Animal welfare and pets
In my experience in engaging both the general public and school groups with how animals are used in medical research in the UK, animal welfare is at the forefront of people’s curiosity and concern. My response is always that animals used in laboratories are well cared for and suffering is minimised wherever possible (more information on animal welfare in laboratories can be found on the NC3rs website).
Perhaps the most vocal members of the audience who voice their concerns are individuals who treasure an emotional attachment to a family pet. While I respect and understand the origin and nature of concerns about animal welfare, it is worth bringing companion animal welfare into the conversation.
Let’s look at the potential suffering and conditions that a companion animal might endure as part of its domestic life.
It is very common that pets are neutered as an effective method of controlling domestic animal populations and pacifying the animal’s instinctual aggression. This would be classified as a severe procedure in a laboratory context because you are inflicting permanent damaging to the animal to remove its ability and instinct to reproduce. While neutering domestic animals is both vital and ethical, my point is that the practice is more severe than the majority of laboratory procedures.
In the UK, about one in two households own a pet with around 22 million pets owned in total (excluding fish). Most of these animals are well provided and cared for by their owners, however tales of shocking neglect still exist. RSPA inspectors currently investigate more than 150,000 complaints of cruelty and neglect every year. Animal welfare is a particular concern in the case of exotic animals such as reptiles which require a high degree of technological knowledge and equipment to care for.
In fact the very existence of some pet animals is a welfare issue in itself. It has taken years of artificial selective breeding to create breeds like the bulldog or dachshund. These animals have been bred to exhibit a particular appearance. However, you only have to look at the list of physiological problems some of these breeds are born with to realise that the animals may be doomed to exist in a constant state of suffering.
While most pet stores operate under an ethical frame work, a study by the Kennel Club found that around 1.5 million puppies per year are bred on puppy farms which are poorly regulated and have a history of animal welfare issues. In fact, around 20% of puppies bred at these farms suffer from the fatal condition parvovirus. Compare this with around 3,500 dogs being used in medical research every year and it is easy to see what the bigger issue is.
More focus from the public is needed to be brought to the unethical breeding and sale of companion animals as these issues seem to attract much less traction than welfare concerns for animals in laboratories, perhaps because of the vilification of the industry by animal rights groups.
However, if animal rights organisations applied their anti-animal research zealotry to the companion animal industry they might struggle to generate the vast amounts of interest and therefore revenue from the uninformed public. This selective realise of information from animal rights groups makes you wonder if business is a bigger priority for these organisations than ethics.
It is good that animal welfare is a concern of the public in regards to the use of animals in medical research; however we need to make sure that this concern is universal for all of society’s use of animals, including pets.
If you would like more information on ethically conscious pet breeding you can find more information here.