Exotic pets: ‘quality of care determined by owner and not species’ - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

Exotic pets: ‘quality of care determined by owner and not species’

TIGHTER controls on keeping
exotic pets will do nothing to
improve animal welfare but would
prevent a large cadre of intelligent
and caring owners from enjoying
their hobby, according to a leading
authority on zoological medicine.

Hampshire-based practitioner Peter
Scott told colleagues at the BVA
congress session on exotic pets that
the quality of care provided for a pet
was determined by the owner and not
the species concerned. So calls for a
ban on keeping non-domesticated
creatures are unreasonable: “The
biggest problem is ignorance and it is
dishonest to suggest that exotics are
the only ones affected,” he said.

Senior PDSA veterinary surgeon,
Sean Wensley, argued that exotic
species are different and deserve to be
given special protection. “As a
teenager, I worked in a pet shop and
saw how readily exotic pets can be
acquired by inexperienced owners – it
is as easy to buy a living animal as a
can of beans.” He maintained that
75% of the diseases suffered by
reptiles and other exotic species kept
as pets were a direct result of poor
husbandry.

But Mr Scott believed that keeping
wild species served an important
purpose for many thousands of pet
owners, satisfying their need to nurture
and strengthening their connections
with the natural world. He noted, for
example, that around 50% of members of the main parrot-owners’
society were also members of the
RSPB.

He challenged the assumption that
the welfare of exotic pets is likely to
be compromised by a lack of
information on how to meet their
behavioural needs. “There has been a
lot published and so there isn’t the
dearth of information that people like
to think there is.”

Another criticism of the owners of
exotic pets is that they are helping to
sustain a cruel trade in which wild
caught animals suffer significant
morbidity and mortality during capture
and transport, and that this threatens
the survival of some highly
endangered species.

Mr Scott maintained that these
fears were greatly exaggerated:
monitoring of internationally traded
reptiles showed that less than 2% will
die before reaching their destination.
Importers know which species are
difficult to keep healthy in transit and
have voluntarily withdrawn from
trading in those animals.

He insisted that the great majority
of exotic pets are now captive bred,
including 90% of reptiles and tropical
freshwater fish on sale in the UK.
Tortoises and other reptiles are reared
in ranch-style conditions which
provide employment opportunities and
foreign currency for the exporting
countries, he pointed out.

Nor is the trade in exotic pets
likely to have much effect on
endangered wildlife. Mr Scott said that
habitat destruction was by far the most
important factor driving wildlife to
extinction.

Indeed, conservation charities such
as the Worldwide Fund for Nature
were largely supportive of the
harvesting of wild species as it created
a financial incentive to maintain areas
needed by wildlife. This only becomes
an issue when hunting becomes so
intensive that it is no longer
sustainable, he said.

Countries such as Belgium and the
Netherlands have introduced
legislation to control the exotic pet
trade by establishing lists of those
species that can reasonably be kept in
captivity. There is also the option of a
negative list of species that should not
be kept except in zoological collections
with the expertise and facilities needed
to meet their physiological and
behavioural needs, according to the
“five freedoms” principle.

Licensing

Mr Scott believed that a system of
licensing could prevent most welfare
abuses by discouraging people without
the necessary expertise from keeping
animals. He also supported the idea of
a positive list of permitted species.

But Dutch practitioner Gerd Theel
from Naarden, near Amsterdam,
warned that the introduction of a
positive list system in the Netherlands
over a year ago had been hugely
controversial. The regulations had
been drawn up without consulting the
views of practitioners and experienced
animal keepers and there is no
effective way at present to enforce the
rules.

He believed that it will take many
years before the current framework
develops into an effective system for
looking after the interests of both
exotic pets and those with the
necessary knowledge to look after
them.

Sean Wensley, however, expressed
doubts about the acceptability of a
negative list system. He believed that
the absence of a particular species from the list would create the
presumption that it is acceptable and
practical to keep it as a pet.

Matt Brash, president of the
British Veterinary Zoological Society,
also opposed the creation of negative
lists but for entirely different reasons.
He suggested that all primate species
were likely to feature at the top of that
list because of their complex
behavioural needs. Yet he numbered
among his clients several people who
kept pet primates and did so under
better conditions than many zoological
collections.

Mr Scott agreed that there were
pitfalls in the ways of many
approaches to protecting exotic animal
welfare. He pointed out that several
local authorities in the UK were
looking at the concept of a traffic light
system to give guidance to the public
on the challenges facing those keeping
a particular species.

Goldfish were listed under a red
light because of their great longevity
and the consequent risk that they might suffer poor welfare over a
protracted period, he said.

All speakers were agreed on what
is probably the most important step in
raising welfare standards for exotic
animals in captivity. This would be to
ensure that prospective owners move
swiftly from the tyro group
responsible for most of the problems
described into the group of skilled and
committed animal keepers.

“This will require education and we
as veterinary practitioners have a vital
role to play in that,” said Mr Wensley.

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