I’ve been reading the PDSA Animal Wellbeing (PAW) Report 2011, which assesses pet wellbeing in the UK. Dog, cat, and rabbit owners answered questions about the five animal welfare needs: environment, diet, behaviour, companionship and health – and the bad news is that many pet owners aren’t even aware of these needs or how they should be met.
For some reason this doesn’t surprise me. We are indeed a nation of animal lovers, but it’s tempting to show that love in a way that isn’t healthy for our animals – and so far, there doesn’t seem to be enough information out there to tell us what we're doing wrong.
Take food and treats, for example. Many dogs love food, and we love feeding them. It’s part of our bond with them, but it can be the source of huge misunderstandings and even huger pets. The PAW Report says that over the past four years the percentage of overweight dogs has risen from 21% to 35% - and at this rate nearly 50% of the UK’s dogs will be overweight by 2013.
I let a friend feed my dogs once, having told him how much food to give them – then I was horrified to see that he’d given them three times as much food because the amount they’re normally fed ‘didn’t look like much’. I was astonished at his reasoning, but it made perfect sense to him and I can see how easy it can be to overfeed an animal if you only look at its diet through human eyes. My dogs would eat until they burst if you let them, but this wouldn’t make them happy or healthy.
Diet is just one of the five welfare needs and as such, I don’t think it should be considered in isolation. For example, I’m sure there’s room for compromise on the amount of treats given as long as the animal gets enough exercise to burn off the calories. But if they don’t get enough exercise or companionship (23% of dog owners say they leave their dog home alone for five or more hours on a typical weekday), then food can become a disproportionate focus for both dog and owner. Food might be the main thing a dog has to look forward to most days, and despite having a good general knowledge about their pets’ needs, some owners might be tempted to ‘treat’ them to snacks in an effort to compensate for the lack of a good walk after a long day at work. It’s an easy trap to fall into.
I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t treat our pets – but perhaps we need to think differently about what constitutes a treat. Like many other pet owners, I like to indulge my dogs. I even try to do something special for their birthdays and for Christmas. But every time I think about what they might like, I come up with the same answers. If they get a ‘present’, it will be something they need like a new bed or a replacement for a well-loved, worn-out toy. But whether or not I buy them a gift, I know that part of it is really for my own pleasure. What the dogs really want is a ‘special day’ based on their normal routine – that’s their usual meals and an extra long walk with a good chasing game thrown in, followed by a nice biscuit or chew and a warm bed when they get home.
As the PAW Report points out, more information is needed to make owners aware of their pets’ welfare needs. Britain is known as a nation of animal lovers, and I think that most pet owners aren’t deliberately cruel. But their kindness can be misdirected and whatever the reason, the results are the same.
Although the Animal Welfare Act was introduced in the UK in 2006, giving all pet owners a duty of care to meet the welfare needs of their pets, the PDSA says there is currently no overarching means of identifying, assessing, monitoring and improving the wellbeing of companion animals. The PAW Report is aimed at taking the first step towards achieving this.
I’m glad to see that the PDSA is making this a priority over the coming year and I look forward to seeing more information for pet owners about the needs of their pets.