By Olivia Brennan
Current EU animal welfare legislation is rather extensive and detailed for agricultural animals but is much more limited for companion animals – particularly cats and dogs. Research undertaken by the EU Dog and Cat Alliance highlighted the stark contrast in animal welfare legislation and education at a national level with substantial gaps found in many Member States. For example, dogs who have been specifically breed for sale, often in poor and unsafe conditions, are moved across EU borders thanks to the freedom of movement, one of the EU’s founding pillars. The lack of EU wide identification and traceability of these pets poses a risk to human health and to consumer protection rights. The recently created EU animal welfare platform, set up by the European Commission following calls from national agriculture ministers, aims to enhance dialogue on animal welfare and better application of EU rules between Member States. However, there are concerns as to whether this will end up being another talking shop as opposed to developing firm legislative proposals.
European Commission spokesperson Alexander Winterstein stated last week that in the wake of Brexit, the free movement of dogs and cats is of the “utmost importance”. Most animal welfare organisations call for a compulsory identification and registration of dogs and cats on an EU-wide database which would help weed out the illicit trade, prevent the spread of diseases and improve consumer protection when buying a pet. However, the Commission has continually said that creating an EU-led microchipping database is currently not a priority.
There are several reasons the European Commission is hesitant to pursue EU-wide rules on companion animal welfare: one being they fear a repeat of the difficulties they faced getting through EU rules on animal transport in 2014 and the other is that the EU is not required to harmonise laws unless there is a definitive need. Article 13 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union states that Member States shall “pay full regard to the welfare requirement of animals while respecting the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the Member States relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage.” The European Commission states that EU harmonised rules and actions are only brought about if there is a need and clear added value, otherwise the competence remains with the Member States. There are also calls to make it compulsory across the EU for breeders to hold licenses. As it stands, licencing requirements vary greatly across all Member States and the sale of dogs and cats is allowed in pet shows in 20 Member States and for sale at markets, in 15 Member States. The variation across countries has a major impact on the welfare of the animals in questions but also on consumer protection and the internal market.
There are approximately 135 million pet cats and dogs in the EU and the current lack of synchronised EU-wide animal welfare regulation is preventing the internal market from functioning harmoniously. A Eurobarometer published last year found that 74% of EU citizens believe companion animal welfare should be better protected and so it is clear a more coordinated approach is needed at EU level and in order for this to be fully effective the EU will need to take legislative action.