Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Is this the future for England?

4,000 acts of horrific animal cruelty in Northern Ireland but just one court case

 Northern Ireland's equivalent of the RSPCA—the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—does not have the ability to prosecute cruelty. Its website states:
"We are a charity that provides a much needed voice for animals, we investigate issues that fall below the legislative radar, badger crime, dog fighting, puppy farms, equine cruelty, tame deer hunts etc. We lobby for changes in legislation, the recent ban on the sale in the EU of cosmetic products tested on animals is one example. As long as there are people in Society who derive pleasure from inflicting suffering on animals our voice will continue to be heard."

"Disgracefully Hunting with Dogs is NOT banned in NI, we are the only area of the UK where this travesty is permitted."
Until 2012 animal protection laws in Northern Ireland were enforced by the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Enforcement of welfare legislation relating to non-farmed animals was then transferred to local Animal Welfare Teams run by individual Local Authorities; see, for example the Coleraine Borough Council website.  Legislation relating to farm animals is enforced by the Department of Agriculture, while the police retain control of cases relating to wildlife and animal fighting. By the end of 2012 there were nine local authority Animal Welfare Officers for a population of just under 2 million people—for comparison the RSPCA provides twelve Inspectors and four Animal Collection Officers for every 2 million people in England and Wales and also has a network of branches and animal shelters to care for animals who need to be removed from their owners. The RSPCA also has veterinary resources to help owners who genuinely can't afford the full cost of veterinary treatment.

There is a concerted campaign to remove the RSPCA's ability to prosecute cruelty. This seems to be mainly orchestrated by pro-hunting groups.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Mill Road Winter Fair this Saturday

Mill Road's popular Winter Fair is this Saturday, 7th December, and local author Saumya Balsari has kindly donated some free copies of her book, The Cambridge Curry Club, to local shops.

The first few lucky shoppers at the RSPCA bookshop on the 7th can add a copy to their purchase at no extra charge.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Lost and Found

The way calls to the RSPCA about lost or found animals are handled has changed. Instead of recording these on the central computer (along with all the other things the National Control Centre deals with), anyone who contacts the RSPCA wanting to leave details of lost or found animals will be asked to go to the PetsLocated site instead. 

PetsLocated is an independent, commercial site which automatically matches records of animals reported lost or found. The advantage of this compared with the old system is that it doesn't require a human being to run a manual search and it doesn't tie up the RSPCA emergency number while details are collected via the telephone. There is a £10 fee to register lost animals, but found animals can be added to the database free of charge.

Under the old system lost and found calls would be taken by the control centre but, because of their comparatively low priority, callers would typically have a long wait to get through. If they gave up and tried to call the local branch the person answering might take their details and pass them to the national control centre, or something quite random might happen—particularly if the call was taken by a charity shop or somewhere else that's not really intended as part of frontline activities. I strongly suspect details were sometimes noted on Post-Its and simply lost. Once passed on, so far as I can understand, the details would be entered up in the computer, but would probably only be used for anything if a branch or animal home called in requesting a manual search on an animal they'd just taken in. Very few branches would have the time or energy to keep phoning in to check whether someone had subsequently realised their pet was missing and called in the details. Entering details over the phone was very time-consuming and tied up an NCC operator meaning real emergencies might not get through.

I can't remember ever locating an owner through the old system, although we have had successes with publicising found animals on facebook and our website.

I tried the PetsLocated site earlier this year, when my neighbour's Siamese went AWOL, and was favourably impressed that the system returned partial matches which might possibly have been her cat (who in fact knew perfectly well where he was and came home when he felt peckish). The old manual RSPCA system didn't do this effectively and depended on loser and finder describing animals in the same way—is this a black cat with white markings, or a white one with black markings? Persian, or just a bit fluffy?

None of this is a substitute for microchipping (which means you can be contacted instantly if your pet is picked up by a dog warden or taken to a vet), or for calling local vets and checking with neighbours if a pet goes missing. Dogs found straying must by law be reported to the council dog wardens, so anyone who loses a dog needs to contact them.

Many (possibly most) "lost" cats have in fact suffered some mishap which means they know where home is but can't get there. Worst case scenario is that they've been injured, but often they've simply got shut in somewhere and will be released if neighbours are requested to check garages and sheds.

Predictably, the "usual suspects" are complaining, but this really is a sensible change to make matching up of lost and found animals more efficient and to release resources for animals in need of immediate help.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Storify of today's conference on welfare of dogs and cats in the EU

Welfare figures for first three quarters of 2013

Finished writing up the branch welfare statistics for January-September last night:

Dog Cat Rabbit Misc Total
Rehomed 7 69 0 42 118


Dog Cat Rabbit Misc Total
Rehomed animals 7 69 0 0 76
Welfare/Vouchers redeemed 69 25 2 0 96
Welfare micro-chipping events 56 37 0 0 93
Total 132 131 2 0 265

Welfare assistance (veterinary treatment)

Dog Cat Rabbit Misc Total
Branch clinic 1899 716 68 48 2731
Welfare/Vouchers redeemed 16 15 0 0 31
Welfare events 0 0 0 0 0
Total 1915 731 68 48 2762


Dog Cat Rabbit Misc Total
Rehomed animals 7 69 0 12 88
Welfare/Vouchers redeemed 73 4 7 3 87
Welfare neutering events 29 5 2 0 36
Total 109 78 9 15 211

Friday, October 25, 2013

So, if we can get pet births down to replacement levels, problem solved?

Alfie looking for a home
Not entirely.

It's quite possible to have a situation where most of the young animals are wanted but there's still a substantial welfare issue about animals being discarded when they don't match owners' expectations.

