Politics and puppies

Politics and puppies by Nigel Baker, Chief Executive of the Pet Industry Federation

It’s not often that animals get a look-in on the parliamentary agenda, least of all those which aren’t destined for the human food chain, but last September MPs gathered for a backbench debate on the thorny issue of the sale of puppies in pet shops. Such is the power of the people, the 111,000 signatures to celebrity vet Marc Abraham’s Pup Aid petition to ‘ban the sale of puppies without their mother being present’ managed to thrust this issue into the spotlight.

The Pet Industry Federation came in for quite a bashing from Abraham and his supporters, having maintained that the sale of puppies in pet shops is acceptable when it is done well. ‘Quite a bashing’ is in fact something of an understatement, but the Federation stood firm and endeavoured to explain that the consequence of taking the sale of puppies away from pet shops (licensed, inspected and open to public scrutiny) would be the increase in unregulated sales through the internet – and that there were broader issues that needed to be tackled. And the Government appeared to agree. Secretary of State George Eustace concluded the debate by explaining the current licensing system was adequate for pet shops, and offering clarification on the subject of when breeders should be subject to licensing (more of that later).

Whilst the Pup Aid campaign had failed to take the whole context into account, or provide an adequate solution to the issues, the campaign and its maelstrom of emotion brought into sharp focus the abhorrent abuses of animal rights occurring in some breeding situations. And we commend Abraham and his team for that.

Quality Assurance audit for puppy selling retailers

The campaign also caused the Pet Industry Federation to take a careful look internally. The board of directors decided that it was an appropriate time for the Federation to outline how puppies could be sold ‘well’ in a retail environment and to apply these definitions to its puppy-selling retail members. Whilst the Model Licence Conditions for Pet Vending published by the CIEH in 2013 are an excellent basis for protecting animal welfare, the Federation is prepared to help retailers take their concern for their puppies’ well-being a step further. And so, we have spent the last few months building the criteria for an audit which our puppy selling retailers will now have to pass in order to remain in membership. These criteria are defined and measureable, participating retailers will be visited on an annual basis by independent, experienced auditors and there will be spot checks.

Within this audit we have tackled complex issues involved in protecting the welfare of the puppies. Whilst there isn’t the space to explain them all here, it is worth pointing out that the strict audit requirements involve the systematic checking and cross-checking of paperwork, premises and puppies in order to ensure puppies are at least eight weeks old or over, are only sourced from licensed UK-only breeders and are microchipped, vaccinated, flea-ed and wormed. Other welfare requirements include guarding against impulse buying by including an enforced three-day wait between viewing a puppy and its purchase, and interviewing the new owner regarding their knowledge, resources and responsibilities, and adherence to a puppy sale contract. To ensure the retailer has the requisite knowledge, they will have to have achieved the Level 3 City & Guilds Pet Store Management qualification.

The PIF Quality Assurance Standard for the Sale of Puppies in Pet Shops is an enormous step forward in the debate about puppy sales and we would encourage any puppy selling retailer to snap up the opportunity to be inspected. Participants do have to join the Federation first, as it’s important that they are accountable to the trade association.

We are hopeful that Abrahams and the Pup Aid supporters will recognise the progress the Federation has made through this initiative and will be reaching out to them in the hope that they will engage in a more constructive manner than previously. Of course, this initiative does not solve the myriad of problems inherent in the current marketplace, which is why we need to work cohesively with all stakeholders to address the issues holistically. And there are signs that some bodies are prepared to venture into this territory.

Robin Hargreaves, outgoing president of the British Veterinary Association, for example, chose to use his address to the BVA Congress last November to suggest the veterinary profession may have to ‘dance with the devil’ and agree to work with high-volume commercial dog breeders to meet the demand for pedigree puppies. Hargreaves made this bold statement and suggested that with around seven million dogs in the country, around 700,000 puppies were needed to replace those that die each year.

Whether the dog population stands at seven, eight or nine million, if Hargreaves is right and the way forward is to acknowledge and work with the reality of the demands of the marketplace, the greatest challenges are twofold: raising standards in the UK, and restricting the supply from the EU.

The influx from abroad

To take the issue of EU supply first, the non-commercial trade in dogs has increased by over 88% since 2012, with the numbers entering from central and eastern European countries rising by between 450% and 1150%. The unfortunate consequence of the changes to the Pet Travel Scheme is that puppies destined for retail are entering the UK under the radar.

