Skip to main content

Domestic Animals: Welfare

Volume 831: debated on Thursday 13 July 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to improve the welfare of domestic animals.

My Lords, in begging leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, I note my interest as vice-chairman of the APPG on Cats.

My Lords, the Government are committed to the ambitious agenda detailed in our manifesto and Our Action Plan for Animal Welfare. We have delivered six pieces of primary and four pieces of secondary legislation. We supported three Private Members’ Bills and have one statutory instrument before Parliament. We launched the animal health and welfare pathway for farm animals in England and we will introduce and support legislative and non-legislative reforms to improve animal welfare during this parliamentary Session and beyond.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on introducing a compulsory microchipping scheme for cats, which is excellent news. As we know, the kept animals Bill is not going ahead and there will be separate legislation to implement it. A key proposal was to tackle the horrible crime of pet theft, specifically of dogs—I am afraid that cats did not get much of a look-in, despite the fact that the wicked crime of cat theft is on the increase, having quadrupled since 2015. Can my noble friend the Minister tell us when legislation introducing a specific offence of pet abduction will be brought forward and confirm that it will be in this parliamentary Session, as there must be no delay? Will he commit to including cats in it from the outset, given that the devastating impact of losing a beloved cat is just as dreadful and painful as the loss of a dog?

I pay tribute to my noble friend for his keen interest in this issue. He is absolutely right that the theft of a pet can have a devastating effect, not just on the welfare of the pet but on the owner. I am pleased that we intend to legislate on this during the remainder of this Parliament. Our new approach to measures that were previously in the kept animals Bill means that we can go further; we could include cats in the offence of pet abduction, which campaigners have been calling for. We recently legislated to require cat microchipping, in addition to dogs, which can provide an effective deterrent against theft. In the meantime, other recommendations from the pet theft task force are being taken forward.

My Lords, as a nation of animal lovers we have a somewhat paradoxical attitude to animal welfare, in that some of our most popular dog breeds have such extreme physical conformations that they are predisposed to lifelong health problems. A good example—or bad example, I should say—is the so-called brachycephalic breeds, with very short noses. They suffer chronic respiratory problems, birthing difficulties and a host of other problems throughout their lives. In the light of the actions taken on health and welfare grounds by the Dutch and Norwegian Governments on the breeding of certain dogs, what is His Majesty’s Government’s assessment of the health and welfare consequences of breeding brachycephalic breeds, such as the French bulldog and pug?

My Lords, the Government keep abreast of issues in breeding dogs through our engagements with the sector, including with the UK Brachycephalic Working Group. The Government prohibited the licensed breeding of dogs where their genetic traits, physical characteristics or health could reasonably be expected to result in health or welfare problems for the mother or puppies. Additionally, we raise awareness of issues associated with low-welfare supply of pets through our Petfished campaign.

My Lords, as my noble friend the Minister is aware, the Covid pandemic led to a lot of people buying dogs for company and exercise. Since this time, many of these dogs have been rehomed, putting increased pressure on the dog charities. There also seems to be an alarming increase in puppies being born but not housed. Is there something the Government can do to keep an eye on this and help the charities involved?

The dog charities are doing wonderful work on this. I particularly praise the Dogs Trust, having recently visited one of its rehoming units. There is a serious issue around people being encouraged to spend enormous amounts of money to import pets from countries such as Romania, with a heart-rending story involving the welfare of a dog from there. But we have a large number of dogs that need to be rehomed here, through a process that is properly managed by really good charities, such as the Dogs Trust. I urge people to take that path, rather than spending hundreds of pounds on what is becoming an industry. While some people are doing it well, some are not. I encourage people to go through a registered charity and home UK stray dogs that need rehoming as a priority.

My Lords, we have debated a number of statutory instruments that aim to improve the health and well-being of animals, including those on the prevention of puppy and kitten smuggling, and on the latest ban of electric dog collars. In the past, commercial kennels have been regulated, including their size, weatherproofing and bedding, and the separation of dogs from different owners was introduced. Can the Minister say whether these measures have been successful? How often are commercial kennels inspected?

We work with local authorities to make sure that that is happening. There is a standard required and I am pleased that it has been brought in. I am open to any suggestions of where there has been a failure in regulation, inspection or the physical circumstances of a dog. It is important that this standard is universally applied.

My Lords, while much online animal torture content originates from abroad, some appalling photos and videos shared on social media platforms involve the abuse of domestic animals in the UK. In opposing my noble friend Lady Merron’s amendment to the Online Safety Bill yesterday, the Government insisted not only that online instances of animal mistreatment are covered by the 2006 Act, and are therefore in Defra’s remit, but that prosecutions against abusers are regularly brought. Can the Minister confirm the number of successful prosecutions in each of the last three years?

I do not have that information to hand. However, I hope that all in the House agree that posting grotesque acts of animal barbarity online should be controlled. We have to make sure that we have control over legislation that affects people in this country. If this is being done around the world, it is not impossible to legislate against it but it is more complicated. We want to make sure that, through this and other legislation, we are doing this in the right way and legislating where we can be effective.

A very interesting point is that a dog can help humanise homeless people and others who are a bit lost, looking for their way in life. The problem is that there are few places where homeless people can take their dogs. It would be a good idea for the Government to lean on some of these hostels and temporary accommodation places to provide more for the dogs that people bring with them.

The noble Lord is absolutely right. For people who are in a particularly vulnerable state, whether they have a home or not, a pet can be an extraordinary addition to their life and can help their circumstances. Whether hostels allow dogs is a matter for the people who control those hostels. They might be able to work with organisations that can house the dog while the person is in a refuge, if those kinds of local partnerships are available. I am happy to discuss with the noble Lord how we can make more of that sort of thing available.

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister is aware of the increasing number of attacks on young children by dogs. Some terrible things are happening as a result of dog owners’ negligence. Does my noble friend agree that we should spend more of our resources on educating people who want dogs, so that they look after them, discipline them and make sure that these awful attacks do not take place?

Every time there is one of these attacks, there is a horrendous, heart-sinking story behind it. That is why we are working with professional organisations to ensure that the wrong kinds of dogs are not being kept in homes and that people are aware of how they should manage that risk. Sometimes the most tame and genial dog can turn in a heartbeat and become something that can damage a child or even take their life. It is a horrendous situation, and we are working with police forces and third sector organisations to make sure that we keep these awful tragedies to a minimum.

My Lords, I return to cats and declare an interest as the property of a very sophisticated cat called Loki. Is the Minister aware of the problem of cats that are abandoned, particularly in rural areas, before they are microchipped, and the damage they do to other cats and wildlife generally? What can we do about that?

Millions of birds are killed by cats every year. We want cats to be owned and managed. The noble Viscount’s point is really important and also applies to dogs. If people are buying a cat, they need to go to a registered owner and make sure that it has been microchipped, which is now the law. Buying pets in pub car parks is where the problem starts. They have to be bought through a registered owner and people need to understand that a cat is for life, not just for Christmas.