It may be possible to solve this partially by a combination of education, help for otherwise good owners who run into financial difficulties and improvement of the conditions in which dogs are reared so that fewer end up with behaviour issues. However there will always be some people who die, get ill, lose their jobs etc. etc. and can't keep their animals for reasons that are not their fault. Barring an unlikely amount of improvement in human behaviour there will probably always be some owners who aren't suitable and a few who are actively cruel and whose animals must be removed.

So long as there are more people looking for animals than there are animals needing homes, this just means that animal shelters will still be needed, but most of their occupants will fairly readily be placed. Unfortunately it doesn't mean this will apply to all animals taken in.

Some animals will have chronic health conditions that make them less attractive to potential adopters (or simply unaffordable because of the cost of treatment). Some will be elderly. This doesn't mean it's going to be impossible to save them, just that the simplistic model of "find good home, problem solved" won't work. Realistically the majority of adopters want a pet with good prospects of being a companion they'll have for many years and few are going to consider a relationship they know will end in heartache in a few months or years.

This means high-quality, long-term fostering is likely to become more important to avoid elderly or difficult animals simply being warehoused in kennels.  Getting it right will be crucial, so that no-one is overwhelmed with the stress of looking after multiple animals who are approaching the end of their lives. Cost isn't the whole story; it's the cumulative load of animals needing to be taken to the vet nearly every week, tempted to eat and helped with grooming.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Cats and dogs

Virtually every week our branch gets requests for help with dogs or puppies who've been recently purchased and now have some kind of problem. Sometimes this is clearly the fault of the original seller; sometimes simply that the buyer had no idea how expensive vet treatment can be. It is really fantastically aggravating when we're asked to spend charity money treating a puppy we know would have cost quite a lot to buy.

It is extremely rare for us to get similar requests for help with cats or kittens, but we get lots of requests for help finding homes for unexpected/unwanted litters of kittens or for help catching and taming kittens which have been born to unowned mothers in people's gardens. Conversely, it's unusual for us to be asked to help with unwanted puppies, but we get a lot of requests for help with mother dogs who need expensive veterinary help giving birth and we sometimes have to take in litters of puppies who appear to have been dumped because they are ill (and therefore valueless).

There's a "pet population" problem for dogs and cats (and rabbits, ferrets, you name it), but the biology that underpins the problem isn't identical. To solve a problem you first need to understand it.

The non-pedigree cat population of mainland Britain is reproducing at a rate that makes it not only self-sustaining but over-producing. If no cats were ever imported and all pedigree breeding stopped, there would still be a "cat crisis" every summer, because most cats breed in spite of human activity, not because of it. We need to increase the percentage of pet owners who spay their female cats (currently around 80%; around 90% is needed to bring births and deaths in balance), and increase effort to trap and spay free-living cats who don't have owners.
(Bradshaw, J. W., Horsfield, G., Allen, J., & Robinson, I. (1999). Feral cats: their role in the population dynamics of Felis catus. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 65(3), 273–283. doi:10.1016/S0168-1591(99)00086-6)

There is very little incentive for anyone to breed cats to make money because kittens are available from rescue centres at no more than the cost of neutering and vaccinating them.

The dog population is quite different; almost all breeding is the result of human selection and a very high proportion is aimed at making money. The "high-end" serious breeders, who care about their dogs, have to charge a lot because their costs will be high if they're doing expensive health checks on the parent dogs before deciding on a mating. Unfortunately this opens a marketing opportunity for breeders and traffickers who can produce a "product" (a living creature!) at lower cost, either by keeping their breeding bitches in dreadful "battery" conditions or by importing pups from countries where there is still over-production of unwanted litters (presumably because of lower rates of spaying and/or because it is more acceptable for dogs to be allowed to roam freely).

In these respects the "dog problem" is more similar to the "rabbit problem" than the "cat problem" because the driver producing more animals than can easily be rehomed is primarily commercial breeding and importing, not accidental litters. We could probably achieve 100% spay/neuter of the UK pet dog population and still have a problem of over-production of dogs because we have no way to "turn off the tap" in Ireland, Bulgaria or Romania.

A hundred years or so ago unwanted litters of pups were the major source of Britain's unwanted dogs. Affordable spay/neuter and a reduction in numbers of dogs allowed to roam unsupervised solved this, but made large-scale breeding for profit possible. As we approach the level of cat spay/neuter that should reduce cat breeding to replacement levels we need to learn from the earlier experience with dogs and avoid anything that might make commercial exploitation appear attractive. Cats and dogs are primarily companion animals and it's absolutely critical that they should be reared as far as possible in a domestic environment where they will have extensive social contact with people and other animals to avoid behaviour issues that will increase the risk of them becoming unwanted adults.

Useful links
BVA/AWF/RSPCA Puppy Contract
Advice about stray cats

Saturday, October 19, 2013

How not to keep dogs

Fortuitously (I sincerely hope it is not a portent of more of the same!) this week's calls could have been used as case studies to illustrate what is wrong with the dog situation in this country.

  1. Request for help with the cost of "cherry eye" surgery for a young bulldog. The owner had spent £300 on surgery on one eye and couldn't afford to get the other one done. Sadly this isn't something we can afford to help with.
  2. Request to help with first aid for a young dog passing copious diarrhoea with blood. He'd been adopted from an organisation which rescues dogs from Romania by someone eligible to use our clinic, but unfortunately as he'd been vaccinated by the rescue the owner hadn't made it a priority to get him registered with us. Typically it was a Sunday when most vets charge extra and the owner couldn't afford the cost.
  3. Last, and saddest, an 8 week old puppy, bought at a car boot sale and now with probable internal injuries. After spending all her money on buying the puppy, his owner had none to pay for treatment. We covered this, but the pup is probably not going to make it. 
"Fire fighting" like this is essential because these individual animals need our help, but it is only putting a patch on a broken system.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Newmarket shop re-launch!