The provision to allow domestic pets to travel across the EU with their families is open to abuse. Enforcement officers tell of puppy transporters offering lifts to hitchhikers in return for them agreeing to pretend to own five of the dogs being transported, in order to cover the 5:1 ratio of dogs to humans allowed to travel in a non-commercial capacity under the Pet Travel Scheme, avoiding the tax and regulatory restrictions that they would otherwise be subject to. And those puppies which are declared on entry are only part of the story. The pressures on the ferry companies and port authorities, wary of causing delays to scheduled crossings, mean that cars are waved through without full checks taking place.

The RSPCA’s report into the rocketing rabies risk published last March points out Defra’s 2010 risk assessment into changing quarantine controls could not have predicted the extent of the surge in dogs being imported from countries such as Romania, Lithuania and Hungary, where rabies is endemic. The RSPCA’s recommendations at the end of the report are many and varied and were mirrored shortly after by the Dogs Trust report into puppy smuggling.

David Bowles, RSPCA Head of Public Affairs, is frustrated by the response from Government who had encouraged the RSPCA to carry out the research only not to take action on it. ‘I understand Government has other priorities, human trafficking, drug trafficking,’ he says. ‘But we’re not asking for 365 days a year enforcement. What’s frustrating is there are known individuals who could be targeted one day a week over a period of two months at Dover and Holyhead ports which could clear up so much of the problem.’ What would it take for a change of policy? An outbreak of rabies and a consequent public health crisis? ‘If the worst case happened, and a dog came in with rabies, people would be up in arms,’ says Bowles. ‘We’re trying to prevent that, it’s very much a consumer issue.’

Cleaning up the UK

The RSPCA also calls for Government to put more resources into addressing internet sales, which brings us to the picture in the UK. Rather than take legislative action (and having to deal with the unwieldy machinations of international internet law), ‘Animal Welfare’ minister Lord de Mauley lends his weight to the work of the Pet Advertising Advisory Group. Whilst PAAG’s efforts in curtailing illegal, inappropriate or misleading advertising of puppies in classified advertising are commendable, unfortunately, being a voluntary code, the misadvertising continues, just on sites or in papers which don’t sign up to the code.

Let’s take a look at what Government is doing and is prepared to do. Defra’s clarification of the definition of commercial breeding appears to have been helpful and unhelpful in equal measure. Having emphasised that anyone making money from breeding and selling puppies should be subject to licensing, no matter how many litters they produce, Defra pushes yet more work onto the shoulders of the licensing officers. A licensing officer we spoke to hadn’t even seen the guidance as it had been sent to all chief executives and hadn’t filtered down. It’s also worth noting that the Kennel Club has been surprisingly quiet on the subject. One thing that is clear, if you take the cost of a commercial breeders licence as an indicator – ranging between a blanket £49.50 and no vet fees (King’s Lynn & West Norfolk), to £386 plus vet fees for under 10 bitches (Derby) – the continuing lack of standardisation is an immense problem.

Ultimately, effective enforcement is key, whether carried out at the UK’s borders, or in the UK’s breeders’ premises and pet shops or in the car parks and service stations where the illicit trade takes place. What could be more frustrating for those businesses doing everything by the book than to know that those flouting the law are getting away with it?

Of course, the political landscape could be very different after the May election; policy decisions and delivery lapses into a state of torpor in the meanwhile. Interestingly, the Labour party has been the first to show its hand and vie for the animal welfare vote, claiming ‘A vote for Labour on 7 May is a vote against animal cruelty’. Campaigns literature cites Labour’s success in introducing the Animal Welfare Act, pledging to review the regulations on the sale and breeding of dogs and cats and develop a ‘strategy which brings together improved dog and cat welfare’. Quite how such a pledge boils down at a local level, and whether the resources would be appropriately allocated to enable the authorities to have available budget and direction to ‘proactively’ regulate (ie crack down on unlicensed establishments and illegal imports), only time would tell. And of course it’s by no means a one horse race, attention should be paid to other parties’ manifestos, as they emerge.

No matter what the make-up of the Government in a few months time, those of us engaged in the active pursuit of higher standards and better animal welfare can make a difference. The issues around the sale of puppies – and kittens, let’s not forget them – are complex and only a joined-up approach by all the key stakeholders, from charities to trade bodies, will enable us to inform and apply pressure on decision makers and find effective solutions.


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