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The Pet Animals Act 1951 - Part 1

The introduction to the Pet Animals Act 1951 describes it simply as:

"An Act to regulate the sale of pet animals."

Regrettably the Government is labouring under a misapprehension when it concludes that this minimalistic piece of legislation does more than it says on the tin.

“The welfare of all animals sold from pet shops is provided for, not only in the provisions of the 1951 Act, but also under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 which requires that all owners must provide for the welfare needs of their animals.” George Eustice MP (written answer, Hansard 21st January 2015)

“..local authorities are required to licence pet shops and through the licensing system can ensure that animal welfare standards are being applied” Lord de Mauley (letter dated 17th November 2014)

"This act protects the welfare of animals sold as pets." website

No. It does nothing of the sort.

At best, it barely sets out provisions of basic care. The supposed ‘protection’ is limited to four sentences mentioning the requirements for ‘suitable’ accommodation, nutrition, visiting intervals and preventing the spread of infectious disease.

Basic minimum

Guidance pertaining to what is 'suitable' for each particular species has been attempted in various editions of Model Conditions, designed to assist local authority officers in their inspections. This is very necessary because often these officers have no training or background in animal husbandry and the inspection is a ‘tick box’ exercise. (OATA FOI Report 2014) Local authorities have no obligation to adopt the most recent version (2013) of the Model Conditions so there is considerable variation in which conditions are applied to licences. Even the latest Model Conditions state they are 'basic minimum standards' - not best practice as one would expect from a document in which so many venerated organisations had a hand.

Non-statutory basic minimum standards may be ethically acceptable in an industry producing animals for a purpose deemed essential, such as feeding the human population. In this situation there can be an argument for compromising on welfare to maximise production. But pet ownership is a luxury, not a fundamental necessity of life. There is no need to churn out and sell millions of   'pet animals' in such a manner that quantity, availability and commerce override all but the smallest of considerations for their well-being. Pet owners must also learn to accept that buying a companion animal requires patience, research and effort and is not in any way comparable with purchasing their groceries.

The very limited requirements of the Pet Animals Act are more about keeping 'stock' alive and fit for sale (good business practice) than about protecting animal welfare.

Animal Welfare

 “Animal welfare refers to the state of the animal; the treatment that an animal receives is covered by other terms such as animal care, animal husbandry and humane treatment.”

The OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health) 2008

This excellent definition is reflected in the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which sets out the ‘Five Freedoms,’ generally held up as the pillars of animal welfare. Of these five, the Pet Animals Act just about covers two – freedom from discomfort and the freedom from hunger and thirst. Prevention of only the spread of infectious disease does not adequately ensure ‘freedom from pain, injury and disease’, which is a considerably more proactive requirement. The final two freedoms provide for the expression of normal behaviour and protection from fear and distress and in these, the prehistoric Pet Animals Act fails most profoundly.

In 1951, the necessity for human emotional wellbeing was only just being widely recognised, so legislators at the time may be forgiven for exempting behavioural requirements from animal laws. Sixty years on, there can be no such excuse. It is wholly unacceptable to ignore scientific evidence and developments in understanding of animal behaviour and this Government is failing millions of animals produced for the pet trade by maintaining the sanctity of a law that excludes provision for meeting their behavioural and emotional needs.

The Animal Welfare Act 2006 should overcome these deficiencies and indeed there was every intention that the Pet Animals Act 1951 would subsequently be repealed and replaced by modern secondary legislation. This is yet to happen and because there is no statutory duty on local authorities to enforce the requirements of the Animal Welfare Act on their licenced premises, animals in pet shops remain at the mercy of the Pet Animals Act. (See response from George Eustice MP, above).

Enforcement: goes on to explain how the Pet Animals Act is supposedly enforced:

“The local council may attach any conditions to the licence, may inspect the licensed premises at all reasonable times and may refuse a licence if the conditions at the premises are unsatisfactory or if the terms of the licence are not being complied with.”

Leaving aside the serious issues that ‘may’ arise when enforcement protocol is apparently discretionary, local authorities prefer to issue advisory guidance than refuse a licence if the terms of the licence are not being complied with or if conditions are unsatisfactory. In some cases, licences are renewed year after year, despite not meeting the criteria and advisory guidance is simply restated on the understanding that improvements are ongoing.

An offence is only committed if there is a (serious) breach of licence conditions. In practice, only administrative failures seem to count under the latter category, because it is almost impossible to prove beyond reasonable doubt that there has been negligence in care or crucially that animals are sick when they are sold. This results in authorities that are unwilling or unable to act, even when in receipt of numerous complaints against a licensed premises. Even where a prosecution has been successful and a ban on keeping a licensed pet shop has been imposed, it does little to prevent the convicted person from operating a pet shop. Licences have been applied for and issued to close family members resulting in the previous status quo resuming after a short interval. This is completely unacceptable and reflects just how ineffective the Pet Animals Act is at protecting animals  - and consumers.

by Julia Carr, Canine Action UK