It is widely agreed that the legislation regulating pet sales in the UK is out of date and overdue for reform. The Pet Animals Act dates from 1951, long before the internet was invented and long before the craze for owning more and more exotic animals took hold of the public.
Hardly surprising, then, that OneKind research and field work covering the Scottish pet trade over the years has revealed persistent animal welfare problems. Our 2003 report Caged to Sell reported on widespread abnormal behaviour among animals in Scottish pet shops, inadequate enclosures for mammals and lack of space for birds, unsupervised interactions between customers and animals, and lack of advice about buying a pet for a child or about zoonoses such as salmonella. A small number of shops were even operating without a licence.
Since 2003 (never mind 1951), the nature of the pet trade has changed almost beyond recognition. There are fewer, larger shops with an emphasis on selling foods and equipment rather than livestock. Many small pet shops have closed, blaming the massive upsurge in online advertising and sales of pets and pet supplies for their inability to stay in business.
There are still around 200 pet shops in Scotland and an online trade of unknown size, and there is still cause for concern. In research for our 2014 report Pet Origins, OneKind field officers repeatedly found abnormal/stereotypical behaviour in both mammals and reptiles on display, dead and dying ornamental fish, and – again – a lack of adequate or accurate advice to purchasers.
Our investigation into the online trade in exotics in Scotland in 2016 found specific welfare concerns including inaccurate or unknown information about the species, sex and age of animals advertised, animals being sold after only short periods of ownership, reptiles often described as ‘aggressive’ or ‘grumpy’, snakes being bought and sold as collection pieces rather than pets, and birds sold with health problems and/or in inappropriate cages.
So, something must be done. But how ambitious are our legislators prepared to be?
When the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 was passed, over 12 years ago, commitments were given to review the Pet Animals Act, and these have been repeated by Scottish Government over the years. In 2014, following publication of Pet Origins, we met with the then Cabinet Secretary responsible for animal welfare, Richard Lochhead MSP, and found he was genuinely interested in our concerns, particularly with reference to exotic pets.
A Scottish Government review of pet welfare, including the breeding and sale of animals, the exotic pet trade and the serious issues surrounding internet sales, was announced in early 2015. The process began but slowed up as other animal issues, both positive and negative (such as the welcome ban on wild animal circuses and the misguided reintroduction of tail-docking for working dogs), took precedence on the parliamentary agenda.
OneKind therefore welcomes the moves by individual Members of the Scottish Parliament to reform the breeding and sale of pets in Scotland. Jeremy Balfour MSP has just carried out a consultation on measures to reform Pet Animals Act so that licensing is more effective.
One concern highlighted in the consultation is the inconsistent and limited implementation and enforcement of the Pet Animals Act by local authorities. Licensing officers must have regard to specified welfare needs but are not required to have any animal welfare training, and there is only very general statutory guidance about licence conditions. Local authorities are given the power to inspect licensed premises but no instructions on how to deal effectively with non-compliance. Councils do not have discretion to revoke a licence but are dependent on the courts doing this, following a conviction. And the maximum fine for such a conviction is a mere £500.
The consultation proposes a number of sensible steps, including the development of consistent welfare standards to be applied across all authorities. OneKind has long supported the development of model standards, as long as they are welfare-based and independent of the interests of the pet trade.
OneKind will be supporting Jeremy Balfour’s Member’s Bill, which offers practical solutions to problems that have dragged on far too long in the pet trade. But ultimately, it needs to be asked whether the current regime is fit for purpose and whether even these necessary amendments really provide a sustainable solution. We think serious consideration should be given to creating a central licensing authority which would allow for the development of expertise and offer a career path for specialist inspectors. This would ensure consistent standards and implementation across the country. And while we’re at it, OneKind continues to urge the Scottish Government to use existing powers to set up a national body to advise on animal welfare and set strategic priorities.
As Jeremy Balfour says in his consultation document:
“With animal welfare being a fully devolved issue, the Scottish Parliament has a real opportunity to improve the lives of pets and pet owners across Scotland.”
This is absolutely correct. But it can go further. The Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament can have the opportunity to improve the lives of all animals in Scotland – not just pets – and to take a lead in the UK.