School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, University of Adelaide, Roseworthy, SA, Australia
Small animals play integral parts in people’s lives around the globe, including as companions and in working roles. While they improve the well-being of the people whose lives they enrich, the well-being of these animals is not always optimal. Some welfare issues may be solved through education into the basic needs and ability to cope of our companion animals; others such as the pet trade and breeding of animals with functional problems (e.g., brachycephalic animals) require collaborative research including social science approaches. Through further research and education using an evidence-based approach, we can continue to enrich the lives of both humans and small animals.
Development of WSAVA Animal Welfare Guidelines
The WSAVA recognize that improving small animal welfare is an important goal around the world. In 2018, the WSAVA Animal Welfare Guidelines were launched.1 While it can be challenging to define what animal welfare means, the working definition used in these Guidelines is ‘the physical and psychological, social and environmental well-being of animals’. It is important to include psychological and social well-being, as people may restrict themselves to focus on the physical health of animals. Physical health is certainly important, but not sufficient in itself to maintain well-being. For example, a dog may be physically health, but if it is in a state of fear and anxiety for most of its days, then its overall well-being would be poor.
In March 2019, the WSAVA Animal Welfare Guidelines were endorsed by 37 WSAVA member organizations, and have reached their goal to focus global attention on improving the welfare of small animals in our care. While focusing attention on animal welfare, they are not intended to stand alone, but to be integrated with other WSAVA Guidelines, such as the Global Pain and Global Nutrition Guidelines.
As well as working with other veterinary specialties, it is important to remember promoting animal welfare involves complex interactions, not only between the veterinary team, the animal, and the owner, but also involving the wider community, with impacts of cultural values, economics, pet-related industries, the environment and politics (see Figure 4 WSAVA Global Animal Welfare Guidelines [VIN editor: Image has not been provided as of 11-20-2019]).
This means to work on issues relating to animal welfare, interventions need to focus not only on the veterinary team and animal owner, but also the wider community with its cultural values.
Basic Needs and Ability to Cope
Although the standard of veterinary care for companion animals has significantly increased around the world, it is important to remember that even in countries with highly developed and sophisticated veterinary care, the Five Welfare Needs of animals are not always being met.
The Five Welfare Needs are:
- The need for a suitable environment
- The need for a suitable diet
- The need to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns
- The need to be housed with, or apart from, other animals
- The need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease
In their latest survey of UK pet owners, the PDSA (2018) reported 16% of dogs were walked less than once a day, 24% were left alone for five or more hours on a typical workday, and 53% of cat owners matched images of their cat as being overweight or obese.2
Pet Trade and Companion Animal Welfare
Animal welfare does not begin when a new dog or cat enters the owner’s house, but well before in the breeding and early environment of the animal. Small animals can sell for large amounts of money, and unscrupulous breeders have the opportunity to make large amounts of money at the cost of the welfare of the animals. In the past, the marketplace for unscrupulous breeders was relatively small, but with the introduction and wide adoption of the internet this has changed.
In Europe the internet is now the most common method used by people when they look for a new companion animal.3 Risks to the welfare of these animals include the sale of underage puppies and kittens, with health problems due to lack of routine worming and vaccination. Online scams are also common with significant amounts of money lost due to fraud.
In Australia many dogs and cats are sold online, with thousands of these dogs and cats being relinquished animals looking for a new home.4 This can be a positive contribution in finding a new home, but risks specific to relinquishment include the new owners not knowing the true health and behavioral history of the animal, and of animal hoarders or people involved in dog fighting having ready access to free animals. Although data on online sales of companion animals in other regions, such as the USA and China, are currently lacking, it is likely online sales also represent a large proportion of trade in companion animals in these areas.