We've now recruited a new manager to replace Lorna and our shop in Newmarket will be re-opening next week. Lynne will be at the shop most of the rest of this week, putting out the winter stock and arranging the rota for volunteers.

To help us make the launch a success we need your help with stock donations and we need more volunteers. If you live in the Newmarket area and can help, please drop by the shop.

Friday, October 11, 2013

RSPCA rehoming?

Our inspector's request for us to crank up the numbers of rabbits we foster and rehome has provoked some soul-searching among the rehoming team. 

On the one hand, there's the desperate need to take in rabbits from truly dreadful conditions where they're likely to produce yet more babies who will have miserable lives.

On the other, there's the concern that we'll at best end up creating "sanctuary" conditions where they'll be in better circumstances but we won't be able to move them on and eventually we'll still have no space for new requests. 

At worst we could end up creating the kind of sanctuary that's a welfare problem in its own right if we're not strict with ourselves about taking on no more animals than foster carers can cope with and not skimping on the specifications for their housing.

Keeping rabbits correctly is not cheap; a pair will need living accommodation that will cost at least £500 unless you are a really good carpenter and they'll need yearly vaccinations costing £40 each. They also need good quality hay and green vegetables daily. 

This is possibly a reason why so many people buy rabbits from pet shops rather than adopting—because the shop will let them buy when we would refuse because the proposed accommodation is not adequate.

In one form or another similar dilemmas impinge on the rest of our rehoming:

  • Rats are extremely prone to benign tumours as they age; if we rehome to someone who clearly does not have the funds for vet treatment, are we condemning them to a long-drawn-out period of discomfort with large lumps of flesh that may ulcerate or become infected.
  • All small animals will need cages that will cost far more than the monetary value of the animals themselves (which is why some pet shops offer a "free" hamster with purchase of a cage).
  • When we rehome animals with ongoing medical issues, like Lulu (pictured above), are we taking a risk that the adopter may not keep up their treatment?
We have to be practical about rehoming as fast as we can so that other animals can be taken in, but there is always some degree of risk, and that's partly why we encourage adopters to come back to us if they find they're not coping. It's also why we visit homes before adoptions so that we can assure ourselves as much as possible that the prospective owners have thought through the practical and financial aspects of owning animals, and why we do reject some people if their facilities aren't suitable. We try to operate a "buddy" system for foster homes so that no-one feels under pressure to take more than they can cope with and animals can be dispersed to other foster homes to spread the load if needed.

We need to recruit more temporary foster homes and home-visitors for the pre-homing checks. We particularly need visitors to cover the area round Ely and the northern part of our branch area. If you might be able to help, please email

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

RSPCA access to Police National Computer

News stories about RSPCA access to the PNC earlier this year implied that inspectors might be trawling computer records looking for sensitive information in order to harrass people. 

It was originally an exclusive by online computing journal, The Register—I suspect as a result of information supplied by the pseudonymous Richard Martin who made a large number of Freedom of Information requests about provision of data to the RSPCA before the police got fed up and told him any more would be treated as "vexatious".

The Register, had enough computer savvy to write FOI requests in a form that would get some answers and, following their initial scoop, they obviously hoped a bit more digging would produce something really exciting.

Their reporter's application reads:
"Dear The Association of Chief Police Officers of England, Wales and Northern Ireland,

I wish to see some examples of information disclosed to the RSPCA
under the SLA you have with them.

Specifically I wish to see details of the first ten disclosures to
the RSPCA of information from the PNC. Obviously this will need to
be redacted to remove specific personal information and any
specific information likely to prejudice an ongoing case. But I
wish to know the detailed nature of the kind data in practice sent
to the RSPCA. For information that is redacted please ensure that
the description of the information (e.g. "previous address",
"occupation") remains. Please disclose where possible the actual
emails (suitably redacted) to and from the RSPCA in relation to
these ten cases.

Yours faithfully,

Ken Tindell"
If you compare this with the earlier applications you can see why it got a response; Ken Tindell is clearly rational and non-obsessive; he's after another exclusive, but he's not going to go on and on.

Sadly, the result is not news; RSPCA access to the PNC is done in exactly the way ACPO said it was back in August. There's no trawling; simply a notification from the RSPCA when they are about to prosecute someone and a request for creation of a record in the PNC with disclosure of previous offences. Precisely because this is not news it will never get the same publicity as the first round of media claims.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Animal Welfare in practice

Lots of different definitions of animal welfare:

  • The state of the animal's body and mind, and the extent to which its nature (genetic traits manifest in breed and temperament) is satisfied [a]

  • Animal welfarism: the position that it is morally acceptable for humans to use non-human animals, provided that adverse effects on animal welfare are minimized as far as possible, short of not using the animals at all. [b]
  • [The animal's] state as regards its attempts to cope with its environment. This state includes how much it is having to do to cope, the extent to which it is succeeding in or failing to cope, and its associated feelings.[c]
  • The feelings experienced by animals: the absence of strong negative feelings, usually called suffering, and (probably) the presence of positive feelings, usually called pleasure. In any assessment of welfare, it is these feelings that should be assessed.[d]
  • Animal welfare involves the subjective feelings of animals.[e] 
Most of the definitions don't include preservation of life; the assumption being that, once an animal is dead, it cannot suffer, so cannot experience poor welfare. This is obviously the basis of justification for most welfare improvements for farmed animals (the other being that some people will continue to eat meat whatever we do, so improving conditions is more likely to help actual animals than futile campaigns in favour of strict vegetarianism for all).

