Proposed changes to the Companion Animals Act in NSW have caused some controversy. Laura Greaves investigates what the new dog laws for NSW really mean for dog owners.
In 2011, the Companion Animals Taskforce was established by the Minister for Local Government, Don Page, and the Minister for Primary Industries, Katrina Hodgkinson.
The Taskforce was made up of invited representatives from the Animal Welfare League NSW, the Australian Companion Animal Council (ACAC), the Australian Institute of Local Government Rangers, the Australian Veterinary Association, the Cat Protection Society of NSW, the Local Government and Shires Association of NSW, Dogs NSW, the Pet Industry Association Australia and the RSPCA NSW.
The Taskforce was charged with proposing changes to the NSW Companion Animals Act 1998 after investigating:
- Euthanasia rates and re-homing options for surrendered or abandoned companion animals;
- The breeding of companion animals, including the practices of puppy farms;
- The sale of companion animals;
- The microchipping and desexing of companion animals;
- Current education programs on responsible pet ownership;
- Dangerous dogs; and
- Any other high-priority companion animal issues.
“We always need to be looking at what’s happening nationally and internationally with regard to legislation,” says veterinarian Dr Kersti Seksel, who was a member of the Taskforce on behalf of ACAC. “We have laws and legislation from way back when and sometimes, as society changes, we have to make sure we change with that.”
In May last year, the Taskforce released a discussion paper that presented its key findings and set out a series of options. More than 1400 public submissions were received, which were taken into consideration as the Taskforce prepared two final reports for the Ministers.
A key theme highlighted in the public’s submissions was that cat and dog welfare and management is the responsibility of the entire community. According to the NSW Government, “put simply, it is the people who breed, sell and own cats and dogs who are ultimately responsible for them. Improving the community’s understanding of this is crucial to ensuring better outcomes for cats and dogs.”
The Taskforce’s report contains 22 recommendations that aim to provide a strategy to reduce the number of cats and dogs that are impounded and euthanized; improve the current regulatory framework around the breeding, sale and management of cats and dogs; and promote socially responsible pet ownership to the whole community. (See box for the full list of recommendations.)
The introduction of annual registration for cats and dogs is one of the Taskforce’s main – and arguably most controversial – proposed changes to the Companion Animals Act.
According to the Taskforce, replacing the existing lifetime registration policy with annual registration will:
- Significantly improve the accuracy of data on the Companion Animals Register;
- Provide a stronger incentive for owners to desex their cat or dog;
- Regularly reinforce that owning a cat or dog is an ongoing commitment;
- Increase the capacity of councils and the government to undertake cat and dog management activities; and
- Bring NSW into line with other states, which already require dogs and cats to be re-registered every year.
The Taskforce recommended that councils review, and possibly reduce, registration fees in order to make dog and cat owners more likely to register their pets. It also suggested offering reduced registration rates for desexed animals adopted from pounds or shelters in a bid to boost adoption and desexing rates and ease pressure on animal welfare organisations.
Dr Seksel says introducing annual registration in NSW is a “no brainer”.
“There are lots of problems with lifetime registration. One is that we have animals that are 25 or 35 years old on the register and we know animals don’t live that long, so we don’t really have any idea how many living dogs and cats there are in NSW,” she explains.
“One of the things the Taskforce was asked to do was look at euthanasia rates and we can’t do that if we don’t know how many animals there are. How do you make something happen if you don’t have the data?”
As well as not knowing how many dogs and cats call NSW home, she says animal management programs are further hampered by not knowing where pets are living.
“If we had an outbreak of rabies among dogs, for example, we’d have no idea where those animals were,” says Dr Seksel. “We have a livestock tracking system that means we can follow every farmyard animal in Australia from farm to plate. We know who breeds them and we can follow disease. Why on earth can’t we do the same with cats and dogs?”
Implementing annual registration would also allow local councils to raise the money needed to better manage the pets within their local government area.
“More and more, the NSW Government wants councils and their Animal Management Officers to manage pets, but there’s no money to do it,” she says. “The only way to raise that money is through registration of pets. We register our cars every year – why aren’t our best friends that important?”
The Taskforce has also called for a mandatory licensing system for dog and cat breeders, which has raised the ire of some breeders.
Dogs NSW, the state’s controlling body for purebred dog breeding and showing, says it “strongly supports” a licensing scheme that will capture breeders who were previously unlicensed and unregulated, however the organisation believes its existing members should be fully exempt from any extra licensing requirements.