Breeding of Animals with Functional Problems
The reasons people decide to purchase a specific type of small animal are complex, and include fads and fashion. Unfortunately, in recent years brachycephalic breeds of dogs and cats have become fashionable. A Danish survey asked owners of four dog breeds their reasons for acquiring that breed, finding that personality was sometimes perceived as more important than health or behavior.5 Veterinarians and other scientists need to play a role in testing brachycephalic dogs to provide information to breeders on the dogs that should or should not be bred from, and to use surgery to improve the lives of individual dogs seriously affected by breathing difficulties. A recent study demonstrated adding a 3-minute trot test could improve grading of brachycephalic airway obstructive syndrome (BOAS).6
The concept of shifting baseline syndrome, used in ecology, is one that also needs to be considered in animal welfare. Shifting baseline syndrome (SBS) describes graduate change in accepted norms in the state of the natural environment due either to a lack of past information, or the lack of experiencing past conditions.7 For example, as the structure of the skull of brachycephalic dogs has gradually changed, each generation has accepted flatter and flatter faces as the norm. When one views images of breeds such as the British bulldog from a hundred or more years ago, the dramatic change in structure is apparent, but each generation accepts the way the dogs look. In the same way, generations have come to accept difficulty in breathing as normal for these dogs. As SBS in ecology increases tolerance for progressive environmental degradation, SBS in animal welfare has resulted in people accepting breeds that are no longer functional in terms of health and welfare. Through recognition that this has occurred, we may still work to improve future breeding practices and well-being of these animals.
Opportunities to Improve Animal Welfare
While the internet presents risks to animals, such as in online trade, it also presents the opportunity to highlight to the public major risks to the welfare of animals’ welfare, generating media attention that can change practices. This has occurred in recent years against the dog meat trade; use of electric collars in dog training, and; cosmetic procedures such as declawing in cats and tail docking and ear cropping in dogs.
Improved undergraduate education in animal welfare can help to lead the way to future incremental improvements. Veterinary education has covered animal welfare science more systematically in recent years, and veterinary graduates take this education out into their workplaces to improve standards of animal care.
An example is in pain relief of small animals, which was not routinely performed in the past but is now an established part of veterinary practice. There is still a gap in acknowledgement of the emotional lives of small animals, and recognition of their signs of distress. However, through popular trends such as the fear free movement, this is beginning to change.
The WSAVA has focused attention on the welfare of small animals through release of Global Guidelines. There remain challenges to animal welfare around the world, including the online pet trade and popularity of brachycephalic breeds. As the world is more connected through the use of the internet and social media, these can be used to educate owners of the needs of their animals. It is also important to recognize the impact of shifting baseline syndrome on our recognition of welfare in animals. Continued education and promotion of animal welfare science will help to continue to improve the lives of the animals that live closest to us.
1. WSAVA Global Animal Welfare Guidelines. 2018 Available online: www.wsava.org/WSAVA/media/resources/Guidelines/WSAVA-Animal-Welfare-Guidelines-(2018).pdf
2. PDSA Animal Wellbeing Report 2018 Available online: www.pdsa.org.uk/media/4370/mini-paw-2018-web-ready.pdf
3. EU Dog & Cat Alliance®. Online Sale of Pets: What’s the Cost? Available online: www.dogandcatwelfare.eu/news/online-sale-pets-whats-cost
4. Hazel SJ, Jenvey CJ and Tuke J. Online relinquishments of dogs and cats in Australia. Animals 2018 8(2), 25. http://doi.org/10.3390/ani8020025
5. Sandoe P, Kondrup SV, Bennett PC et al. (2017) Why do people buy dogs with potential welfare problems related to extreme conformation and inherited disease? A representative study of Danish owners of four small dog breeds. PloS One. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0172091
6. Riggs J, Liu, N-C, Sutton DR, Sargan MA, Ladlow JF Validation of exercise testing and laryngeal auscultation for grading brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome in pugs, French bulldogs, and English bulldogs by using whole body barometric plethysmography. Vet Surg. 2019 https://doi.org/10.1111/vsu.13159
7. Soga M. and Gaston KJ. Shifting baseline syndrome: causes, consequences, and implications. Front Ecol Environ. 2018;16(4):222–230, doi:10.1002/fee.1794