More nuanced discussions of welfare accept that killing a happy animal deprives that individual of further happy experiences. An example of this is Animal Welfare in Veterinary Practice by James Yeates, the RSPCA CVO, who argues that what we need to consider is the concept of "a life worth living" (which implies that the animal has an interest in continuing to stay alive) and "a life worth avoiding" (which implies that we should not cause animals to be in such a state and that a humane end would be a benefit to the animal if rehabilitation is not possible). 

It's this kind of reasoning which provides a justification for projects such as more humane rearing of veal calves (who would otherwise be shot at birth or exported to worse conditions). 


Dogs were the first domestic animals and, as a species, have evolved to live with human families (although wolves are able to cross-breed with dogs—as tigers can with lions—they are no longer the same species). It no longer makes much sense to talk about the natural behaviour of dogs apart from life with humans because living with humans is what is natural for dogs.

Because dogs are now primarily companions greater weight tends to be given to preserving their lives as a vital element of "animal welfare" than is true for farmed animals. Some commentators talk as though "animal welfare" is (or ought to be) about saving the lives of stray dogs and little else.

This ignores those dogs who suffer but are not strays or unowned:

Heidi: an example of a neglect prosecution

Dogs make up a large proportion of the RSPCA's caseload. This prosecution is particularly sad because Heidi and Mimi could have been seen at our Cambridge clinic if their owner had contacted us.

Dogs may also suffer if their owners put money before their welfare (as in the case of puppy farming and trafficking) or if owners become so obsessed with breeding for a particular "look" that they ignore potential health consequences.


"Our position on pedigree dog welfare

There is a wealth of scientific and other evidence to show that the welfare and quality of life of many pedigree dogs is seriously compromised as a result of established selective breeding practices.

The RSPCA’s position on this serious issue is very clear, and was informed by the independent scientific report we commissioned on pedigree dog breeding."

"We are working with the Royal Veterinary College and the University of Sydney on a three-year PhD research project to develop a new system for data collection, analysis and interpretation. It is not just dogs that are affected by welfare issues from selective breeding so the PhD study aims to estimate the prevalence of inherited and acquired disorders in both dogs and cats to highlight breeds at greatest risk of specific conditions.
More information is available on the VetCompass project website."

Two contrasting views:

"THE RSPCA is still a very real threat to pedigree dogs and dog showing, and all in the hobby should stay on guard in the coming weeks and months.

In the wake of the society’s recent bizarre instructions for its supporters not to take part in, or be associated with, any dog shows which are to be judged on the basis of breed standards, most people have concentrated on making the point that the think that the Society has lost the plot and become more extremist in its attitude. "
Dogs Today July 2010

What's really interesting is the conclusion of the Dogs Today piece—that pedigree breeders must improve breed standards to reduce exaggeration and support breed clubs in working to eliminate genetic defects to avoid giving the RSPCA any ammunition. The RSPCA may not be making friends, but it is successfully influencing people for the good of dogs' welfare.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Best ever Sunday at our Burleigh Street shop

Fantastic day at 61 Burleigh street, although Anton, Una and I are now more or less crawling on hands and knees.

In all, we took £340 - enough to fund a fracture repair operation or to board a dog in kennels for 6 weeks.

If only we can keep this up we should be able to think about expanding the welfare work we do—something that's desperately needed.

However doubling our sales means we need to double our intake of stock. 

If you're considering a clear-out, or have been on a diet and now have clothes a size too large, please remember our shop.

We also need good quality bric-à-brac, toys; really anything that will sell.

Burleigh street is pedestrianised, but if you want to drop items off by car there is access from Paradise street at the back of the shop. If you're coming to the back entrance, it's best to phone ahead to make sure someone knows you are there and will let you in: 01223 312 802.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Freedom Food Farm Assessors

A major reason why the bulk of the RSPCA's work is not "news" is that much of it is fairly technical and detailed. This youtube clip shows the work done by one of the Freedom Food assessors.

The Freedom Food program is continually being revised and improved on the basis of the latest scientific knowledge about animal welfare. Like the rest of the Society's campaigning activities, it will only survive if we can maintain the practical welfare services that keep the support of ordinary animal-lovers, because it's those services that act as credentials of our genuine concern for animals.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Pics of the spiffy new signage at RSPCA Cambridge Burleigh Street Shop

"Pub sign" to make the shop visible to people facing
parallel to the frontage


The whole ensemble 
Right-hand window with new displays

Left-hand window 
Close-up of mannequin

Display stand for bric-à-brac

Fantastic Monsoon dress

Rabbit interest group???

Would anyone in the Cambridge, Ely or Newmarket area be interested in joining a branch rabbit welfare group?

Our inspector has asked the branch if we can try to increase our rabbit fostering because of the growing number of rabbit welfare cases he needs to place for rehoming. 

We're looking for people who would consider fostering rabbits, and also for experienced rabbit carers who might be able to help and support new fosterers and anyone who could help with putting up rabbit runs.

Rabbits are very popular pets but they are extremely difficult to care for to a high welfare standard, so it's important that foster setups which adopters will be viewing should be setting a good example. If we're insisting that adopters must have runs which are at least 8 ft long we can't be seen to be keeping rabbits in smaller accommodation ourselves.

Unfortunately this means that any rabbit housing we provide to foster homes is likely to be of the hefty wood and mesh flat-pack variety and will need a fair amount of DIY skills to set it up and a suitable area of level grass or concrete for the site. Most of the best commercial runs were originally designed for poultry so will need under-wiring as rabbits will dig out of any run that doesn't have a base.

