It's always seemed to us that "just" finding new homes for unwanted animals was going to be an endless task. That's why from the very beginning of NALA we've considered lobbying and meeting with the authorities an important part of our task in order to change attitudes and remedy bad habits.

However, one wearying aspect has been the naysayers who claim that it is not possible to make a difference, that it's been tried before and nothing ever changes. So it was a real eyeopener for us to attend the first ever conference on the Welfare of Cats and Dogs in the EU organised by the European Commission and supported by the Eurogroup for animals, the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe and Vier Pfoten International. The purpose of the conference was to bring together many of the diverse stakeholders to discuss the practical considerations of improving pet welfare.

Over the course of a single day we had the opportunity to listen to seventeen presentations given by vets, scientists, governmental officials, representatives of industry and NGOs. The subjects ranged from legislation to breeding and trade to statistics on pet ownership in different countries. (Romania has the highest pet ownership figures: about 45% of the population has at least one cat and about 45% has at least one dog!)

One surprising thing that we learnt was that the EU has no direct competence in the area of animal welfare except where it impacts on trade and health. That means that current EU initiatives are primarily to do with identification and registration, transport between countries and transmission of diseases.

Not so surprising was learning that in rural areas cats and dogs are more valued for their utility whilst in urban areas they are more valued for their companionship. One speaker showed how this companionship has positive health benefits for the pet's owner.

It was encouraging to hear about the legislation in some countries: Italy is cracking down on puppy farms, strays are protected from being put down for reasons of "convenience" and are sterilised when adopted.

In Belgium pet shops can sell animal supplies, but not animals. Pets are sold with a guarantee... which sounds a little bit strange but works quite well in practice as we learnt from a Belgian lawyer sitting next to us. There is a huge trade in Europe of dogs raised in appalling conditions in puppy farms. Many are sold too young so they haven't learnt social skills and their immune system is not mature. Prior to the introduction of the guarantee, it was nearly impossible for an owner to sue the seller if their puppy died or had chronic health issues. The cost of the court case was prohibitive compared to the value of the animal. The lawyer told us that since the introduction of the guarantee, the success rate is nearly 100%. 

Switzerland amazed us: before being able to buy a dog the prospective owner has to undertake a 4 hour theory course and then a 4 hour practical training course once they have acquired an animal. This practical training has to be repeated every time they get another dog. Given that badly trained dogs and their owners are a major cause of accidents and dogs being abandoned we are definitely in favour of such training. Now if only it applied to parents too...

There were over 400 participants at this conference, although of the big 3 French organisations for the protection of animals only the SPA was present, which perhaps explains why France is lagging behind many other countries. It was very encouraging to see that although the conference ran late only a small number of people left before the end.

In short it was morale boosting to learn that we're not alone in wanting to change the system and that remarkable success has been achieved in some countries. So we will ignore the naysayers and carry on our own attempts with renewed vigour...

For photos have a look this page