Knowledge gaps among owners a key welfare issue for domestic animals – study

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A group of animal welfare experts quizzed on a series of issues consistently rated gaps in owner knowledge as a key issue.

The findings of the British study raises questions around how well owners understand their pets, and whether many do enough research before taking up animal ownership.

While the human benefits of having a companion animal have been well documented, the recent research shows a gap in what owners know about their needs.

The research was led by Professor Cathy Dwyer and the late Fiona Rioja-Lang, of the Jeanne Marchig International Centre for Animal Welfare Education, part of the University of Edinburgh’s Royal Dick School of Veterinary Studies.

Their work identified the most pressing welfare issues facing farm and companion animals in Britain, using a conference, two anonymous surveys and a final workshop to derive the overall priorities.

Experts gave their opinion on each welfare issue, rating their views on their severity, duration and perceived prevalence.

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A total of 117 animal welfare experts were asked to survey and rank various issues, with gaps in owner knowledge identified as the overarching theme across all eight of the domestic species they looked at, which included dogs, cats, rabbits, horses, poultry and pigs.

“Some potential animal owners do not give a lot of thought, or do much research, before acquiring a pet, so sometimes have little real knowledge about what normal behaviour, responses and even feeding habits look like, and the potential costs, of their pets,” Dwyer said.

“There is also a lot of conflicting information about for owners, especially I think in the area of training, so it can be hard for owners to be sure that they are accessing good quality information.

“For animal keepers that have inherited knowledge or where knowledge has been passed down through generations, information can be out of date but it can be hard to change those approaches.”

In the paper, Prioritisation of animal welfare issues in the UK using expert consensus, Dwyer and her colleagues explain that in some cases it appeared that knowledge was available and known by researchers or veterinarians but not always adequately communicated and understood by animal owners or keepers.

In other cases, the information was not available, and more research was required. The study team also highlighted external barriers that can prevent proper care such as economic factors, time and access restrictions.

Education the key

“Education is very important, and finding ways for owners to access good quality information, ideally before they buy their animals, is essential. This is a key role that vets can play in helping owners provide good welfare for their animals. It has been a great project that has produced a lot of what I hope is useful data.”

The peer-reviewed study, published in the journal VetRecord, also identified social behaviour issues, problem behaviours, inappropriate diet and environment, lack of veterinary care, consequences from breeding decisions, poor pain management, delayed euthanasia and chronic ill health, as issues prioritised by the experts.

The authors noted that, for cats, rabbits and horses, there was insufficient peer-reviewed literature available in order to construct comprehensive lists of welfare issues. Initial lists were developed for these species and they were discussed and modified by the experts used in the study on a dedicated online discussion board.

The authors said that delayed euthanasia for elderly or suffering pets was an important source of welfare concern for cats, dogs and horses.

Genetic issues and concerns about breeding for certain characteristics were specific issues for cats and dogs, and issues with training and animal use were of concern for horses and dogs.

Identifying pain an issue

Particular health concerns were identified for all species, with an inability to correctly identify pain behaviours identified as a general concern.

“Owners failing to seek preventative or other veterinary advice was an issue across species,” the authors reported.

Specific concerns around the riding of horses with poorly fitting tack, or inappropriate rider weight, were also raised.

Poor pain management was identified as the most important concern for pigs, sheep and beef cattle, and the second most important issue for individual horses.

“Failure to feed animals adequately was identified as an issue for nearly all species, although stemming from different reasons. This ranged from obesity in dogs, cats and horses, providing an inadequate diet that does not meet animal needs or behaviour in rabbits or horses, and failing to provide animals with adequate feed.”

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The study was commissioned by the Animal Welfare Foundation.

The foundation will use the study as a basis for their future work as well as informing how they provide grants for further research in animal welfare.

The foundation’s chair of Trustees, Chris Laurence, says resources for research into animal welfare issues are limited. “The aim of this work was to highlight those that were the most significant to the animals concerned.

“It will help guide where the Animal Welfare Foundation directs its effort in the future, and we hope it will do so for other funding bodies and researchers too.

“We have already started to address some of the issues raised in a call for research projects and hope that we will be able to continue to address the major concerns raised in this paper.

“This is an incredibly complex piece of work which provides other professions in the animal health and welfare world some firm footing to address some of its conclusions.”

“I would like to thank all of the team involved in conducting the study as well as paying tribute to Dr Rioja-Lang who is tragically no longer with us, but conducted much of this great work.”

The full study team comprised Rioja-Lang, Dwyer, and Heather Bacon and Melanie Connor, also with the Jeanne Marchig International Centre for Animal Welfare Education.

Rioja-Lang, F., Bacon, H., Connor, M., Dwyer, CM.(2020) Prioritisation of animal welfare issues in the UK using expert consensus. Veterinary Record Published Online First: 05 July 2020. doi: 10.1136/vr.105964

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

One thought on “Knowledge gaps among owners a key welfare issue for domestic animals – study

  • July 26, 2020 at 3:48 pm
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    When you learn to drive a car, there is a written test to be taken and passed before you’re allowed behind the wheel. I think a similarly searching test of relevant knowledge should be applied to potential pet owners. Perhaps it could work like this: At each major vet’s practice, a computer terminal could be set up, perhaps in the waiting room, loaded with tests of one’s knowledge of the care of all usual companion animals. You would be allowed to take a test upon payment of a fee to the vet. Should you pass, you would, upon lodging a suitable deposit with the vet against future routine care of your animal, you would be given a permit to buy or adopt a dog, a horse, a kitten or whatever your test was for. The deposit might perhaps cover two years of vaccinations, parasite treatment etc.
    In the case of dogs and cats, I think much suffering could be eased if it was simply made illegal to sell an animal that had not yet been de-sexed. This would inflate the purchase price of puppies and kittens, which would be no bad thing. It would also very nearly eliminate unplanned litters. Genuine, well set up breeders would be protected, and permitted to sell stud animals under license.
    For horses, a purchase permit could be made conditional upon both a test of knowledge as already described and a riding test. The latter need not be made too difficult, but it would make it nearly impossible for somebody with little or no riding experience to buy a horse “to learn on”.

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