As we would order and pay for the hutches and runs used by rabbit foster carers we would request that anyone offering to help in this way intends to continue fostering for a reasonable length of time because this type of housing is difficult to dismantle and re-use elsewhere.

If you might be interested in helping with this, please email

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The nightmare that is the current dog breeding situation

We've had yet another dog owner whose pet needs an urgent operation likely to cost at least £250 in order to save her life at our clinic today. She has two week old puppies who are having to be hand-reared and her condition is causing her extreme pain (which could probably have been avoided if she'd been brought to us more quickly). 

He's made no provision at all for the possible costs of something going wrong during her pregnancy and if we weren't here it's likely that she would either have to be euthanased to end her suffering or would die miserably.

This kind of thing is mostly ignorance, not deliberate cruelty, but it is just so frustrating that it could have been avoided by a spay operation which would have cost just £55 via our clinic.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

RSPCA Hospitals Appeal

Click the image if you'd like to donate towards one of the large national hospitals (in London, Manchester and Birmingham). If you're based in Cambridge, please consider donating towards our branch animal clinic.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Welfare v. Rights mark 3

As I've argued in earlier posts, treating animal welfare and animal rights as though they represented opposites is at best a mistake, and at worst an example of "bad faith" claims aimed at intentionally confusing people.

Animal rights is a theory about the ethics of the way we should treat animals, but it's more helpful to treat it as one of a number of possible theories about the moral status of animals and avoid using it as a slogan. Ethical theory is essentially about clarifying what we believe about our obligations and helping us to think about this in a clear and logical fashion. It's not primarily about practical outcomes, although most theories of ethics incorporate some requirements to assess whether the outcomes of following a theory are likely to be good or bad.

If pressed, I think I'd plump for Erskine's definition of rights as a legal term (so animals have some rights in the UK as the law protects them against sadistic cruelty and neglect).

Animal welfare is usually defined in terms such as "physical and psychological well-being" and animal welfare science is the corpus of evidence-based knowledge about how this may be achieved.

So, someone who has been convinced that animal suffering matters should be interested in knowing more about the practicalities of animal welfare in order to be successful in putting their beliefs into practice.

Someone who already cares about animals may well take an interest in animal ethics to clarify their thinking when difficult choices need to be made (for example whether it can be right to use vaccines which have been tested on animals in order to protect other animals from fatal diseases).

If you're interested in pursuing this, I suggest taking a look at the exercises and case studies on the free, interactive Animal Ethics Dilemma site. You might also read, Putting the Horse before Descartes by the philosopher Bernard Rollin.

What's gone wrong?

  1. Bernard Rollin argues part of the problem is that good animal welfare and high productivity were at one time inextricably linked, simply because agricultural animals would die if their basic needs were not met. However, the advent of factory farming meant that animals could be kept in very poor conditions (overcrowded, dirty etc.) and remain productive through the use of technological aids like antibiotics. When animal protection organisations became concerned that animals were suffering in these systems, it was natural for the producers to counter this by claiming welfare must be good because productivity was still high. Gradually, through abuse of language, "welfare" became a term used by the animal industry to oppose better treatment.
  2. Advocates of a strong version of animal rights are opposed to "welfarism" because it's seen as a way of justifying keeping animals to be killed for meat and excusing systems which are only a little better than the worst excesses of factory farming.
  3. Fox hunting! Opponents of a ban on hunting find it a useful tactic to claim the RSPCA has been taken over by people who don't care about animal welfare because they want to destroy the RSPCA's credibility with ordinary people. (In fact this tactic tends to be used by any group that feels threatened by the RSPCA's campaigning activities—for example groups promoting exotic pets.)

"Bad Faith"

The problem with all this is that it makes it very hard to have a rational discussion about what needs doing in order to save more animals. It is absurd that an organisation whose supporters shoot around 10 million pheasants each year (Lees, A. C., Newton, I. and Balmford, A. (2013), Pheasants, buzzards, and trophic cascades. Conservation Letters, 6: 141–144. doi: 10.1111/j.1755-263X.2012.00301.x) gets a respectful hearing when it claims that "the Hunting Act has not saved a single fox" or exclaims with faux indignation about the euthanasia of sick animals.

Incidentally pheasants make up a startling 30% of the total land bird biomass of the British Isles (presumably chickens are not included).

What is news?

The 90-odd percent of the RSPCA's activities which don't involve startling cruelty, heroic rescues or very cute/unusual animals are not "news".

Unfortunately this means that:
  1. The public see quite a lot of the isolated newsworthy items but never really get a larger picture of what's going on.
  2. It's easy to claim that only the photogenic incidents are being dealt with—the public don't get to view inspectors driving round collecting small, injured animals and ferrying them to vets, or all the help given by arranging treatment via the telephone because there's not really anything much to see. Confidentiality issues normally mean it's not possible to film situations where the inspectors are negotiating with owners who aren't irresponsible enough to be prosecuted and any film of prosecutions can only be released after any court case has concluded. This means they have no real way to judge what's actually happening unless they go to the trouble of reading the public Annual Reports.
  3. Anything that can be made to look like a scandal of some sort is news, and modern newspapers are strapped for cash and very short of investigative journalists. This means it's easy for organisations opposed to animal welfare to write articles misrepresenting the RSPCA, then issue them as press releases or feed them as news to individual journalists and get them published pretty well verbatim as though they were news actually discovered by the paper.
  4. Muddling  up the distinction between rights and welfare (and why people who care about animals should be interested in both) is just another tool to spread disinformation about the animal protection movement, with the added bonus of helping to divide the movement.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Cats and dogs and other animals

Lulu: signed over because she was kept permenently
in a shed and had untreated mange
While writing up the previous post I searched for statistics on saving pets in the UK; how the numbers changed over time, and what needs to be done to save more animals and discovered that reliable information is a) remarkably sparse, b) skewed towards an assumption that this is predominantly about healthy stray dogs, and c) probably unreliable although it may point up trends.

