COMPULSORY microchip identification of all puppies born in the UK is the key to solving many of the current welfare problems facing the dog world, according to Chris Laurence, veterinary director of the Dogs Trust welfare charity.
Speaking at a symposium in London marking the 40th anniversary of the formation of the Pet Food Manufacturers Association (PFMA), he argued that knowing the identity of the dog’s owner not only helps reunite them with a stray but is also essential in tackling other issues such as inherited disease and the antisocial behaviour associated with aggressive breeds.
“If we are really going to deal with these problems we have to know where the dog has come from,” he said.
Support from both national and local government will be vital if the new arrangements are to be introduced and properly enforced, Mr Laurence acknowledged. However, the new system should be relatively simple to set up because it would build on the existing voluntary register and use the same proven technology.
He hoped that the Westminster government could be persuaded to use its powers to introduce secondary legislation under the 2006 Animal Welfare Act.
There was even the possibility that a new system could produce some economic benefits. He noted that the cost to the NHS of treating patients with dog bite injuries has grown considerably over the past 10 years as a result of both the increased frequency and severity of attacks. Much of this expenditure could be saved with legislation that focuses on the ownership of the animal concerned rather than its presumed breed, as under the discredited 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act.
Animal welfare legislation is currently given a low priority by local authorities but they would also have good reason for backing a compulsory register. With a more efficient system for locating the owners of a stray dog, councils would save much of the funds currently spent on caring for these animals.
Last year, 107,000 dogs were looked after in local authority shelters and more than 9,000 were euthanased when the owners could not be found.
Mr Laurence argued that it is not fair to condemn those who have not had their dogs chipped and registered under the existing voluntary arrangements as “irresponsible pet owners”. Many of these people would probably be happy to have their dogs chipped but have simply not got round to it: they would make the necessary arrangements under a compulsory system.
But then there are other pet owners who would be unwilling to register their dogs even if a compulsory system did come into force. For these irresponsible pet owners, it might be necessary to use other strategies to ensure compliance, Mr Laurence suggested.
The rights and responsibilities of pet owners living in public sector properties were discussed by a second speaker at the meeting, Liz Ormerod, who chairs the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS).
Her organisation has conducted research showing that an estimated 140,000 elderly people each year are
separated from their pets when they have to enter sheltered housing or care homes – and about 38,000 of these animals are euthanased.
SCAS has been campaigning to allow older people who can no longer live on their own to keep their pets. The relationship with a pet provides significant health benefits both to the original owner and others at the home who help look after the animal, she said.
Managers of these premises will usually try to justify their bans by expressing concerns that pets will cause accidents or spread disease. But there is little evidence for those claims, based on experience in the US where the rights of pet owners are protected by federal laws introduced in 1983.
There was the prospect of similar rules for the UK when the Care Homes and Sheltered Housing (Domestic Pets) Bill was introduced by Nigel Waterson, Conservative MP for Eastbourne. This bill received a second reading on 5th March but did not become law before the end of the Parliamentary session.
But as the bill has all-party support, there is every chance that it will be presented again in the next Parliament. But even without legislative backing, SCAS hopes the tide has turned.