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5:48 AM   April 21, 2015
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U.K. Adopts Cat Welfare Code

By David Alderton

Opinion was sharply divided in England following the recent release of the government consultation document on the welfare of cats, which echoes a policy adopted previously in Wales.

The media, generally, are fairly critical of the government’s involvement in this area. On the other hand, some organizations, such as the Feline Advisory Bureau—a cat charity involved in drawing up this information—are delighted with the content. Such groups point out that the guidelines not only cover a cat’s physical needs, but also discuss its behavioral needs.

The document was drawn up as part of the government’s quest to raise animal-welfare standards under the Animal Welfare Act, which became law last year. Additional publications covering dogs, horses and other pets were also released, but many people remain unclear as to why the government feels it is necessary to establish rules for keeping cats. Much of the resulting debate focuses on the way this appears to be another government attempt to meddle and micro manage people’s lives, duplicating information that is already widely circulated and known.

In truth, it is exceedingly doubtful as to whether most cat owners would think of turning to Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), the government department concerned, when starting out with a new pet. The majority will buy a book or borrow one from a library; seek advice from a local vet or animal shelter; or search the Internet before acquiring a cat.

It is not very clear at whom the document is aimed at. It seems to have more to do with legal proceeding advice (reading like a checklist for prosecutors) rather than aiding cat owners—although the latter is its supposed purpose. In its preface, Defra states clearly that any breach of the code’s provisions as published do not constitute offenses as such. However, when prosecutions occur, courts may take into account the extent to which the code was or was not complied with.

The problem is the document is so full of vague generalities, it is of very little practical value. It is very short on worthwhile insights that would genuinely help people understand more about their cats’ welfare needs. As an example of the obvious, the code states an owner is responsible for providing enough food to keep a cat healthy but not too much to cause obesity. The vast majority of cats in the United Kingdom roam free, rather than being house cats. It is therefore strange there is no suggestion that weight gain can result from pets obtaining food elsewhere—frequently from well-meaning neighbors—and owners need to be aware of this possibility.

In addition, the code ignores the valuable opportunity to highlight the link between obesity and neutering, in spite of the emphasis Defra places on both topics individually. Many owners are unaware of how physiological changes in the body following this surgery will predispose both cats and dogs to gaining weight, unless owners adjust the amount of food their cats eat.

This is not to dismiss the guide, as there is some useful information, too, such as a list of likely signs of illness; however, it ends up being both vague and too prescriptive. It does not attempt to distinguish between the widely varying temperaments and physiology of different cat breeds—another major guide flaw.

Perhaps the most serious charge brought against Defra in this context, however, is one of governmental priorities. Critics are quick to highlight the fact that cats in Britain now have more legal protection than children. This document means there are official welfare guidelines, with the sanction of prosecution for cat-owners who allow their pets to become obese. Meanwhile, no such controls apply to parents of the 700,000 children in Britain who suffer from clinical obesity.

Click here to view the consultation document. <HOME>

David Alderton is a freelance writer in the United Kingdom.

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