Pet welfare and abuse – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

Author: Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

Related inquiry: Pet welfare and abuse

Date Published: 5 April 2024

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Over half of UK adults own a pet, and the country is often described as a nation of animal lovers. During our inquiry, however, we heard serious concerns about the risks posed to pet welfare by practices including unscrupulous breeding, the proliferation of Canine Fertility Clinics, the breeding of so-called ‘designer’ dogs, and abhorrent acts of abuse and mutilation. We considered the risks associated with pet importation, including puppy smuggling, the import of heavily pregnant and very young pets, the import of dogs with cropped ears and docked tails, and declawed cats, and the management of biosecurity. We took evidence from a wide range of sector experts on how existing legislation should be improved in order to provide stronger animal welfare safeguards, and robustly penalise those who seek to circumvent the law.

Throughout our inquiry we heard strong sector support for bringing forward all of the measures proposed under the withdrawn Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill 2021–22 as a matter of urgency. While the Licensing of Activities Involving Animals (2018) Regulations have helped establish a framework for higher welfare standards, these should be made more robust in order to clamp down on breeders who undercut standards to maximise profit. The Government should introduce a new Veterinary Surgeons Act to ensure that it is fit to tackle 21st century challenges. In particular, it must provide appropriate regulation for Canine Fertility Clinics, and introduce stringent and proportionate penalties for individuals who illegally perform acts of veterinary surgery. While the Animal Welfare Act 2006 prohibits the carrying out of mutilations such as ear cropping, tail docking, and declawing of cats, the import of animals with these mutilations is not currently prohibited, and this loophole should be closed as a matter of priority.

Our inquiry’s key findings and recommendations are:

The Government’s withdrawal of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill stalled progress on key animal welfare issues. These delays have allowed the continuation of poor animal welfare practices. The Department must ensure that every provision from the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill is brought into force during the current Parliament. We welcome the introduction of Private Members’ bills that will take forward vital animal welfare measures, but note that the Government was relying heavily on Members who were successful in the Private Members’ bill ballot being willing to take on its handout bills to deliver its manifesto promises, rather than committing to bringing forward the legislation itself. While on this occasion it may prove successful, it was nonetheless a risky strategy.

It is estimated that less than half of puppies entering the market are from licensed breeders. The lack of traceability enables unscrupulous, low welfare breeding practices to flourish under the radar. More stringent safeguards are needed to ensure robust protections for the welfare of dogs and their puppies. The Department should improve traceability of dog breeding by introducing legislation to reduce the litter licensing threshold from three to two per 12-month period.

Cat breeding is becoming an increasingly accessible and lucrative business, but there are few legal safeguards to protect cats and their kittens. Cat breeding should be awarded the same legislative safeguards as awarded to dogs under Licensing of Activities Involving Animals Regulations.

The sharp rise in Canine Fertility Clinics from 37 in 2020, to over 400 currently, is of significant concern, particularly given their association with the breeding of so-called ‘designer’ dogs, such as brachycephalic breeds, and other breeds whose extreme characteristics have the potential to compromise health and welfare. The Government should make it a priority to introduce legislation to reform the Veterinary Surgeons Act (1966) to include Canine Fertility Clinics. The current £100 fine for performing acts of veterinary surgery illegally is a derisory deterrent. The Government should bring this fine in line with the penalties under The Animals (Penalty Notices) Act 2022.

Local authority animal welfare officers play a vital role in the licensing and enforcement activities that help protect animals. However, the ability of local authorities to perform regulatory activities is constrained by a lack of specialist knowledge and training, and inadequate funding and resources. This results in an inconsistent approach nationally. A central unit of suitably trained inspectors should be established which can be utilised by local authorities to improve collaboration and disseminate best practice.

Mutilations such as ear cropping, cosmetic tail docking and declawing are ethically abhorrent procedures with lasting welfare implications. The Government should close the loophole that allows the importation of mutilated animals as a matter of urgency, and certainly before the end of the current Parliament. Alongside this, the Government should legislate to restrict the possession, hosting, sale and supply of DIY ear cropping kits, which are all too easy to purchase online.

Carriers, meaning ferry companies or the Eurotunnel, play a key role in the pet importation and checking process, but it is not evident that carriers are striking the right balance between speed, checks, profit and identifying non-compliance. We have strong concerns about the robustness of a pet importation system that is based on 100% documentary checks at ports. This has implications for both biosecurity and smuggling. Puppy smuggling is perceived as a low risk, high reward crime, with the potential for sizeable profitmaking. To clamp down on smuggling, and prevent the import of very young puppies and heavily pregnant dogs, the Government should implement:

  • A reduction on the number of dogs and cats that can be imported by an individual into the UK from five per person to five per vehicle, and three per foot or air passenger.
  • A ban on the importation of puppies and kittens under six months.
  • A ban on the importation of pregnant dogs and cats in the last 30% of gestation.