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Pets ‘needlessly killed’

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01 December 2009, at 12:00am

Vetinary Practice reports on last month’s conference run by the Society for Companion Animal Studies

VETERINARY surgeons can have a vital role in fighting an injustice that leads to thousands of pet animals being needlessly killed and causes immense distress to their owners, according to speakers at a conference in London last month. 

More than 100 dogs and cats are euthanased every day in the UK because their elderly owners have to go into sheltered housing or care homes where they are not allowed to keep pets. Separation from an animal which in many cases has been that person’s main source of love and companionship can have devastating effects on their mental and physical health, speakers said. 

The meeting, organised by the Society for Companion Animal Studies, highlighted the “cruel and outdated” attitudes of the management responsible for much of Britain’s social housing stock. It called for a better understanding of the contribution made by companion animals to the well-being of vulnerable elderly people. 

The veterinary profession was urged to help remedy the problem by providing information for campaigners on the situation in their area, putting clients in touch with “pet friendly” institutions and in lobbying local and national politicians for rule changes. 

Dr June McNicholas told the meeting that the estimate of 38,000 pets being destroyed and 140,000 rehomed was based on a study she undertook 16 years ago as a researcher at the University of Warwick. But another study she carried out two years ago indicates that the situation has deteriorated since then and so those figures may significantly underestimate the scale of the problem. 

Dennis Turner, president of IAHAIO, the international organisation for companion animal studies, surveyed the body of evidence from around the world showing the benefits of pet ownership for older people. This includes their effects in encouraging more physical activity, fewer complaints about minor ailments, reduced demands on medical services and better recovery after illnesses like heart attacks. 

Conversely, separation from the animal can have considerable negative effects on the owner’s health and wellbeing. A survey that Dr McNicholas conducted among residents of care homes in Coventry showed that new residents who had lost their pets were less happy, were more socially withdrawn, had a greater reliance on medication and had more disturbed sleep and appetites than those who had not been pet owners. 

Despite the publicity given to her 1993 study, Dr McNicholas said the policies of care homes, in particular, appear to have hardened since then. Admittedly, there had been a slight increase from 27 to 29% in the proportion of institutions that allow pets of some kind but this was balanced by an increase in the percentage that specifically prohibit dogs and cats. 

Slightly more homes allow communal pets but there had been a considerable drop, from 79 to 54%, in the numbers of homes that allow visits from animals living outside the home. 

For the elderly people and their families it was often difficult for them to find out whether a care home would allow them to bring their pets onto the premises. Only a small minority of these places have formal policies in this area and attitudes towards animals were often “fragile”, dependent on the whims of individual staff in a sector where there could be rapid staff turnover, she said. 

Interviews with staff and management in the care home sector also showed a lack of communication between the two sides – in many instances, both sides said they were generally in favour of residents having pets but insisted that this situation would not be acceptable to their colleagues. 

Concern about the dangers of residents tripping over a pet appears to be the main reason why care homes, and also many sheltered housing schemes, prohibit residents from keeping pets. Fears about the risks of zoonotic transmission of MRSA and other bacterial conditions has been another more recent factor producing a more negative attitude to pet ownership in social housing units. 

But Alex Strong, manager of a care home in Surrey, said that in four years of allowing residents to keep their pets there had not been a single incident of a fall involving an animal. Dr McNicholas agreed that any risk had to be put in perspective: in 2004, 16,000 people required hospital treatment for injuries sustained in incidents involving armchairs!

There were legitimate concerns about the risks of bacterial transmission from animals but these could be minimised by standard hygiene measures appropriate for any setting, particularly ones where food is prepared and served. 

Not all local authorities fail to appreciate the benefits of pet ownership for their elderly residents. Wandsworth Borough Council in London introduced a pet-friendly policy for all tenants of council properties in 2001. Previously, it had insisted that pet dogs or cats could only be kept in buildings where they would have access to an “enclosed earth garden”, noted John Crowe, head of warden services with the council. 

Responsible owners 

Mr Crowe said the new policy was introduced at the same time that the council imposed stricter enforcement of rules on responsible pet ownership for all tenants. In the ensuing years the council had taken action against residents on 39 occasions – not one of these involved people in its 1,000 plus sheltered housing units, who had all proved to be responsible pet owners. 

“I have absolutely no doubt that owning a pet creates benefits that are much greater than any of the perceived problems,” he said. 

Enlightened policies like those enforced in Wandsworth are increasingly common throughout the rest of the world. Veterinary surgeon and SCAS chairman, Liz Ormerod, said the United States has introduced federal regulations enshrining the right of elderly people in social housing to keep their pets. This was introduced in 1983, only two years after pioneering legislation was enacted in two states, California and Arizona. Since then similar rules have been introduced in a number of countries – including Switzerland, Japan, Greece, Spain and Norway. 

Roger Gale, MP, chairman of the Conservative animal welfare group, warned that seeking primary legislation in Britain was not the right approach to tackling this problem. Any new government elected after the coming general election would have many other priorities and, in any case, there would be doubts as to the effectiveness of rules which might not be properly enforced. 

Instead, changes could be made much more quickly and effectively through the planning guidance issued by government to local authorities. He urged SCAS and its supporters to press their local MPs to consider including this issue in their party manifesto. 

Dennis Taylor said that a model rental agreement had been produced in Switzerland setting out clearly the responsibilities of both sides in any arrangement between a social housing authority and an elderly pet owner, and this document could be readily adapted. Improving understanding about the important contribution that pets can make to their owners’ health was another priority suggested by Mrs Ormerod. She believed that undergraduates in all medical and social work disciplines would benefit from the training that SCAS provides for all UK veterinary students on the significance of the human-animal bond. 

Veterinary surgeons could provide valuable information on the availability of pet-friendly housing both for their own clients and to help organisations like SCAS in their lobbying activities. Vets could also join the campaign, highlighting their own experiences in dealing with animals requiring rehoming or euthanasia because of their owner’s loss of independence, Mrs Ormerod said. 

But change will also require a greater understanding and respect for the needs of older people throughout British society, according to Dr McNicholas. “Growing older inevitably means having to accept some losses in what we are capable of doing but care homes are not God’s waiting rooms. Our old people will still have their aspirations which others must respect. They still have things that matter in their lives.”