The situation is very different in the US because their equivalents of the UK's dog warden services collect cats as well as dogs and they will also take pets who are simply not wanted by their owners (including sick animals whose owners can't afford the cost of euthanasia at a vet). The result is extremely high rates of euthanasia—around 71% of cats and 56% of dogs compared with around 7% for stray dogs in the UK.

The largest organisation rehoming stray and unwanted cats in the UK is Cats Protection, and they fairly recently conducted a large-scale study of mortality rates in their adoption centres, which revealed an average of 4.7%, qualified by a warning that the study period did not include the kitten season and the death rate is probably higher then because young kittens are more vulnerable to infections.

(Murray, J. K., Skillings, E., & Gruffydd-Jones, T. J. (2008). A study of risk factors for cat mortality in adoption centres of a UK cat charity. Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 10(4), 338–45. doi:10.1016/j.jfms.2008.01.005)

Few of the cats who died or had to be euthanased were suffering from traumatic injuries (e.g. from traffic accidents), which is to be expected because fatally injured casualties would be likely to be euthanased by a veterinary surgeon before they could be admitted to a rehoming centre. 

One of the most reliable sources relating to stray dogs is probably the Dogs Trust Stray Dogs Survey— in their conclusion:

"The number of stray dogs reported by UK authorities overall has decreased by six percentage points since last year. The grossed number now stands at an estimated 118,932 stray dogs across the UK. Reported figures suggest that the majority (70%) of these dogs were seized by the local authority as strays.

In line with last year, two fifths (47%) of the estimated stray dogs handled in the UK between 1st April 2011 to 31st March 2012 were reunited with their owners, and a quarter (24%) were passed on to a welfare organisation or dog kennel for possible rehoming. A further 9% were re-homed by the local authority.

The proportion of stray dogs being put to sleep across the UK remains an at estimated 7% of the total number of strays."

This was collated by surveying the UK local authorities, who are responsible for collecting and providing 7 days of boarding for stray dogs.

In total, 8,093 stray dogs were put to sleep, 40% of these because they were not considered re-homeable for behavioural or veterinary reasons or because they belonged to illegal breeds.

It's not clear which local authorities also accept unwanted dogs from their owners and whether these are added in with the stray figures or not, and the euthanasia figures probably don't include dogs handed over to rescue organisations after the 7 days and later assessed as not rehomeable, or dogs put to sleep when found injured and hence never transferred to the local authority pound.

Funds and rehoming costs

Calculation of a figure for total income divided by numbers of animals rehomed for some of the larger animal charities gives a very approximate idea of how funding relates to the numbers of animals.

These figures are not "the cost of rehoming an animal" or "funds available per animal" because a proportion of income will always have to be spent working to generate funds (e.g. rent paid for charity shops), and all of the charities do other welfare activities as well as rehoming (for example about half of the Blue Cross's welfare activity is devoted to provision of welfare hospitals and the Dogs Trust provides free veterinary treatment for dogs owned by homeless people).

The figures do help in understanding what's likely to be possible for the charities and when pressuring them will simply be a distraction that hinders them from helping larger numbers of animals (for example it wouldn't be possible for Cat's Protection to take on large numbers of cats needing expensive fracture repair). They also disprove the claim that the RSPCA rehomes disproportionately fewer animals than other welfare organisations: on the contrary their benchmark figure lies well in the middle of the range in spite of their unique rôle in investigation and prosecution of cruelty.

It's extremely short-sighted to say that all income should be diverted to rehoming because funds spent on making it possible for owners to keep the animals they have and on preventing the birth of unwanted animals will help to prevent animals needing to be rehomed. 

Cats Protection: £800 per cat rehomed (note that Cats Protection also does a very large amount of work on cat neutering)

Shelters responding to Nottingham University PUPS survey: £1,400 per animal

Wood Green Animal Shelters: £2,000 per animal rehomed

Battersea cats and dogs home: £2,300 per animal rehomed

RSPCA: £2,500 per animal rehomed (or released in the case of wildlife)

Blue Cross: £4,000 per animal rehomed (but note that the Blue Cross spends roughly half its income on provision of veterinary treatment)

Dogs Trust: £5,000 per dog rehomed (note that Dogs Trust provides free veterinary treatment for dogs owned by homeless people and runs a neutering scheme in certain areas of high need).

Animals who are not strays

Neither the cat nor the dog survey tells us how many animals are put down because their owners no longer want them or can't afford the cost of veterinary treatment they need and arrange euthanasia at a private vet, or who simply die because their owners don't arrange treatment or don't know how to provide proper care. However the frequency with which this crops up in veterinary forums suggests the number is significant, for example:
The dilemma in the September issue concerned a vet presented with a dog with dystocia (In Practice, September 2010, volume 32, pages 413–414). Clinical examination revealed an oversized puppy impacted in the birth canal and the vet advised an emergency caesarean. The owner said she was claiming benefits and had no savings with which to meet the cost. [...] 
If payment was not possible, it was acceptable to refuse to perform the caesarean without payment and prevent the suffering of the bitch through euthanasia. Experience suggested that, even with promises of payment, the debt would generally remain unpaid and the owner would never return to the clinic.  (In Practice 32:459 doi:10.1136/inp.c5098)

Thursday, September 5, 2013

What has changed since 1972? What has stayed the same?

Obviously, quite a few things, but some comments about my previous post about the RSPCA's welfare statistics in 1972-3 made me think it might be instructive to discuss some of them, particularly where change in the wider society has created knock-on changes in the way we work as a welfare organisation.

