Some "definitions" before we start:
Companion animals: Dogs, cats, horses, birds, mice, guinea pigs and more exotic species kept by humans for company, amusement, psychological support, display and other functions that humans need to share with animals of other species. Companions who will not take emotional or psychological advantage of the person and will, for the most part, stay faithful. This lecture will focus on dogs and cats.
Animal welfare: Animal welfare refers to the state of the animal. Protecting an animal's welfare means providing for its physical and mental needs.
Standard of care: Standard of care refers to the degree of attentiveness, caution and prudence that a reasonable person in the circumstances would exercise.
Public health: The science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through the organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private, communities and individuals.
Human-animal bond: The human-animal bond is a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors that are essential to the health and well-being of both. This includes, but is not limited to, emotional, psychological, and physical interactions of people, animals, and the environment.
The 5 freedoms were originally written for production animals in a farm setting, but they also apply to other animals. An updated version is the "basic requirements of any domestic animal":
1. Suitable and sufficient food and water resources
2. Suitable environment where the animal can express normal behavior patterns
3. Suitable environment where that animal is protected from discomfort
4. Protection from fear, distress and other unpleasant emotions
5. Protection from pain, suffering, injury and disease
How do these basic requirements apply to unowned companion animals?
How do they fit into a picture where maybe the same requirements are not always met for humans?
International Veterinary Oath
"As a global veterinarian, I will use my knowledge and skills for the benefit of our society through the protection of animal welfare and health, the prevention and relief of animal suffering and the promotion of 'One Health.' I will practice my profession with dignity in a correct and ethical manner, which includes lifelong learning to improve my professional competence."
Whenever there is an interaction between humans and cats and dogs we have a responsibility to protect the welfare of companion animals as far as it is practical. We also need to think about public health concerns and apply practical and efficient measures to protect the animals as well as the people they live alongside.
Free-roaming dogs and cats may encounter a range of welfare problems including:
Injury through traffic accidents, fighting and predators
Public health and safety problems associated with free-roaming companion animal populations include:
Transmission of disease to humans (zoonoses) and other animals
Injury and fear caused by aggressive behaviour
Nuisance through noise and fouling
Causing traffic accidents
In some communities free-roaming dogs and cats may be valued, owned animals that are allowed to roam unrestricted. A reduction in their numbers may be not be necessary or wanted, but improving the welfare and health of the population and reducing zoonotic risks can still be beneficial and desirable.
Classifying free-roaming companion animals:
Feral dogs and cats - free-living as single animals or in groups. Often will avoid direct human contact.
Community dogs & cats - free-living as single animals or in groups. Usually some direct human contact and tolerance. Fed and provided for in some context.
Stray or abandoned dogs & cats - previously cared for by owners, now free-living. Some direct human-contact tolerated. Fed and provided for to some extent.
Owned dogs & cats - living with and cared for by humans. Typically spend some time in a human home.
Population management is necessary wherever there are:
Excessive numbers of cats or dogs
Health and welfare issues for cats or people
Significant nuisance issues
Cat and dog populations will increase when the environment is such that they can reproduce efficiently. Thus this is especially a challenge in mild and temperate climates. Management of dog and cat populations should be planned and targeted to have a chance to be effective.
Statistical models tell us that for a sterilization program to have an overall impact 75% or more of the population needs to be altered. For a culling program to make an impact more than 50% of animals need to be euthanized. Which means that in many situations neither approaches will be realistic. The gap between reality and the level of euthanasia required for population control is staggering in most communities. As an example: In the US it is estimated that there are between 30–80 million free-roaming unowned cats. It is also estimated that around 2 million cats are euthanized yearly. In other words: to reach the 50% threshold they would have to euthanize 8–20 times more than is currently done.
How should this be approached? Who would pay for it? Would the communities support such a dramatic increase in euthanasia? Would it be perceived as a humane option to euthanize that many animals?
Attempts to control the population may also present significant welfare problems and other obstacles such as:
Cruel methods of catching
Poorly equipped and managed holding facilities
Local perceptions against sterilization and castration
Local attitudes, culture and religion
Inhumane methods of killing such as strychnine poisoning, electrocution and drowning
The mass killing of free-roaming cats or dogs is unfortunately often used as an attempt to control the population. There are many reasons why this should not be done, not least the fact that killing free-roaming animals does not address the source of the animals and so will have to be done in large numbers or repeated indefinitely. Mass-culling will also often meet resistance both within the local area and outside, as inhumane treatment of a sentient animal will be seen as ethically questionable, especially when humane alternatives exist. If the inhumane methods used are also indiscriminate, such as poison baits, there will be a risk to non-target species, pet animals and even humans. Mass-culling to prevent rabies has been tried in several communities even though there is no evidence to suggest that killing reduces rabies incidence. It may also discourage dog owners from engaging in rabies prevention programmes when these are run by authorities that are known to cull indiscriminately.
So what should we do?
We need to tailor the program to the local community and animal population. There is no "one size fits all" for population management.
Education - of the most important elements of a comprehensive approach to population management. Human behaviour is an extremely influential factor in cat and dog population dynamics.
Legislation - this is especially important for the sustainability of the program and to ensure that population management is carried out humanely. Changes to legislation can be a long and bureaucratic process.
Registration and identification - encourages a sense of responsibility in the owner. An important tool for reuniting lost animals with owners and can be a strong foundation for enforcement of legislation (including abandonment legislation and mandatory regular rabies vaccinations).
Sterilization and contraception - may not impact cat or dog populations size overall, but planned and targeted programs have been shown to effectively manage and stabilize established groups within a community.
Preventative veterinary treatments - by providing these we protect the health and welfare of animals and reduce the problem of zoonotic diseases. These treatments should be combined with education about responsible ownership, sterilisation or contraception and registration and/or identification. The need for vaccination and parasite control is often well understood by animal owners, and so offering access to these services may be the easiest way to engage with the owners or the people living in a community with free-roaming animals.
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