The true cost of creature comforts

We are a nation of pet lovers, yet thousands of acts of neglect and cruelty occur each year. Kate Hilpern reports
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The Independent Online

Nearly half of all UK households own a pet, ranging from the more traditional cats, dogs and rabbits to the less conventional snakes, lizards and even alligators. Unfortunately, despite new legislation and efforts on the part of animal welfare groups, instances of neglect and cruelty still persist.

The Animal Welfare Act 2006 is the most important piece of legislation in relation to the welfare of pets (see page 3). It places a "duty of care" on all pet owners to provide for their animals' needs. This, together with public education and direct intervention, has improved the welfare standards for many pet animals in the UK. But animal welfare problems persist and, in extreme cases, animals suffer severe physical or emotional cruelty. Others are simply abandoned, while some are taken into the care of the RSPCA or other welfare organisations.

The problem is at least partly the result of impulse buying. Other reasons include neglect of appropriate behavioural training; changes in family, health or financial circumstances; irresponsible behaviour; and breeding. Ros Clubb, scientist in the wildlife science department of the RSPCA, adds, "Another significant problem is lack of research carried out or advice offered on the needs of an animal before purchase."

This is a particular problem with non-domestic pets. "There has been an increase in the number of unusual reptiles and mammals with special needs that are kept as pets – such as sugar gliders, racoons, African pygmy hedgehogs, green iguanas and caimans which are small alligators," she explains. "These kinds of animals carry a huge responsibility. Caimans, for instance, can grow up to three meters long, while other non-domestic animals live for up to 50 years. Most have very particular needs when it comes to diet, temperature, humidity and space required. Even things like the floor of their environment are key – whether you use soil, sawdust or anything else – because if you use the wrong thing, the animal could choke on it or suffer digestion problems. Some animals like sugar gliders spend a great deal of time in trees and need a large area with shelter."

Despite such special needs, recent research by the RSPCA found that just one in five shops provide free written information about the non-domestic animals they sell. "When you take the large chain Pets At Home – which do provide leaflets – out of the picture, that leaves just five per cent of shops providing free information. We were surprised and disappointed by this," says Clubb. "This is a huge concern because it means people are not given the information so they can fully think through what they're taking on. We have also done a survey of vets who look after non-domestic animals and they have also said that lack of knowledge on the part of the pet owner is the biggest problem in animals that end up coming to their attention."

Animals – non-domestic or domestic – that do not wind up at the vet may be taken into the care of organisations including the RSPCA. Good news is that over the past five years, the number of healthy animals entering the care of the RSPCA has decreased by 20 per cent, with 17,839 fewer animals coming into the RSPCA in 2006 than 2002. In fact, in 2006, the number of animals rehomed and the number of animals euthanased was at its lowest. The RSPCA attributes the decrease in the number of unwanted animals to neutering and responsible pet ownership campaigns and education, although it points out that with over 70,000 animals still entering RSPCA care each year (and thousands taken into the care of other organisations), there is still a huge problem that leaves many animals needing new homes.

In the case of dogs, many wind up as strays (48,523 in 2006), with less than half (46 per cent) returned to their owners. Some of these strays, as well as animals taken to organisations like the RSPCA, unfortunately have to be euthanased. The RSPCA stresses that the humane destruction of healthy dogs is a last resort and is only carried out reluctantly where dogs are no longer wanted and new homes cannot be found for them. Indeed, the number euthanased each year is relatively low (1,063 in 2006) when compared to the number of dogs the RSPCA finds new homes for (16,716 in 2006). "However, this figure is still unacceptable and is a reflection of continuing irresponsible pet ownership," says an RSPCA spokesperson. "Ideally, in five or less years, there will be no healthy animals being euthanased by the RSPCA, local authorities or any other organisations."

The number of healthy dogs put to sleep could be reduced with a combination of simple, practical actions, believes the RSPCA. "Micro chipping would assist with localising pet owners and could reduce the number of strays. Neutering of dogs could also prevent unwanted pregnancies and help control the dog population. The provision of suitable information and guidance from pet sellers should also improve the welfare of the animal concerned."

Importing endangered species

Many pet-keepers in the UK assume that any animal on sale is captive-bred and that all wild animals are protected by international regulations to limit their capture and sale. Both of these assumptions are untrue.

A diverse range of species continues to be on sale to hobbyists and the pet-keeping public through many avenues including pet shops, commercial breeders and the internet. Reptiles cause a particular problem. Despite improvements in experienced keepers' knowledge of the needs of many species now in captivity in the UK, and the ability of commercial breeders to supply some species from captive-bred animals, 100,000 "protected" wild reptiles were removed from the wild last year – and who knows how many "unprotected" species – to supply the demands of the pet trade in the EU, including the UK.

The picture is not so bleak for birds. Since the introduction of EU legislation in October 2005 that stopped the importation of live birds taken from the wild into all EU member states – following the avian flu outbreak – the trade into the UK has stopped, says Ros Clubb, a scientist in the wildlife department of the RSPCA. "But we do need to keep an eye out for what is happening underground," she says. "We have heard, for instance, that wild birds are still being sold because people are being told they are captive-bred when they are not." The downside of the decrease in bird trade is that it may account for the increase in the reptile trade, which almost doubled from 2005 to 2006.

"The other concern is that this doubling of number of reptiles taken from the wild suggests a lot more species, that are not currently protected, could become endangered as a result of this trade. Hopefully, this will mean they will eventually be protected legally – but in the meantime, a lot continue to be taken from the wild and die," says Clubb.

The RSPCA advocates far stricter regulations to prevent the importation of vulnerable animals in to the EU, which until recently was the largest market for the wild bird trade and remains so for reptiles.