Far more women go out to work and nearly everyone has a mobile phone.

The 1972 RSPCA relied very heavily on getting two people for the price of one inspector's salary, with the inspector's wife acting as unpaid receptionist and animal carer. Today the inspector may be female and in any case will not have a spouse willing to take phone calls all day.

When I first got involved with the Cambridge branch in the early 1990s female inspectors had just started being recruited and, two years earlier, the Society had invested in regional control centres (one each for pairs of the 10 branch electoral regions) to take calls and task them out to the inspectors and/or branches.

This worked (although there were lots of complaints about not being able to phone the local inspector direct) on the basis that BT could provide a single RSPCA number which diverted to the relevant control centre depending on the area code of the calling phone. The control centre team were directly employed by the RSPCA and had some day to day contact with the inspectors and local management as they were based in the regional headquarters. Over time, they developed a fair bit of local knowledge although the areas they covered were large.

The most immediate outcome for branches was a huge increase in the demand for help with wildlife casualties and injured stray animals, because it was now possible to contact the RSPCA 24/7 whereas the inspectors' wives were selfish enough to eat and sleep occasionally. At that time, the branches had financial responsibility for the costs of any treatment for wildlife from their branch area which had been arranged via their Regional Control Centre. The BVA/RSPCA memorandum of understanding restricted this to some extent as vets were then (as now) supposed to treat small wild animals free of charge during normal working hours. In practice this created a considerable amount of heated discussion about the definition of "small" (a swan? a muntjac deer?) and whether the memorandum really applied to members of the public who had been told to come to the surgery by the RSPCA rather than simply turning up of their own volition.

A few years down the line, the National RSPCA recognised that it was unreasonable for the control centres owned by them to be able to run up charges on behalf of branches with the individual branch lacking any ability to say that they would simply not be able to pay. The system was modified to the one currently in place whereby the Control Centre authorises initial emergency payment from central funds and the onus falls on the vet to contact their local branch to ask for payment of continuing care costs.

Where do mobile phones come in?

The system of regional control centres depended on BT having the ability to detect the caller's location. Mobile calls might be from anywhere as the location is not passed through to the landline exchange. Once large numbers of incoming calls were no longer regional, the centre staff's local knowledge could be a positive hindrance if they assumed that Streatham was actually Stretham and so on.

This made it more cost-effective to create a National Control Centre in 2003; outsourced to a commercial call-handing company, but with a stable team who would gradually build up their own knowledge.

The comparative ease of access to make cruelty complaints via the NCC probably explains why their number has risen so dramatically since 1972 (although it may partly be explained by the wives being selective about which complaints they recorded and which they silently discarded as impossible to investigate or misguided).

Further developments

A few years later, there was a push to encourage branches to provide a more standard "kit" of services—MAWS, or Minimum Animal Welfare Standards. This had been preceded by various directives aimed at improving the proportion of animals saved by:

  • Encouraging all branches to do at least some rehoming activity.
  • Discouraging branches from taking on council stray dog contracts unless they could guarantee to save the majority of rehomeable dogs (so ending the situation described in Who Cares for Animals where some animal homes were no better than ordinary council pounds).
  • Encouraging the neutering of all animals rehomed by the RSPCA (where medically appropriate) and the provision of neutering vouchers for kittens and puppies rehomed before they were old enough to neuter.
  • Encouraging branches to get involved with trapping and neutering feral cats.
There was also continued roll-out of regional animal centres and wildlife hospitals, funded and run by the National RSPCA.

Cats and Dogs

Periodically a particular type of dog will be taken up as a kind of fad and this nearly always causes problems. When I first started volunteering with the RSPCA, the current fad type was the lurcher; a cross between one of the running breeds, such as a greyhound or whippet and either a different type of running dog or another breed altogether. This was originally done to produce a dog nearly as fast as a greyhound, but with more intelligence and trainability and hence a more efficient poacher's dog. There was also a fashion for Border Collies (likely as a side-effect of the TV show "One Man and His Dog") which caused some real suffering when dogs who craved an outlet for their intelligence were expected to cope  with nothing to do all day. 

A very young David Grant makes an appearance in Who Cares for Animals and here he is, just before his retirement, talking through some of the issues of the latest fad for "bull breed" dogs. Note that the dogs shown in the video do have owners, although not very competent ones.

The reason why the 1972 RSPCA put down so many healthy dogs in some areas was uncontrolled breeding by bitches who were allowed to roam and produce unwanted puppies. Over the next three decades it became socially unacceptable to allow this to happen (although rather in the sense that drunk driving is socially unacceptable—some people still do it). Street markets are now barred from selling pets, but too many buyers are still silly enough to accept a seller's offer to meet them at a motorway service station with their pup. Most of the time the 2013 dog problem is not unexpected litters of unwanted puppies but pups who have been produced purely for their commercial value and dogs whose owners didn't understand the financial or practical implications of dog ownership (or even that a mastiff is harder to carry in an emergency than a terrier).

In the case of dogs the welfare issues are like the hydra's heads: no sooner is one set of problems solved  than the situation mutates to throw up different ones. The situation for cats is much brighter: widespread availability of affordable spaying and neutering has reduced kitten production to a level that means nearly all healthy and friendly cats can be rehomed, but the cats themselves haven't changed in the dramatic way we've seen with dogs.

Who Cares for Animals gives the total number of animals humanely destroyed in 1972 as 240,509 (roughly 3 times the number of animals rehomed). I'm not totally convinced this can be meaningfully compared with the 64,295 figure for 2012 because the 1972 figure doesn't seem to include animals put down after admission to animal centres and the 2012 figure doesn't include terminally ill owned animals.

