It's your chance to have a say about puppy farms
This week, I am writing about dog breeding again. I can imagine some readers thinking "oh no, here we go again, more about puppy farms".
There's a good reason for me writing on this topic right now: the government wants the public to send them feedback on the latest puppy farm legislation, so if any readers are interested in trying to change things, this is your opportunity to have your say. Interestingly, you might expect dog breeding to be controlled by the Department of Agriculture, but instead, it's the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, under Minister Simon Coveney. The website for posting feedback is www.housing.gov.ie/review-dog-breeding-establishments.
Last weekend, at the annual conference of Veterinary Ireland Companion Animal Society (VICAS), the body that represents pet vets nationally, there was a seminar on "Ireland's Dog Breeding Establishments and the Dog Trade", featuring three expert speakers. Vets in this country feel highly motivated to deal with the "puppy farm problem" using facts and figures.
The commercial breeding of pups and the trade in such pups has been a topical issue in Ireland for the past decade. A comprehensive piece of primary legislation (the Dog Breeding Establishments Act) was introduced in 2010 to start to bring some order to the business of commercial dog breeding. This legislation requires anyone who has six or more unsprayed bitches to register with their Local Authority, and to comply with specific standards of accommodation, care of the animals and record keeping. The legislation applies to any set-up where a person is keeping 6 or more female dogs, irrespective of whether or not they are being used for breeding them or not. This means that the legislation also applies to rescue centres, hunt kennels or boarding kennels that have more than six female dog on their premises. All of the various establishments are inspected to ensure they meet the specified standards, but only the commercial breeders are charged a fee. This seems like a fair way of ensuring that no breeders manage to avoid inspection through a loophole of calling themselves a "hunt kennel" or whatever.
There are currently 243 Dog Breeding Establishments registered under the legislation, but only 70 of these are commercial breeders. Some of these are small outfits, with less than a dozen breeding bitches, while others have more industrial framework, with over 200 bitches producing very high numbers of puppies.
There are also still some commercial breeders working underground in the black market, avoiding regulation and probably also avoiding paying tax. These can be difficult to track down, selling puppies through adverts with mobile numbers and handing over puppies to new owners in car parks so that their location cannot be pinpointed. They also smuggle pups out of the country to the United Kingdom, hiding them in vans and car boots, avoiding the strict regulations on dog transport.
The current Dog Breeding Establishment legislation was a big step forwards: it provides enforceable guidelines for the set-up and operation of breeding facilities, with powers for prosecutions with significant penalties for those breaking the law. But since we're being asked to give feedback on them, what should we say?
The first aspect is about enforcement: it's all very well to have good laws, but if they are not enforced, then what's the point? Many in animal welfare circles have been disappointed that when people have failed to register as dog breeders, rather than being prosecuted, they have just been told to sign up. And when people have broken the guidelines, instead of being penalised, they are simply asked to adjust the situation. There are also concerns that there are not enough inspectors on the ground, and that inspections are pre-arranged, rather than random. So in this next phase of dog breeding regulation, full, strong enforcement of the law is essential. The second aspect is about the guidelines themselves. Should there be a ceiling to the number of dogs that can be kept on one puppy farm? Some have up to 500 bitches currently. And should there be a specified number of staff members per breeding bitches? I think that one person to ten dogs is around the right level, but there's talk that it could be as low as one person per thirty dogs, which would make it difficult for the pups to be properly socialised and cared for.
Why is this so important? It isn't just so that nice fluffy puppies have a happy time. The point is that the pups produced will go on to become family pets. Studies show that dogs born in high volume commercial breeding establishments have an increased incidence of behavioural problems compared with dogs from small scale private breeders. They are more fearful and more aggressive. To minimise this type of issue, our government has an obligation to do everything possible to ensure that commercially bred puppies have the best possible start in life.
Have your say on the dog breeding law: visit www.housing.gov.ie/review-dog-breeding-establishments.