New animal welfare measures fail Scotland’s dogs

Harry Huyton's avatar
Harry Huyton
06 October 2016

Let’s start with some good news. Animal welfare is on the Scottish Government’s agenda and already two very positive initiatives have been kicked off. By 2018 wild animals in circuses will be banned, putting Scotland ahead of the UK on this important ethical issue and, we hope, demonstrating to other European countries that this can be done.

The second initiative confirmed this week is the review of the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006. Sounds dry, but it’s important. This will provide the opportunity to introduce stronger sentences for animal cruelty cases as well as measures to prevent cruelty in the first place. OneKind will be pressing for this to include, for example, therapeutic programmes and ensuring that courts ban individuals from keeping pets where they have a record of cruelty.

The bad news is that some of the new decisions in this week’s announcement on ‘protecting animal welfare’ don’t live up to the name and even represent a backward step.

Reintroducing tail docking

In 2007 Scotland banned tail docking following extensive debate about the impact this practice has on the welfare of dogs. This decision was widely celebrated by vets and animal welfare charities and even in the short time since the ban there has been an obvious change in attitudes. We have all become accustomed to seeing dogs that were traditionally docked with tails and for most owners this is the new normal. 

Gamekeepers and the shooting industry in particular, however, have been lobbying for spaniels and other working dogs to be docked to prevent injuries to adult dogs. As a result, the ban will be weakened to allow vets in Scotland to dock a maximum of one third in length from the tails of working spaniels and Hunt Point Retrievers up to five days old.

No-one can deny the power of photographs of blood-spattered spaniels that supporters of weakening the ban have published. It may seem obvious that the way to prevent these injuries is to snip off the tiny tails of young puppies as a precaution. But that is far too simplistic as it completely ignores the impact of tail docking itself.

Young puppies can and do feel pain at the time of docking. Adult dogs undergoing tail amputation would at least do so under general anaesthesia and be provided with pain relief. The tail tip injury may hurt but the actual amputation could be less painful than a puppy being docked. And the welfare equation has to include the fact that a high number of puppies – between 81 and 135 – would need to be docked in order to prevent one tail injury in an adult that results in veterinary treatment.

Vets would also be left to judge whether the young puppies presented in the surgery are really going to grow up to work in the field, based on what the owners or breeders tell them.  Anecdotal evidence from England and Wales, where the docking of working dogs is still permitted, suggests that declarations made by owners are not always correct or, to put it another way, true.

Now decisions will have to be made as to whether puppies’ tails should be docked for these breeds in veterinary surgeries up and down the country. We hope and expect that most vets in Scotland will adhere to the view of the British Veterinary Association, which says:

We are opposed to the docking of puppies’ tails. We believe that puppies suffer unnecessary pain as a result of docking, and are deprived of a vital form of canine expression. Chronic pain can arise from poorly-performed docking. We would reiterate that surgical operations should not be undertaken unless necessary for therapeutic purposes and that docking should be banned as a procedure, other than for veterinary medical reasons, for all breeds of dog.”

What a shame the Scottish Government didn’t just accept this advice!

Electric shock collars

We have long called for electric shock collars and other electronic training devices that are used in pain based training to be banned. They are unethical, can have unintended consequences, and are unnecessary as positive reward-based training has consistently been shown to be more effective.

We’re not alone on this. Animal welfare charities like the Dogs Trust and Cats Protection back a ban. Most dog trainers back a ban. We conducted a phone survey earlier this year of registered dog trainers operating in Scotland and 91% of the 23 trainers that took part supported a ban. They argued that they were both cruel and ineffective compared to reward-based training. The public also support a ban. In YouGov polling of the Scottish public commissioned by OneKind and other welfare charities in March this year, 77% supported a ban.

What’s more, shock collars and other devices that are used to administer an electric shock to cats and dogs have been banned in Wales since 2010. The Welsh Government even commissioned an independent review earlier this year following challenges to the legislation. It concluded that:

The animal welfare cost is likely to exceed the benefits from use of electronic collars as training devices, since they may cause pain, effective alternatives exist, and the scope for misuse

All this makes the Scottish Government’s failure to ban shock collars and similar devices all the more confusing. The evidence was clear, there was overwhelming public support, and there is precedence for a ban within the UK. Instead, the Scottish Government has opted to regulate their use so that they will “be permitted for use as a last resort and under the guidance of an approved trainer or vet”.

The challenges to developing such a regulatory regime are considerable. For example, most trainers don’t want anything to do with pain-based training. It’s hard to imagine many vets would either. So who is going to provide the independent guidance this regulatory approach would rely on? This approach would also do nothing about sales of shock collars, which means that anyone can continue to buy one for £20 off the internet and they are unlikely to have any knowledge that a regulatory regime exists. My sympathy is with the officials who have to deliver these regulations.

Where does this leave us?

This was the first major animal welfare announcement since the May elections in Scotland. The commitment to review the Animal Health and Welfare Act and the reminder that wild animals in circuses will be banned are both welcome, but the missed opportunity on shock collars and backward step on tail docking are deeply disappointing.  There are many other critical animal welfare decisions coming up for the Scottish Government – on fox hunting, snaring and regulating online pet sales, for example. I hope this week is the last of the disappointments and that we can look forward to serious progress on these important issues.


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