European Companion Animal Welfare – Past, Present, And Future
Cats and dogs have lived among humans for over 10,000 years. Yet the abuse and neglect of companion animals is still a serious worldwide problem. In the last decade, several counties have made significant progress in recognizing animals as sentient beings who deserve respect and compassion. But, many more countries still categorize animals as property. And they fail to adequately protect animals. This paper, published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, provides an overview of how legislation aimed at protecting companion animals in countries throughout Europe has evolved. Significant points include the following:
- During the Roman Empire, people labelled animals according to their economic value. They categorized animals as domestic, traction, or load animals. An abrupt and slightly strange change took place during the Middle Ages. This was when animals became subject to law. Animals were even tried and convicted of various crimes in court.
- France was the first country in Europe to have specific national legislation concerning animal protection. France enacted laws in 1791 (under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte) that prohibited poisoning animals who were officially owned by someone. These laws also attacking guard dogs.
- In 1822, Great Britain published landmark national legislation on animal protection. The bill was called the “Ill Treatment of Cattle and Horses.” In 1849, the country published the “Cruelty to Animals Act.” This made it illegal to abuse animals. And it inspired many other countries to follow suit with similar laws.
- In 1893, Switzerland was the first European country to constitutionally protect animals. The authors note that Switzerland—to this day—has the most advanced legislation in the world regarding animal welfare.
- Broader initiatives that have been enacted include the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s “Universal Declaration of Animal Rights.” This is a declaration signed in 1978. It proclaimed that animals have the same right to exist as people. Animal activists condemned this declaration. They thought it permitted people to kill animals for their own needs. Another enacted initiative is the Council of Europe’s “European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals.” This is a treaty signed in 1987. It states that “man [sic] has a moral obligation to respect all living creatures.” It recognizes the “special links existing between man and companion animals.”
- In the early 21st century, a handful of countries recognized the inherent value of animals. They adopted codes to protect their welfare. This can be seen in the German Constitution in 2002; Switzerland’s Law of October 4, 2002; the Austrian Constitution in 2004; the Czech Republic Civil Code of 2012; and the Commission Laws of the French National Assembly in 2014. Also, the UK Animal Welfare Act of 2006 established five welfare needs that must be met for animals.
- The Treaty of Lisbon refers to animals as sentient beings. This was enacted in December 2009 as the constitution of the European Union.
Despite some promising advances in legislation to protect companion animals in Europe, the authors state that “European Civil Codes mostly shares the juridical qualification of animals as ‘things’ or property.” The authors note that this is inherited from the Roman legal tradition. They single out Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and France, as well as the Autonomous Region of Spain (Catalonia) for defending the “juridical status of animals as ‘sentient being.’” But they note that most other countries—including many that signed the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals—fall short in both how they view animals and how they protect them under law.
To overcome such issues, the authors recommend the adoption of a “single mandatory European legislation” within the European Union. They believe that this could “resolve the problem of member legal systems that are inadequate to provide for companion animal welfare and protection and lead to common policies to fight the problems that still persist in some European countries.” In order to create such a law, they recommend the formation of a working committee dedicated to the task. The committee could be made up of politicians as well as veterinarians and representatives from animal welfare organizations.
For advocates, the paper provides a useful rundown of some historical and current legislation in European countries regarding treatment of companion animals. In particular, the paper may be a good starting point for advocates who seek to promote broad initiatives that impact multiple countries. The paper is also a good indication of how far we have come as a society in regard to how we treat animals. It also highlights how far we still have to go.