Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Written evidence submitted by the Blue Cross

Introductory Statement

Blue Cross is one of the UK’s leading pet charities. We are dedicated to improving the lives of sick and unwanted pets across the UK. At Blue Cross we take in animals of all shapes and sizes and we find them appropriate new homes. We make sure thousands more get the veterinary treatment they need when their owners cannot afford to pay.

In 2011 our income was £28.6 million, of that we spent just over £9 million on clinical services, undertaking over 95,000 veterinary consultations, operations and diagnostic procedures. Through our rehoming centres we cared, and found new homes, for over 7,000 abandoned pets. We also reached out to 32,219 young people through our education talks and services. In addition to these activities we also campaigned on issues such as compulsory microchipping, pet advertising, and the reform of the Dangerous Dogs Act throughout the last year.

We are pleased to contribute to this EFRA inquiry into dog control and welfare, as the current law does impact on the Blue Cross’s operation and on and our clients. We also contributed to the Government’s consultation on irresponsible dog ownership and we have been advising on and lobbying for the reform of the existing legislation for a number of years as part of a cross sector alliance. The Dangerous Dogs Act does not provide adequate protection for the public and it has had a devastating effect on the welfare of certain breed types.

We do not consider that the Government’s proposed approaches will deliver the right legal framework, enforcement regime and educational support to reduce irresponsible dog ownership and tackle out of control dogs. Blue Cross considers that there needs to be a wholesale review of existing dangerous dog legislation, including Section 1 (S1) of the Dangerous Dogs Act, and that a new, consolidated Bill that aims to both protect the public and improve dog welfare should be introduced as a matter of urgency. A position we, and other groups, have articulated to the Government for a number of years now.

The irresponsible breeding and sale of dogs also has an impact on attitudes towards dog ownership in many areas. Further details of our aspirations for policy in this area are included below.

Dog Control

The approaches proposed by DEFRA in its announcement on “Tackling Irresponsible Dog Ownership” on 23 April 2012 are not sufficient in our opinion to ensure that there is a reduction in the number of attacks by dogs on people and animals.

It appears to us that this was a missed opportunity to consult on a complete overhaul of all dangerous dog legislation, with the aim of introducing a new Bill that includes useful preventative measures, such as Dog Behaviour Contracts. It is generally agreed within the sector that such interventions are both useful to enforcers and socially desirable. The key to reducing dog related anti-social behaviour, dog attacks, and irresponsible dog ownership is by combining an effective enforcement regime with extensive information and support services, similar to those provided across the UK by Blue Cross. It is expected that over time the desired behavioural changes will be observed, thus reducing the social and financial cost of irresponsible dog ownership.

It is well documented that dog attacks on people have increased in the last few years, as have attacks on horses and other pets.1 Blue Cross works closely with the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and the British Horse Society (BHS), to provide information and support on these matters and considers that the Government could do more to support the efforts of the voluntary sector. Blue Cross considers that the Government should be seeking to thoroughly assess the range of community based education services being offered by voluntary sector organisations, and then to support those that are effective. Rather than distributing relatively small amounts of finance to support one off projects or regionally specific activities. In addition to the availability of finance, central coordination of services is desirable to assist Local Authorities and community based organisers to plan and procure the most relevant service for their area.

Schools based education is vital to improving animal welfare and dog ownership in the longer term. Blue Cross considers that animal welfare should be a compulsory part of the national curriculum.

The Blue Cross considers there to be a distinct difference between “dangerous” dogs and “status” dogs. We understand that in urban areas in particular, there is a definite trend for young people to acquire dogs that look ferocious, large, or are perceived to be useful for protection purposes. We can consider these dogs to be “status” dogs. Consequently, the behaviour and activity of irresponsible “status” dog owners can and often is regarded as anti-social.

This trend has created a two tier problem. Firstly, the perception by the general public is that such dogs are inherently dangerous, and secondly, the welfare of such breeds because of their perceived threat and often inappropriate ownership, is compromised. However, not all young dog owners are irresponsible or engage in anti-social behaviour, and not all status dogs are dangerous. At Blue Cross, we are forced to turn away many hundreds of abandoned Staffordshire Bull Terriers because we simply do not have the kennelling space. There are far too many of these dogs than good homes available for them. They are the sad victims of this status dog trend, and as a result the welfare of the breed is being compromised. The Government’s proposals will do nothing to improve this situation.

Blue Cross wishes to see the implementation of flexible, properly resourced measures that practically deal with those irresponsible dog owners whilst not unfairly penalising those young people with dogs simply because of the way they look or the breed of dog that they have chosen. And we wish to see the issue of dangerous dogs being addressed separately to the issue of anti-social behaviour. Blue Cross has articulated this message through various channels, and most recently through both the Home Office consultation on new measures to tackle anti-social behaviour and the Defra consultation on promoting responsible dog ownership.

