog licencing scheme as a way of providing "sustainable and fair" resources in the face of imminent public spending cuts.
A brief opportunity for questions followed so in the spirit of 'consensus' I stood up and asked the whole room this question: "With the well-recognised and often serious health and welfare implications of puppies sold in a pet shop environment, taking into account the journey or 'chain' from commercial breeder to consumer - including legal separation of mum and pup below 8 weeks of age - and not to mention huge public and animal welfare organisations appetite for a ban - who here is still in favour of puppies sold in pet shops?" Only one person stood up - unsurprisingly the representative from the Pet Industry Federation - a self-proclaimed responsible dog breeder herself - who (proudly) answered: "We [Pet Industry Federation] do believe in the responsible sale of puppies in pet shops."
And herein lies the problem; for as long as industry protects the interests of its pet shops, decisions are harder to make with any group desperate for positive change, whole groups tarnished by the lowest common denominator - in this case Pet Industry Federation. This is particularly detrimental to dog welfare in the UK as Pet Industry Federation sit on the Canine and Feline Sector Group (alongside all the major welfare organisations) which report directly to Government/DEFRA. So in my opinion there needs to be a majority vote from now on - consensus over unanimity - for the poor dogs' sake.
The next speaker was DEFRA's own Minister, George Eustice MP, who mentioned next spring's introduction of compulsory microchipping, as well as the Pet Travel Scheme, and most importantly DEFRA's spring commitment to undertaking a "complete review of all animal establishment licencing and animal welfare codes." Mr Eustice also mentioned reducing the number of litters from licenced breeders from five to three, as well as admitting local authorities struggled to enforce legislation and were often "overwhelmed".
After finally conceding the Government/DEFRA had "more to do" in terms of dog welfare legislation, Mr Eustice was challenged by Vets Get Scanning's Debbie Matthews arguing "compulsory microchipping doesn't work unless there's compulsory scanning". A flustered Minister couldn't really deliver a concise answer, so I urge all readers to sign and share this important e-petition to make sure this issue (that affects all dog owners) is debated in Parliament ASAP.
Next to speak was Labour's Shadow DEFRA Minister Kerry McCarthy who revealed MPs receive "hundreds of emails" regarding animal welfare, and referencing issues including "internet trade in dogs" as well as "pet shops" and "dogs sold sick or unsocialised or both." Ms McCarthy praised the work of Battersea Dogs Home stressing the number of greyhounds needing homes witnessed on her last visit. Mentions were also given to the dog meat trade in the Far East, requesting Government puts pressure on the Foreign Office when visiting these countries, concluding we need "better protection for dogs."
Discussion time followed with Dogs Trust challenging the Minister on a Pet Travel Scheme that has been proven to be ineffective; made even clearer by their recent 'illegal' smuggling of a cuddly toy dog without effective border checks. Angela Smith MP asked George Eustice to confirm that any forthcoming legislation overhaul will be centred on the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
The importance of internet dog sales was also mentioned again with France now setting an excellent example by publicly connecting internet trading with tax paying; the Minister preferring "voluntary" rather than "mandatory" codes. The PDSA's Vicki Betton told the room about the PAW Report's recent revelation that only 31% of the public are even aware of an Animal Welfare Act 2006 stressing the clear need for animal welfare to be included in the school curriculum - however the Minister disagreed, saying there was no room for animal welfare education.
Rescue dog owning MP Rob Flello stressed his commitment to dog welfare comparing himself to a "terrier", i.e. once he gets his "teeth into something" he "doesn't let go easily" and assured us all we'll be seeing a lot of him - a claim I can already substantiate as I work very closely with Rob. He then introduced behaviour and welfare expert Dr John Bradshaw who asked "Are we still a nation of dog lovers?" An excellent talk discussed the way we choose dogs, changes in the roles of dogs, disposable pets vs. lifelong relationship, urbanisation resulting in dog/owner disconnection, and the humanisation of pets e.g. human names and increasing emphasis on appearance.