Branches had been urged not to take stray dog contracts unless they had a realistic prospect of rehoming most of the dogs as early as the 1990s (the point being that RSPCA resources should be spent on saving animals, not on killing strays for the local council).

In 2009/10 this was made slightly more hard-line with the introduction of "RSPCA-generated"—basically a policy that priority should be given to those animals for which the RSPCA had a moral responsibility, either because there was a specific concern that they would be subjected to suffering if not taken in or because they had been taken in as a result of an RSPCA investigation.

This meant that branches might still accept stray dogs whose time was up at the local authority pound or take on stray dog contracts but should only do this provided no rehomeable RSPCA-generated animals would be put to sleep to make space for them. Regional animal centres could only take unwanted animals from the public on the same basis of not depriving a neglected animal of a place in favour of a potentially more rehomeable one whose owners would be capable of seeking a new home themselves.

It might be helpful to benchmark the RSPCA's current performance by comparison with the  Dogs' Trust, whose intake policy is also perfectly sensible and aimed at maximising their ability to help dogs.

As might be expected, far more of the RSPCA intake have to be put to sleep for medical or behavioural reasons because the Dogs Trust are taking in predominantly healthy dogs of good temperament, while most of the RSPCA animals come in precisely because they have been neglected or injured. In spite of this, the RSPCA managed to rehome nearly as many dogs (11,356) as Dogs Trust (12,822) in 2012.

Total RSPCA income is about twice that of the Dogs Trust, so considering that the RSPCA also rehomes other animals it looks as though the RSPCA rehoming program is at least as efficient in terms of placing dogs in new homes.

Animal Populations

The size of any animal population ultimately depends on the carrying capacity of its habitat; in the case of domestic animals usually determined by the amount of food resources provided by humans. Where the population's production of offspring exceeds this the supply of resources must be increased or else numbers must be reduced. Providing more animal shelter places is a short-term way of increasing available resources, but the shelters will ultimately become overwhelmed unless production can be limited.

If resources increase in the wider society (for example there is some evidence that cats are becoming more popular as pets, probably because they can be left alone during the day), then the population can increase until it runs up against the resource limit once more.

This is why talk about "pet over-population" has to be treated with some care. Increase in the number of people keeping a particular species means the number of animals needing to be rehomed will rise (because there will always be a percentage of people who can't keep their animals for one reason or another and need help), but it doesn't necessarily mean those animals can't be rehomed (because the number of homes has increased in proportion). Production of offspring beyond what's needed to replace the existing adults in a population with a limited resource base will always mean some of them can't be rehomed (because the homes aren't there).

This means that rehoming alone can't solve the problem of unwanted animals without education and increased provision for spay/neuter and it's why commercial production of animals who are poorly suited to life in human families is a welfare disaster because it encourages people to acquire animals, discard them and replace them, thus increasing the population beyond carrying capacity.

The Inspectorate

In 1973 there were 221 inspectors, 36 market inspectors and 1 docks inspector. Today there are 278 fully trained inspectors, 57 in training, 82 animal welfare officers and 58 animal collection officers (the last two classifications reflect an experimental attempt at division of labour between staff investigating cruelty or neglect, animal rescues and collections of sick or injured animals needing to be transported for treatment which took place a decade ago).

Veterinary treatments

Veterinary treatment numbers have gone up from 174,577 in 1972 to 263,267 (including spay/neuter) in 2012. This is something of a Cinderella area of welfare (probably because it's seen as help provided to the owner rather than the animal) but is crucially important in preventing cruelty due to neglecting to get treatment for sick or injured pets. Notice that the dog in the video had injuries which had gone untreated for long enough to become infested with maggots.


The 1970s RSPCA did try to provide treatment for wildlife, most notably for oiled sea-birds, following the Torrey Canyon incident but it was a bit ad-hoc and investigation of survival rates after release was just beginning. Today it's more organised, with four dedicated wildlife centres funded by the national RSPCA and programs of post-release tracking to study survival rates (this is important because wildlife rehabilitation attempts are worse than useless if they're simply prolonging the process of dying).

Heathrow Airport Hostel

Who Cares for Animals describes the RSPCA Airport Hostel at Heathrow during the period of its activity. Fortunately campaigns against the trade in wild animals finally succeeded in reducing the need for this facility and it was closed in 1981.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Farm Animal Welfare Scientists at the RSPCA

I thought you might like to take a look at these videos showing some of the science behind the RSPCA's Freedom Food welfare standards.

Sunday, August 25, 2013


Clarissa Dickson-Wright has called for people to stop donating to the RSPCA until we stop enforcing the Hunting Act or opposing its repeal.

In some ways this is fair enough; if you enjoy hunting you're probably not going to want to support the RSPCA and we can't expect it.

What's currently going on is rather more—a campaign of misrepresentation that's aimed at discouraging  people who love animals and have no interest in hunting from donating. 

The RSPCA is the only charity which provides 24/7 help for animals over the whole of England and Wales; OK, not perfect and with a call centre that's always over-stretched, but at least some help and advice and a source of funds to get injured animals at least first aid.

It's the only charity that runs a farm assurance scheme with enough clout to have a realistic chance of driving up welfare standards.

It's the only charity that prosecutes cases of animal cruelty; and bear in mind that some of the most vociferous complaints about the RSPCA are that it is too reluctant to go down the route of prosecution rather than giving advice.

It rescues and rehomes thousands of animals each year.

It provides low cost treatment for thousands of pets whose owners cannot afford private vets.

So, should we give up? Accept that some people really are so powerful that they're untouchable if the alternative is possibly being unable to carry on the practical welfare work that is the bulk of the RSPCA's activity?