It’s finally happened: the new Animal Health and Welfare Act has officially been commenced. The Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney, has signed the new legislation into action, providing a much needed update of the previous legislation which was over a hundred years old.
The new law includes increased powers for “authorised officers” (which includes gardaí, Department of Agriculture representatives and officers from animal welfare groups) to have greater powers to investigate alleged animal cruelty, and there will be harsher penalties on conviction, including a ban from owning an animal and a prison sentence of up to five years.
The legislation is complex, and was much debated by the various bodies involved in animal welfare in the drafting stages of the bill: there are no major surprises for anyone who has been following this.
From my perspective, there are two highly significant facts about the Act that have not been widely reported.
First, the new legislation is “pro-animal welfare” as well as “anti-animal cruelty”: what I mean by this is that under the former legislation, an act of cruelty (such as beating an animal) had to be legally proved before action could be taken against the perpetrator: this can be surprisingly difficult, and by then, it’s too late for the animal anyway. Under this new Act, people responsible for animals have an obligation to care for the animal by providing the Five Freedoms. If they do not do this, they are guilty of a crime. So if you do not provide your dog with a reasonable diet, if you do not allow your dog to carry out natural behaviours (e.g. by never taking it for a walk), or if you do not take steps to relieve a dog from pain (e.g. refusing to take a dog riddled with painful arthritis to the vet), then you are guilty of a crime.
This difference may seem subtle, and it may still be difficult to enforce, but it is a major change in the “angle” of the law: animals are now protected from damage, rather than having to wait until they have been damaged before taking action.
The second significant fact about the new Act is that for the first time, it is now definitively illegal for members of the public to cut off dew claws or to dock the tails of puppies. Under the Act, tail docking of dogs for cosmetic purposes has been banned outright, a move that will cover most dogs in the country. As a compromise to the hunting dog lobby, vets are allowed to dock the tails of certain breeds of dogs that are going to be working dogs. This has created a bit of a grey area, because if vets dock tails, they are carrying out an act that the Veterinary Council regards as “disgraceful professional behaviour”, and they may make themselves vulnerable to professional censure. It remains to be seen how this will play out, but many in the veterinary world are waiting for a major study on tail injuries in working dogs, which is due to be published in the next year. If this study concludes that there are, indeed, overall benefits in working dogs from tail docking as puppies, vets may need to concede that point. Until then, the grey area will continue. However the bottom line is that the standard tail docking of pet dogs’ tails is now illegal, we should all start to see fewer dogs that have been mutilated in this way.
Congratulations are due to Minister Coveney and his team: it is not easy pushing through legislation that protects a vulnerable sector of the community like animals, who have no votes, no money and no influence on politics.
Thank you, Minister Coveney, on behalf of the non-human persons of Ireland!