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Addressing economic and financial issues relating to animal welfare

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01 September 2011, at 12:00am

JOHN BONNER reports on a conference called to discuss ways of improving animal welfare and how to overcome the ‘cognitive dissonance’ which has harmful effects

Cognitive dissonance – the mental conflict that people experience when they are presented with evidence that their beliefs or assumptions are wrong. ADVANCES in animal welfare are usually achieved through studies looking for simple, objective, biological measurements, the effect of factor X on an animal’s heart rate, the influence of factor Y on blood cortisol levels... So what possible role can the woolly, subjective insights gleaned from the social sciences play in building the information base needed to improve the quality of life for farm and companion animals? Well, plenty, according to speakers at the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare conference in Portsmouth at the end of June. Indeed, the meeting was organised to address economic issues, the role of financial incentives and constraints in creating the conditions needed to improve animal welfare. But as speakers pointed out, developments in an entirely different social science discipline may be vital in tackling some of the most important welfare problems existing today. Cognitive dissonance is a wellestablished concept in psychology, used to explain why people cling ever more tenaciously to their mistaken beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence for changing their minds and their behaviour.

Strange process

It was repeatedly cited as the reason for the bloody-minded insistence by both farmers and pet-owners in doing things which are harmful to the welfare of their animals. So speakers warned that it will take powers of persuasion as well as good scientific evidence to end some practices that clearly cause pain and
distress. This strange psychological process is a possible explanation for the continued high prevalence of foot rot in the national sheep flock, suggested Laura Green, a veterinarian heading the ecology and epidemiology group at the University of Warwick. Her team has been involved in a long-term  DEFRAfunded project looking at the impact of this disease and assessing farmers’ attitudes to its control. Foot rot is the cause of about 90% of all lameness cases in sheep and between 8% and 12% of the national flock are affected at any one time. Professor Green reckons, however, that the number of cases could be significantly reduced simply by following current  recommendations on treating affected sheep, perhaps down to about a quarter of the current numbers within 10 years. But while farmers are easily able to recognise cases of foot rot, they tend to underestimate the scale of the problem in their own flocks.The biggest issue that veterinary advisers will have to overcome is in changing the minds of their clients about the nature of this disease. “One of the key messages that we need to put across is that foot rot is not a chronic disease – there is a mindset among many farmers that once a sheep becomes lame it will stay that way. It doesn’t have to be like that if the
treatment is appropriate.” Any sheep showing signs of lameness should be examined immediately and if there is evidence of
foot rot, it should be treated with parenteral and topical antibiotics, she explained. In flocks with a low incidence of the disease, the shepherd is more likely to quarantine incoming
animals to prevent the introduction of disease. In contrast, in those flocks that have a high incidence of the disease, the shepherd is more likely to try to control the condition with foot baths and feet trimming. “The jury is still out of foot trimming but I would suspect that the best case scenario is that stockholders who do this are wasting their time, though it is quite possible that they are making the situation worse.” So prevalence of disease was correlated both with the type of treatment chosen and the speed of the response. Professor Green noted that it wasn’t only farmers who succumbed to the temptation to ignore the early signs of disease. The project has also shown that those veterinarians who keep their own sheep are more likely to wait and see before trying to catch and treat affected animals. It is not clear whether they were using physical infirmity as an excuse but more than 50% of farmers maintained that they were too old to go chasing after sheep at the first signs of lameness. The low returns on keeping sheep
may be another important factor which perpetuates problems with foot rot in sheep. The Warwick team calculates that untreated foot rot will cost about £600 for every 100 ewes “put to the ram” through poorer body condition, reduced growth, etc. But sheep rearing is rarely the only source of income on sheep units and so often the owners do not even know whether they are making any profit from their sheep rearing activities, she said. 

Canine conformation problems

Cognitive dissonance may also explain why many dog owners are unable to appreciate the effects of inherited conformational
diseases such as breathing problems in brachiocephalic breeds,
according to Rowena Packer, a secondyear PhD student at the Royal Veterinary College. She feared that this will cause increasingly serious welfare problems with the growth in popularity of shortmuzzled breeds like the pug. Such dogs suffer signs ranging from respiratory distress to exercise intolerance and even collapse due to the problems caused by their narrowed
nostrils and excess soft tissue in the pharynx. But their owners appear to tolerate signs such as loud snoring and even expect it in members of the breed. Physical collapse is the only sign regarded as abnormal, and it is only then that many owners will
acknowledge the need to seek veterinary treatment for their animals. Ms Packer has questioned owners of dogs treated at the Queen Mother Hospital which had received a formal diagnosis of brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome, as well as brachycephalic dogs which their owner reported as making respiratory noises. In over 40% of the first group and nearly 85% of the second, the owners insisted that their animal did not have a breathing problem. Unless successful attempts are made to persuade dog owners that these features are neither normal nor healthy, she feared that there would be increasingly severe welfare problems. “Without recognition, and serious appreciation of the welfare implications of BOAS, clinically affected but undiagnosed dogs will be negatively affected indefinitely through lack of treatment. Affected dogs will continue to be selected for breeding, hindering attempts to eradicate conformationalrelated disorders in pedigree dogs,” she
said.

Equine facilitators

Reassuring evidence that sometimes the quirks of human nature may actually help solve rather than exacerbate animal welfare problems was described to the meeting by Joyce Pritchard, a researcher with The Brooke equine welfare charity. She discussed a project that began in 2005, encouraging villagers in the State of Uttar Pradesh in northern India to critically examine the welfare of the horses, mules and donkeys used in transport and as pack animals. Locally trained facilitators have been sent to nearly 1,400 settlements where they hold monthly or quarterly meeting at which owners compare the health and husbandry of their own animals with others in the village. In most cases the participants in these groups rejected the parameters suggested by the outsiders because they wanted to create their own measures relevant to local conditions. But these assessments have become increasingly sophisticated as villagers compete with their neighbours to show who is best at looking after their animals. There is no doubt that this competitive edge has produced genuine improvements in the treatment of the animals. “In one village, it was decided to measure to the nearest millimetre the dimensions of any lesions on the surface of the animal’s body. When participants are that precise, it is remarkable how quickly owners learn to avoid injuring their animals even in the physically dangerous conditions under which they are often working,” she said.