The Guest Blog

Simona Lipstaite, European Policy Advisor at EU Dog & Cat Alliance.

 

The European Union should focus more on the protection of companion animal welfare.

Surprisingly, never has this statement seemed so controversial as today. The EU has not had an easy couple of years. Facing multiple crises and a growing wave of citizen disillusionment, EU institutions and leaders have been in crisis-management mode for an uncomfortably long time.

However, what has historically defined the EU is not its scorecard in fighting crises, but its ongoing efforts to protect and improve the lives of its citizens every day through cooperation, taking time to prepare legislation and solving problems which individual Member States are not able to address on their own.

One of these problems which the EU has not yet tackled is the illegal trade in companion animals, which affects millions of people in the majority of EU countries. The trafficking of dogs and cats. Puppy smuggling. All of these terms are used to describe the criminal practice whereby unscrupulous breeders abuse the EU Pet Travel Scheme – designed for non-commercial movements, for example, taking your pet with you on holiday – to commercially import dogs and cats to be sold in other EU countries. Networks of breeders and transport providers, sometimes in collaboration with veterinarians, are engaged in running puppy farms, falsifying pet passports, microchipping underage animals and selling them in countries where they are able to get a better price and where there is a high demand for certain breeds.

Put in simpler terms, imagine that you were looking to buy a puppy for your children in Belgium. Since the majority of European Commissioners reported owning a dog or a cat (or both) in 2015, this should not be a difficult exercise. A popular “designer” breed such as a pug or a French bulldog from a registered breeder should cost around 1,000 EUR. With the increase in convenience of internet sales – another area high on the EU Digital Single Market agenda – you decide to browse a classifieds site first and find an ad for a pug for 600 EUR – advertised as born and bred in Belgium, vaccinated, microchipped, healthy and happy. If this sounds too good to be true, that’s probably because it is.

Such a puppy is likely to have been bred in another EU country (several Central and Eastern European countries have been known to be source countries, however, the problem is not contained to a particular area in Europe). The puppy is likely to be under-aged and not yet fit for travel, with a falsified pet passport which claims otherwise, potentially unvaccinated, frequently ill. Non-government organisations and associations, such as the EU Dog & Cat Alliance, estimate that hundreds of thousands of young dogs and cats in the EU are bred for illegal sale every year in absolutely terrible conditions, transported long distances in crammed cages, often without food or water, unvaccinated and neglected. This may well result in life-long behavioural issues for the pet as well as health problems – both genetic and in terms of communicable diseases.

This illegal trade, of course, goes far above and beyond simply animal welfare concerns. It is also a public health issue. Sick pets pose a risk to human health – rabies, tapeworm, leishmania can all be transferred from animals to humans. Echinococcus multilocularis, a type of tapeworm often carried by dogs and cats, is a particularly worrying zoonotic risk, as a person contaminated with the worm may not show any symptoms for years, and by the time these appear the liver is already permanently damaged, not only leading to extremely high treatment costs (in Switzerland, it has been estimated that the cost per patient is approximately €108,762 for alveolar echinococcosis) but also having a significant impact on both quality and length of life. Citizens may therefore be unwittingly putting themselves and their families, including their children, at risk for a number of zoonotic diseases.

In terms of consumer protection, people buying illegally smuggled puppies or kittens, particularly via online adverts, often do not realise where their pet has come from, what experiences it has gone through, what potential health or behaviour issues it may have. A new owner cannot easily return or exchange a sick pet, not least because an emotional bond has already been formed between human and animal, and unsuspecting owners are therefore often left with frequent visits to the vet, which can be a high financial burden. Current EU legislation is not sufficient to protect consumer rights with regard to buying pets.

All of these issues have negative effects on the EU internal market. Different breeding standards and rules on pet welfare in different Member States cause distortions of the internal market because the economic valuation of pets is carried out differently. High standards of pet welfare in some Member States increase prices and lead to a competitive advantage for operators in Member States with lower standards, which creates a state of unfair competition. Just as the Commission would act to address any threats to the smooth functioning of the EU internal market in another area of unfair competition, so does it have a duty to take action in this regard.

Finally, companion animal trafficking is trafficking in every sense of the term. It is a crime. Dog and cat trafficking results in a loss of revenue to governments in terms of lost tax, and should be dealt with as seriously as any other offence currently addressed on the European level and in individual Member States.

This week a group of 38 MEPs wrote a letter to the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, Vice-President Frans Timmermans and Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis asking the Commission to place this issue on its agenda. The group of MEPs represent all the major political groups and 17 countries of the EU, and the level of support shows the importance of this issue to citizens and to the politicians who represent them. The letter asked the Commission to take the lead in coordinating a response to this illegal trade and draw up an EU Action Plan. The Action Plan should cover the following: animal health and welfare, public health, consumer protection, the EU internal market and anti-trafficking considerations. “Only through a coordinated approach,” wrote MEPs, “can we truly deal a blow to this trade.”

The EU is a leading example of animal welfare standards to the rest of the world. Let us prove that we can hold on to this title by starting to improve the welfare of companion animals living in our own households. 26% of EU households own a cat, and 18% own a dog, which translates to 63 million owned dogs and 72 million owned cats in the EU. And yet there is very little EU legislation to protect them.

Addressing this issue would be a step in the right direction in restoring citizens’ trust in the ability of European decision-makers to ensure the best protection of Europeans and their households all across the Union.

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