Look­ing back on an­other im­por­tant year for an­i­mals

Bray People - - LIFESTYLE - Pete Wed­der­burn An­i­mal Doc­tor

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.

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