“We vigorously claim that our members are already licensed and must abide by the strictest of codes,” says a Dogs NSW statement. “A breeder licensing system will require an expensive and large bureaucracy without any additional benefits.”
Dogs NSW also objects to the Taskforce’s recommendation that at least one staff member in any pet shop, pound, shelter or breeding establishment must hold a Certificate II – Animal Studies qualification.
“(This) is not warranted for non-commercial breeders and its applicability to our members is not justified given that 92.5 per cent of our members who bred any litter at all only bred between one and four litters in a year,” said the statement.
But Dr Seksel says independent monitoring of dog and cat breeding is essential, regardless of any existing regulation.
“If you’re a breeder of dogs or cats and every single one of the animals you breed ends up being euthanised because of some behaviour problem, or they get hip dysplasia, that’s a problem for you as a breeder,” she explains.
“I have heard that breeders don’t want an independent person coming and looking at what they do, but we all need to be independently reviewed from time to time.
“If breeders are already doing everything correctly, it should be like the Heart Foundation ‘Tick’ of approval. If you’re proud of what you do, this should be an added bonus to you.”
In addition to the 22 recommendations made in its main report, the Taskforce also submitted another report dealing specifically with the management of dangerous dogs.
It featured a range of recommendations, including amending the Companion Animals Act to introduce a ‘potentially dangerous dog’ category. Unlike controversial breed-specific legislation, under which dogs can be declared dangerous based on breed or appearance, any ‘potentially dangerous dog’ declaration would be based on actual behaviour.
The Taskforce also recommended that provisions be included to revoke a ‘dangerous’ or ‘potentially dangerous’ declaration if the dog underwent behavioural training.
“It’s got nothing to do with what a dog looks like. It’s about dogs that have given us some indication that their behaviour might not be socially acceptable,” says Dr Seksel.
“We often think that, once a dog has done something wrong, it’s ‘bad’ or ‘evil’. But you could be the best driver in the world and have a car accident – it doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to be back behind the wheel after some additional driver training.”
Dr Seksel says she’s confident the NSW Government will implement the Companion Animal Taskforce’s recommendations. “I’d be despairing of the NSW Government if they had brought together a Taskforce, got their recommendations and then decided not to implement them,” she says. “It was a diverse group of people and we met for over a year.
- A breeder licensing system should be established and the Companion Animals Register should be updated to capture breeder license information for each animal record.
- The Animal Welfare Code of Practice – Breeding Dogs and Cats should be revised to ensure that the existing guidelines it contains become enforceable standards.
- Relevant animal welfare codes of practice should be amended to require the sellers of cats and dogs to display an animal’s microchip number (or the license number of the breeder of an animal) in all advertisements, and at point of sale in the case of pet shops, markets and fairs.
- The Companion Animals Regulation should be amended to remove the existing provision that allows recognised breeders to sell un-microchipped cats or dogs to pet shops.
- An information sheet should be issued in relation to the advertising and sale of cats and dogs.
- Mandatory standardised information on socially responsible pet ownership should be developed to be given out at point of sale.
- Relevant animal welfare codes of practice should be updated to require that at least one staff member working in a pet shop, breeding establishment, pound or animal shelter must hold a Certificate II – Animal Studies qualification.
- The Companion Animals Act should be amended to require cats and dogs to be registered on an annual basis.
- Cat and dog registration fees should be reviewed and set at such a level to provide an additional incentive for owners to desex their animals.
- The Companion Animals Regulation should be amended to require a cat to be registered from the time it is four months of age.
- The Companion Animals Regulation should be amended to allow cat and dog registration fees to be indexed to the Consumer Price Index.
- A new discounted registration category, ‘Desexed animal – purchased from a pound or shelter’, should be established to further encourage the purchase of desexed cats and dogs.
- A grant funding program should be established for councils and partner organisations to deliver targeted microchipping, registration and desexing programs.
- Measures should be introduced to improve compliance with companion animal legislation data entry requirements.
- A community-wide socially responsible pet ownership education campaign should be developed.
- The socially responsible pet ownership school-based education program should be expanded to include the preschool age group.
- Comprehensive education material about the importance of confining cats to their owner’s property should be developed.
- Funding should be provided for research into key cat and dog issues.
- Better practice guidelines should be issued to councils with a view to standardising impounding practices.
- The Companion Animals Register should be updated to provide a centralised impounded animal management tool for use by all councils, relevant state agencies and animal welfare organisations.
- The Ministers should write to the Minister for Fair Trading to request that barriers to cat and dog ownership in relation to residential tenancy laws be reviewed.
- An ongoing reference group on cat and dog management issues should be established.