Animal welfare is a key topic for day one at BSAVA Congress 2023

24 March 2023

Animal welfare issues both great and small were addressed in the scientific programme at BSAVA Congress in Manchester on March 23.

Speakers examined the policy decisions at national level that affect the thousands of dogs that are imported into the UK each year from Continental Europe. Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, clinicians discussed how adjustments to their domestic environment can provide a better quality of life for individual pets suffering from painful osteoarthritis.

Paula Boyden, veterinary director of the Dogs Trust highlighted the root cause of the problems with imported dogs – that there is a shortfall of 300,000 – 400,000 in the numbers of puppies produced by small scale pedigree and private breeders needed to maintain the UK dog population at its current level. That gap was being filled by puppies and adult dogs brought in from the Irish Republic and mainland Europe or from home-based puppy farms.

Most veterinarians and vet nurses in the audience reported having treated dogs coming into the UK for leishmaniasis or brucella – and dogs with other rare infectious conditions had been seen by many more. However, veterinary behaviourist Carrie Tooley was equally concerned about the mental health of adult street dogs that are brought to the UK for rehoming.

These dogs had been raised in situations where suspicion and vigilance were necessary survival skills and it would be very difficult for them to adapt to a normal home environment. Such dogs are likely to show aggression if they are unable to avoid situations that will cause them anxiety, she said.

Dr Boyden said it was essential that organisations and individuals responsible for importing dogs were better regulated, although she feared that the recent Windsor agreement establishing a system for regulating trade between the North and South of Ireland may have the opposite effect. She was concerned that the new rules would make it easier to bring European dogs into Great Britain via the Irish Republic without adequate safeguards for their health and welfare.

Ian Futter, chief veterinary officer for the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, wondered if the UK animal welfare charities could play a more active role in helping to match the supply and demand for pet animals. Should they be encouraging ordinary dog owners to consider allowing their pets to have a litter of puppies in direct contravention to their traditional policies, he asked?

James Yeates of the World Federation for Animals warned that a shortage of dogs available to owners from reputable breeders did not justify any drop in standards for welfare organisations. As with the oath taken by all new members of the veterinary and VN profession, their overriding concern must be for the welfare of the animals entrusted to their care. And more controversially, he questioned whether it was appropriate that being able to own a member of sentient animal species should be considered a basic right for everyone, however ill-suited they are to the task.

So a vital step to improving the welfare of the country’s dog population would be to ensure that owners are better prepared to look after their animals. Dr Tooley argued that the scheme introduced by the pet trade to encourage people to undergo training before they are allowed to buy members of an exotic pet species, such as reptiles should be extended to cats and dogs. This form of pre-emptive education would be massively beneficial for the animals and their owners, she suggested.

Another area where pet owners need to be better educated is in caring for the huge numbers of older pets affected by joint disease, according to speakers in an earlier session. Emily Cowderoy, an orthopaedic research nurse at the University of Liverpool said that up to 20% of dogs suffered pain from osteoarthritis and few owners even realise that their pets have a medical condition that needs veterinary treatment.

She reminded fellow VNs of the main signs that a cat or dog may be experiencing discomfort from osteoarthritis and said that is they who are most likely to recognise the problem. Usually this is when an animal is brought into the clinic for unrelated reasons, such as an appointment to remove matted fur caused by the animal’s inability to groom itself properly due to pain and reduced mobility in its joints.

As vet nurses are not legally entitled to diagnose disease themselves, they should report their findings to their veterinary colleagues who will then be able to offer the client a suitable treatment from the many options now available. But before the formal diagnosis of osteoarthritis is made, nurses can start the process of educating the client in what they can do to help their pet, noted the second speaker in the session, Alex Taylor, cat wellbeing advisor at the International Cat Care charity.

As well as ensuring that the client receives appropriate analgesia for the animal and advice on measures to reduce the effects of the osteoarthritis by controlling its weight, there are many other areas that the vet nurse can help these patients, Emily and Alex explained.

Owners should be given guidance on the right levels of exercise needed by the individual pet and how to make it more comfortable around the home with suitable resting areas and nonslip surfaces, for example. But overall, it is the nurse’s duty to be more proactive as an advocate for the welfare of the pet. It is much better that efforts to minimise the risks that osteoarthritis develops later in life by paying attention to the health and welfare of the patient when it is a puppy or kitten, they said.