In addition, the Government’s proposals did not include any flexibility for rehoming organisations dealing with abandoned S1 Pit Bull Terrier-type dogs (PBTs). There are many more of these dogs in the UK than ever before, and the breed type remains desirable for many groups in society. Many clients of Blue Cross are PBT owners who have had their dogs added to the Index of Exempted Dogs (IED) and meet the conditions (muzzling, neutering, permanent ID) happily. However, many of these animals are owned by irresponsible owners who desire them for criminal purposes and compromise their welfare. When such animals are abandoned by their owners and come to our attention they are sadly destroyed, regardless of temperament. This is because under the current conditions ownership cannot be transferred. Whilst we appreciate that a total repeal of Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) is undesirable at present, we do not think that it is acceptable that the welfare of this particular breed type should be compromised to such an extreme, and that the cost should be picked up by voluntary sector organisations such as Blue Cross.

With regards to the other proposals put forward by the Government, Blue Cross supports the extension of the Dangerous Dogs Act to private property, considering that all dog owners should be held responsible for the actions of their dogs at all times and in all places. We also consider that all dogs should be permanently identified by microchips, and that such a requirement should be introduced and phased in over a two year period. We do not consider that a requirement to microchip all puppies is sufficient. Whilst compulsory microchipping will not in itself reduce dog attacks, it will promote the principles of responsible dog ownership and significantly reduce costs for both enforcers and for organisations and agencies dealing with stray dogs. All dogs, and their owner’s details, should be registered on an approved database that provides a single point of contact. We do not consider that the cost of permanently identifying a dog would be a financial burden for dog owners, particularly considering the number of voluntary sector schemes and services that are currently available.

With regards to the management of stray dogs, we have concerns that financial difficulties and budget cuts at a local level will lead to an inconsistent approach across the UK and an increased financial burden on the voluntary sector. To effectively deal with irresponsible dog ownership and improve dog welfare, Local Authorities must prioritise these services with support from central Government. The introduction of compulsory microchipping will help to reduce costs at this time, but only if a universal requirement is introduced and phased in over a reasonable period (two years).

Dog Welfare

With regards to Professor Bateson’s report, there has been a clear response from the public and from animal welfare organisations that the situation is unacceptable and that the welfare of some pedigree dogs must be improved. Blue Cross appreciates that dog breeders and members of the veterinary profession are seeking to address some of these breeding issues, but more needs to be done. We do not consider however that this is the real focus of this inquiry, and that action should be taken to improve the breeding of all dogs in the UK, not just within the show world.

Unfortunately, many puppies are bred in intensive breeding operations which compromise their five freedoms guaranteed under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. The welfare of stud animals can also be severely compromised in commercial breeding operations, with many animals being kept in relative isolation, denied freedom of expression and bred continuously with no regard for their long term health. For dogs this practice is known as puppy farming. Blue Cross considers this to be an abhorrent practice and would strongly advise any potential pet owner to stay vigilant about the dangers of buying an animal bred in these conditions. Anecdotal evidence collected from welfare groups, vets and members of the public over several years suggests that the commercial breeding of dogs in both the Republic of Ireland and Wales is a welfare problem that requires action and stricter regulation. We have supported the recent efforts of the Welsh Assembly Government to tackle this problem. From January 2012, following the harmonisation of EU pet travel requirements, we have had concerns that we will see similar welfare issues arising from animals bred in poor conditions elsewhere in Europe and then imported into the UK for sale.

There are also clear welfare issues with the small scale “back street” breeding and sale of dogs. These are the breeders that fuel the ever increasing online trade in dogs. There are many individuals that wish to breed from their pet dog for financial gain, and this is an increasing problem in urban areas. These pet owners often lack vital information on health, welfare, and do not consider the long term consequences, or the possibility of not being able to sell the puppies. The Blue Cross considers this to be a significant and urgent welfare issue and one which is contributing to the status dog problem in particular. We believe that welfare organisations are well placed to address this problem, through education, neutering, and information services. We are also working with classified advertisers to improve the information available online and to ensure that breeders that are compromising the welfare of their animals do not have an easy outlet to sell on what is often a “poor product”.

We are particularly concerned about the lack of access officers have to unlicensed premises where breeding is taking place. Blue Cross considers that all owners of two or more unneutered dogs should be required to register with the Local Authority as a breeder. This is to promote neutering, and to discourage the casual (currently unlicensed) breeder. The visibility of poor breeding will help to drive up standards and promote a more responsible culture at a time when breeding to produce extra income is becoming an increasing attractive prospect. The Government should consider legislating in this area.

June 2012

1 For more information please see http://www.bluecross.org.uk/2000-98638/rise-in-dog-attacks-on-horses-prompts-safety-warning.html

Prepared 14th February 2013