Looking back on another important year for animals
AS WE move into 2013, it's useful to reflect on what has happened in the past twelve months, and to think ahead to what's coming in the next year. As a vet, my thoughts are, of course, focussed on goingson in the animal world.
In Ireland, one of the biggest recent changes to affect animal welfare happened a year ago, when the Dog Breeding Establishments Act came into force. The Act ensures that people breeding significant numbers of dogs commercially have to be licensed with local authorities, and are required to provide specified standards for the dogs in their care.
This is a major step in controlling puppy farms, a subject that I've been involved with as part of TV3's Animal A&E team - we exposed some dreadful examples of animal suffering linked with uncontrolled exploitation of dogs for breeding. With the new law now in place, puppy farm crises should become much less common.
Looking forwards, this coming year holds the prospect of more new legislation affecting animals: the Animal Health and Welfare Bill will soon be passed. This will be the first animal cruelty legislation since 1911 and it will fundamentally change the way that humans are obliged to care for animals.
Up until now, the law was passive, only intervening when people carried out actual cruelty to animals. The new legislation, in line with international trends on animal care, will be active, stating that animal owners have an obligation to provide their pets with a decent life.
People will have to provide animals in their care with the “five freedoms”: freedom from hunger or thirst, freedom from discomfort and inadequate shelter, freedom from disease and injury, freedom from distress and pain, and freedom to display normal behaviour.
If anyone fails to give their animals these “freedoms”, they will be breaking the law. In the past, humans could neglect animals, as long as they were not deliberately cruel to them: this will no longer be the case. We will all have a legal obligation to care for animals properly. This will be a major step forwards for animal welfare in Ireland.
This change in Irish law reflects an increasing international acceptance of the significance of animal suffering, which leads me on to another event of 2012: science finally formally accepted that animals have a minute-to-minute consciousness of the world around them, just like humans.
On July 7, 2012, the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals was made by a panel of experts at a global conference at Cambridge University in England. The Declaration was based on recent scientific advances in the understanding of the function of the brain, derived from the latest medical imaging techniques which allow researchers to observe areas of the brain which are activated during various activities and emotional states.
This declaration asserts that the key anatomical differences in human and animal brains, mainly found in the frontal cortex, do not play a role in the phenomenon known as “consciousness”. We humans may be able to think, plan and reflect in a way that's unique to our species, but animals experience moment-to-moment consciousness, just like us.
This will not surprise dog and cat owners who observe their pets experiencing emotions but it's big news in the world of science. Up until recently, science has treated animals like automatons, explaining their behaviour by reflexes and automatic responses to the world around them. People who talked about animals having emotions, motivations or experiences like humans were accused of being sentimental. The Cambridge Declaration is not saying that animals are “little people”, but it does accept that they are as aware of what's going around them as we are. It's important that we remember this in our day-to-day interactions with the animals in our lives.
2012 also saw the publication of a major report on the care of pets, by a UK charity called PDSA. This was based on a survey of the British pet-owning public, but the messages are equally applicable to Ireland.
The so-called “PAW Report” exposed four major areas of concern. First, a serious lack of understanding of the needs of millions of pets. Second, poor training of dogs leading to high levels of problem behaviour. Third, poor nutrition of pets, leading to an obesity epidemic in dogs, cats and rabbits. And finally, a low level of interaction with vets, with many unvaccinated and unneutered pets, leading to a high level of preventable diseases. The PAW report concluded that better public education is the best way to address these four major animal welfare issues, and in 2013, there will be renewed efforts to improve the public's level of understanding of the needs of animals.
On a personal level, my favourite “high” of last year was a little dog called Leo, who nearly died of Parvovirus. I told his story, live on Facebook, as it happened, and at one stage, over 20000 people were following as I posted hour by hour updates. He survived, and all is well with him now.
In 2013, I have two important events to look forward to. First, the new series of TV3's Animal A&E will start filming in January, and I'll be helping by presenting reallife stories from our vet clinic. And second, I am excited by the fact that we are building a brand new vet clinic at Brayvet. The builders are arriving at the end of January and our new premises should be good-to-go by June.
To all of you readers, and to all of your animals: may you have a wonderful 2013.
Leo, who nearly died of Parvovirus. I told his story, live on Facebook, as it happened.