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The Code of Welfare for Dogs – what does it mean for you?

It's years since the Animal Welfare Code of Welfare for Dogs was released, and I wonder how many of you are aware of it and its requirements of you as a dog owner? Its requirements (standards) have significant legal 'clout'. Most of us are responsible dog owners and we already meet all the requirements of the Code. Nevertheless you might be interested to know some of the detail so that you can encourage others to raise their standards.

How thin is too thin?

The Code of Welfare for Dogs includes a chart describing how to quantify the body condition of dogs, based on scores ranging from 1 (emaciated) to 5 (grossly obese). The Code states that dogs are 'thin' at body condition score 2, where the ribs can all be seen or felt easily and the pelvic bones protrude. Because of breed differences in body type, it doesn't state that all dogs at BCS 2 are necessarily unacceptably thin. For a dog to be classed as 'too thin' it would have to have a body condition score of 2 or less and also show other signs of malnutrition such as lack of energy or poor coat condition. The owners of these dogs must take steps to improve their dogs' body condition, by feeding them more, exercising them less or getting veterinary advice as appropriate.

At the other end of the scale, the Code says that if a dog is grossly obese, common sense steps must be taken to reduce its weight.

What are the requirements for shelter?

The Code says

  • Dogs must be provided with sheltered and dry sleeping quarters.
  • Measures must be taken to keep them warm in cold weather.
  • They must be able to urinate and defaecate away from their sleeping area.
  • The sleeping quarters must be big enough to allow the dog to move around comfortably.

Too few farm dogs live in kennels that meet these requirements. Let's hope that the Code will result in more comfortable living for more of them.

Is early (pre-pubertal) de-sexing OK?

There are pros and cons to early desexing. There are no relevant standards relating to it, but the Code says that early de-sexing solves more problems that it solves, so it recommends de-sexing at 3 to 5 months of age, which is before the first heat (oestrus) in the case of females.

How much exercise must a dog have every day?

The Code states that dogs must have sufficient exercise every day to maintain their health and well-being, and it recommends at least 60 minutes a day off the lead or chain or out of the run, with freedom to explore the environment. However it says the ideal amount of exercise varies hugely depending on age, breed and circumstances.

Is it OK to remove dew claws?

The Code sets no minimum standards relating to dew claw removal, but it says that where dew claws are to be removed by anyone other than a vet, the procedure must only be carried out by a skilled and competent person and only when the pups are less than 4 days old and the eyes have not opened. Even at that age, the Code recommends that a vet should carry out the procedure.

Is it OK to dock dogs' tails?

The Code doesn't go as far as banning tail docking but it recommends that the procedure should not be carried out at all except by a vet to amputate a damaged tail. It says that if tail docking is to be carried out, the procedure must only be performed by a trained and skilled person and the pups must be less than 4 days old (their eyes not yet open).

Tail docking is very contentious, and attitudes are changing all the time. It is interesting to note that the NZ Kennel Club has a scheme to accredit tail banders for certain breeds, and you will find more information about this on the NZ Kennel Club website. However the NZ Veterinary Association policy is that dogs should not be tail docked because it isn't in the best interests of the dog unless the tail is damaged and a vet recommends amputation.

As a vet I believe that tail docking shouldn't be carried out for several main reasons:

  • The tail is a necessary signaling device for dogs – helping to indicate pleasure, fear, aggression.
  • The tail is used to help the dog balance, especially running downhill.
  • Tail docking may lead to phantom pains in some dogs.

Is it OK to use electric collars?

The Code says that electronic training devices such as electric dog collars must not be used in any way that causes unnecessary pain or distress. It recommends that they are not used on unsupervised dogs or on nervous dogs, or to deter barking (except perhaps as a last resort when all other avenues have been tried unsuccessfully).

My opinion is that the use of electric shock collars goes against the best dog training techniques - all of which are based on reward and not punishment. However there may be an argument for their minimal and strategic use in tough and robust dogs that are on 'death row' for behavioural problems such as attacking stock.

Like to know more?

There is a lot more in the Code that is relevant and interesting for dog owners – you will find the full version and explanatory notes on the MPI website - www.biosecurity.govt.nz/animal-welfare

There are a series of Animal Welfare Codes, and they are powerful documents, used to enforce the Animal Welfare Act by Animal Welfare Inspectors in the SPCA and MPI (Ministry of Primary Industries, formerly MAF). If an animal owner is taken to court, the 'minimum standards' in the Code are used to determine his or her guilt or innocence. If these standards have not been met, the owner is likely to be prosecuted. The owner could be successfully defended if it can be shown that he or she has successfully met the relevant minimum standards.

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