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Many pet owners 'still don't understand'

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01 December 2011, at 12:00am

“IMPROVED animal welfare cannot be achieved by constantly preaching to the converted. The profession must find a way to contact those pet owners who don’t understand their responsibilities to their animal and never visit a veterinary practice,” says NOAH’s chief executive, Phil Sketchley. This is the main message from the latest survey on pet owners’ attitudes towards the health and welfare of their animals, a repeat of a study conducted four years ago. Vets and the broader animal health industry can take some satisfaction from the strong commitment to preventive healthcare shown by many respondents in these difficult economic times, he says. But some trends were disappointing: the survey has confirmed the existence of a large population of pet owners who don’t provide the pets with basic protection against disease – and the recession has made them even less likely to care. The NOAH study divides the petowning population into two groups – “preventers” and “non-preventers”, according to whether they have arranged for their animals to receive vaccinations or wormers during the past two years. The “preventers” group contains all of those whom veterinary practitioners would regard as their bonded clients. But it also includes those who may seek veterinary care but have no great loyalty to any one practice, and those who will buy flea and worming products from other sources, such as pet shops. Mr Sketchley argues that from a welfare viewpoint it is largely irrelevant where the pet owner goes for preventive treatments, as long as they receive good advice. Pet shop staff trained as Suitably Qualified Persons are much more likely to provide that service than the friends and family of the client, or internet websites of unknown provenance, he points out.

Concentrate efforts

It is the “non-preventers” group on which all those with an interest in promoting animal health should be concentrating their efforts. Veterinarians, NOAH’s member companies and all those providing pet care advice must take on the challenge presented by people like those in this group in the survey, one third of whom never visit a vet, Mr Sketchley says. “We didn’t commission the survey because we want to sell more medicines, it was to promote better health and welfare and find out if the
pet-owning public are aware of what they should do. “It is clear that there is a significant population who don’t understand what is expected of them. It is no good throwing the Animal Welfare Act at these people. Issuing threats is not the way to do it, we need to communicate the benefits of properly addressing the needs of their animals.” Mr Sketchley suggests that all pet owners probably believe they are looking after their animals well and would resent being told that they are not. He suspects that the root of the problem is that most “non preventers” have not grown up with pets and have not absorbed the necessary lessons as children. Obviously, the goal should be to educate these pet owners before they buy their animals but in many    cases they are bought on impulse or in situations where parents cave in to “pester power” from their children. Too often such owners will acquire pets that are unsuitable for their particular situation and it would be better if they could be persuaded against getting an animal in the first place, he says.

Don’t see the need...

One of the key insights from the survey was the finding that many “non-preventers” don’t see the need for vaccinations because they haven’t heard of anybody whose pet has experienced that particular disease. Mr Sketchley compares this
response to those who insisted that vets and the animal health industry had exaggerated the threat to livestock from bluetongue, rather than praising the effectiveness of the  vaccination campaign. Unlike the bluetongue virus, there is clear evidence that parvovirus is still present in Britain.  regrettably, it may only be when there is a local outbreak and they are sitting in a crowded veterinary practice waiting room to have their dog vaccinated that these people will acknowledge that they can’t rely on other pet owners in maintaining herd immunity to protect their own unvaccinated pets, he says. Mr Sketchley doubts whether there are any pet owners who would deliberately set out to give their pet a poor standard of care – it is just that they don’t see the need for it. So how can they
be persuaded that they are mistaken? “We can write any number of articles and try to get them published in newspapers and
magazines but they will be mainly read by people who are already interested in this subject. But that doesn’t mean efforts to educate these people are pointless,” he says. Since the first survey in 2007, NOAH launched its Pet Health Information website as a source of unbiased, independent information on all species.

Keep on trying...

The new survey showed a satisfying large number of pet owners have used the site, including many people who wouldn’t read those information sources traditionally targeted by vets and the animal health industry. But there are still tens, possibly  hundreds, of thousands of pet owners who haven’t got the message, he says. The only solution is to keep on trying and this has to be a shared responsibility. “No one has a magic wand – there are only limited resources available for this sort of communications work and so we have to work together.” He urges all practices and companies to support initiatives like National Pet Week. He recalls a recent visit to a veterinary practice which has opened up the building for presentations on different veterinary services – surgery, nutrition, grooming and skin care, laboratory science, etc. “I was interested to see that the practice had taken pains to highlight the investment it has made in the equipment needed to look after clients’ animals. That is one of the issues we face.

Challenge for the profession

“We are lucky to have the NHS in this country but it means people have no idea of the real costs of healthcare. Even when they have to pay a prescription charge that is only £7.40, which is less than half the real cost of a typical medicine.” He adds: “In the survey, even the ‘preventers’ were complaining about how expensive they think veterinary care is. It is a challenge for the whole of the profession to engage with their clients – and those who should be their clients – to show them that it is value, not price, that matters.”