The subject of anthropomorphism was discussed too with reference to brachycephalic (short nosed) breeds like pugs and French bulldogs resembling children's faces, coupled with the alarming statistics from The Royal Vet College (RVC) finding 80% of pugs suffer obstructed airways, congested teeth, eye problems, and skin fold dermatitis. Furthermore increased owner attachment showed a favouring of traits related to disability e.g. breathlessness, excessive panting, front paws turning inwards ('cute' stance) when their chests become hyper-inflated, resulting in many pug owners actually getting a buzz from caring for a dog with these problems; along the lines of Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome, and providing enough buzz to keep repeating this cycle of pet ownership.
Dr Bradshaw also mentioned the difficulty, even by scientists, in measuring or even defining "mental suffering" in dogs, and called on the veterinary profession to "do more" regarding offering expert behavioural advice. The resulting pug-centric discussion included how these are also 'status dogs' (just not in the same way as Staffies, etc), as well as Steve Dean expressing his displeasure at all pugs - responsibly and irresponsibly bred - being labelled as 'pugs' to which Dr Bradshaw replied "When they come into the RVC for surgery - a pug is a pug - papers or no papers."
Regarding puppy trading Dr Bradshaw also stated that "anything that deprives a puppy from family life" was detrimental especially in the golden 6-15 weeks period and compared the stress cortisol levels experienced by puppies trafficked being the "equivalent of dogs suffering from cancer." He concluded that stress compromises their ability to learn and with lack of human contact, to socialise, through the chain of transportation from puppy farm to seller e.g. pet shop.
Animal welfare campaigner, actor, and legend Peter Egan chaired the next session, starting by introducing animal welfare legal expert Mike Radford, who delivered an excellent lecture about laws and enforcement. He examined whether legislation has kept apace with our understanding of dogs, and questioned how, with limited finances, can law be enforced. Mr Radford highlighted the differences in law between private and public ownership roles and issues, the latter requiring mandatory laws and regulation. The role of the State was explored, including decreased consistency, as well as the dire need for scrutiny, transparency, and accountability.
Mr Radford also mentioned how "vested interests" can often inhibit "working together". He explained why the Animal Welfare Act is rarely enforced - due to local authorities being advised that it's discretionary rather than mandatory (as it had been the Government's intention that the Act was a cost-neutral Bill).
Furthermore Mr Radford criticised DEFRA for "disintegrating before our eyes and only being interested in farm animals". Continuing to explain issues with resources, responsibility of enforcement (Local authority, DEFRA, RSPCA?), and difficulties in assessing technical judgements. Mr Radford clarified that a lot of messaging from the pet industry tends to "bend towards vested commercial interests" and agreed that Pet Industry Federation's earlier answer, i.e. "responsible sale of puppies in pet shops" was in fact an "oxymoron" - couldn't agree more Mike.
Breeding, traceability, and accountability were again explored before explaining different duties of dog ownership (moral vs. legal), emphasising both consumers and attitudes have greatly changed in recent years, and finally asking if it's "just too easy to get a dog?"
Other speakers covered further aspects of dog ownership, behaviour, and trading but it was clear at the end of the day that with Government cuts, lack of both resources and will from DEFRA, the responsibility for change would lie largely with the people in the room. Representatives from all organisations need to do their bit, help change public behaviour, and especially puppy buying habits. However one thing's for sure, as long as the pet industry's vested interests are looked after e.g. supporting puppies sold by pet shops/without their mums/3rd party sales unanimity can never be reached - appearing to suit the industry's status quo.
It's therefore sadly unlikely legislation will ever be updated to reflect Government's own advice about always seeing a puppy with its mother, and that the wishes of all those who genuinely care about dog welfare are achieved, resulting in the lives of the UK's cruelly exploited breeding dogs and their offspring never being redressed.
So with this in mind I urge all readers who are members of Pet Industry Federation to ask their CEO Nigel Baker why they continue to be a lone voice supporting puppies in pet shops, invite a change of heart, and bring Pet Industry Federation onto the right side of history; so the next few months' exciting legislation overview can benefit future canine health and welfare rather than the profit and cruelty associated with pet shop puppies and irresponsible breeding/selling. You can find their contact details here. You can also tweet them directly @PetFedUK.
Finally I'd like to thank Marisa Heath for organising such an interesting day and urge all readers to sign and share the 'Puppy Petition', as well as asking your MP to sign EDM 713 'Puppies and Kittens in Pet Shops'. Thank you.