To reiterate, in 2018 more than 66,169 notices were issued and 1182 cases were reported to the RSPCA Prosecutions Department (RSPCA (a) 2018, 29).It was highlighted in the debates around the Animal Welfare Bill that many people who are charged with s.9 offences are ignorant of welfare offences and do not know how to look after their animals properly. Thus, a rush to a prosecution in these cases may not be appropriate and an improvement notice will help them to improve the welfare of an animal.Footnote 27 As outlined above, an improvement notice consists of what welfare issues there are with an animal, the steps needed to improve the situation and a time frame for doing so. Honess and Wolfensohn have demonstrated the use of the EWAG for short and mid-term trials, demonstrating its applicability at different time intervals (Wolfensohn et al. 2015, 148). Thus, an improvement notice period, which is usually over one month, will be enough time to measure changes on the EWAG. Having something visual may be more helpful than words on paper, to highlight the urgency of a welfare situation and to promote change. It is not clear from the literature why a tool of this kind has not yet been extended to cases in domestic animal welfare, particularly when already used in other contexts, such as zoos (Justice et al. 2017), and there is a need to avoid speculation as to why. What is emphasised is how useful this tool could be to those working toward animal protection and welfare, as an alternative to current practice and to increase the justification for seizing animals and prosecuting animal welfare offences.
The EWAG will need to be adapted for uses in animal welfare protection, rather than in clinical trials. This adaption would be both what is measured on the EWAG and how it is calculated, as those using this tool would not be scientists. Further, some categories on Honess and Wolfensohn’s EWAG relate very specifically to animals used in experiments, such as the experimental/clinical events the animals are subjected to. Thus, the EWAG for this research has been modified to represent the s.9 AWA different categories which promote animal welfare. My EWAG looks like in Fig. 2.
It can be seen that this EWAG includes all five of the welfare promotions, but has included s.9(2)(d), the need to be housed with or apart from other animals, within s9(2)(a) and the need for a suitable environment. With only four axes, it seemed best to amalgamate these promotions, as they are similar in nature. How this is used in practice will need to be explored further, and the plan for this is discussed further below, but this section will outline how it is envisaged it to work. It is also important to note that a vet has not contributed to this paper, so the scenarios here, whilst based on real cases, are anecdotal and not scientifically dependable.
The following use of the EWAG will be illustrated with a scenario of a dog who has been reported to the RSPCA and an RSPCA Inspector has attended a property to assess their welfare. The RSPCA Inspector notes that the dog is housed in a suitable environment, they have been given veterinary care when needed, but is not fed a suitable diet and, as a result, is overweight. This restricts the dog from being able to walk and play with other dogs, limiting its ability to exhibit normal behaviour patterns.Footnote 28 When assessing this suffering one may think that the points on the scale will be as follows:
Suitable diet = 8. The animal is not being fed food suitable for its species and is now so large that it is causing it health issues. If this does not change then it will cause further health difficulties and complications.
Ability to exhibit normal behaviour patterns = 7. Due to the animal being overweight, they cannot run and play with other dogs. This means that the dog is not getting the exercise needed for their health and potentially not socialising adequately with other dogs.
Veterinary care = 2. At the moment, there is no evidence that the dog is suffering from pain and injury caused by being overweight, apart from pressure on their joints and other minor health disadvantages.
Suitable environment = 1. There are no welfare concerns about the dog’s environment and it is completely suitable for the species.
This assessment will be concluded by working with a key to the EWAG. For example, the RSPCA may note that the dog is 8 kg heavier than they should be for their breed, so they are an 8 on the scale according to the key which will be developed by experts. An inspector may feel as though this can improve with the owner’s intervention, but needs to display this visually. Thus, at the moment, the dog’s welfare looks like Fig. 3.
The RSPCA Inspector works with the owner to develop this grid, explaining why it has been mapped in this way. They provide further information of how to help the dog lose weight, explaining what a suitable diet is for their species and how often exercise should be encouraged. The RSPCA Inspector returns to assess the dog, either during the notice period or afterwards. If the owner does nothing about the situation, it could progress to look like Fig. 4.
We can see from the EWAG that the welfare of the dog has gotten worse. Not only has suitable diet and ability to exhibit normal behaviour patterns decreased in terms of welfare, but so has veterinary care. This is due to the dog no longer being able to walk and therefore cannot urinate outside; they have been sitting in their own urine and this has caused contact dermatitis. The health issues associated with the obesity means that the dog will be on medication for the rest of their life to avoid any further suffering.
Alternatively, if the owner works with the improvement notice to improve the diet of the dog and their overall welfare, it could like Fig. 5.
In the timeframe of the improvement notice, we see that the owner has changed the diet of their dog and that the dog has started to lose weight. They may not yet be in perfect health, but the change in diet means that they are now able to exercise more easily and exhibit normal behaviour patterns. This has also decreased their need for veterinary care.
This rudimentary example of how the EWAG can be used in animal welfare cases may not be representative of the majority of cases the RSPCA and other inspectors face, but explains how the tool can visually represent the welfare of an animal. Further, having a key with accompanies the EWAG can help to increase consistency of use and reliability across different areas of England and Wales, with the design of a variety of experts and stakeholders.
As demonstrated above, the EWAG can be used during the improvement notice period. The person issuing the notice can draft an EWAG displaying the welfare and suffering of the animal at the moment. They can then draft EWAG to show the owner how the welfare will decrease, should they make no changes, or increase, should they follow the steps in the improvement notice. By showing them this, it may help them to realise the issues with their pet and how drastically it can worsen should they fail to act, or continue to act as they are.
Further, the person may wish, when monitoring improvement, to re-draft the notice, to show the owner how well, or not well, they are doing with improving the welfare of their pet. This may help to encourage them to continue with their efforts, consistent with the previously cited studies that show visual representations of information can improve performance. Honess and Wolfensohn highlight that the EWAG can be ‘used to support a course of action to resolve a problem, and show the accumulated benefits in terms of the resultant reduction in suffering. Importantly, it could also highlight where poor practice and welfare management need attention’ (2010, 211). Whilst this evaluation of the EWAG is specifically aimed at experiments involving animals, the conclusions can be used to support animal welfare and protection cases also. Ultimately, the goal in anything involving animals is to promote welfare and reduce suffering, and a visual tool may better aid this goal than a written notice.
As stated above, no prosecutions can be brought during an improvement notice period, but they can be afterwards if there is no improvement in welfare. It may be that after the expiry of the improvement notice, the welfare of the animal has not changed or decreased so drastically that the animal needs to be removed from their owner. If a s.9 AWA offence is prosecuted, the body bringing the prosecution, usually the RSPCA, will need evidence of the suffering. They usually have this through veterinary expert evidence statements and other evidential means such as photographs. It is argued that this visual tool will be helpful in evidence, showing how the welfare of an animal decreased, even with an improvement notice in place, justifying why the animal should be permanently removed from the owner and a need for a successful prosecution under s.9. As this tool can be done with the aid of a veterinarian, this could strengthen their own expert evidence and help to combat claims that the RSPCA have been removing animals from owners unnecessarily.
Further, there has been comments that veterinarians can be apprehensive to give evidence in court, due to fear of report writing and a lack of knowledge and skills to do so (van Bollenhoven et al. 2012). Studies have shown that an assessment of veterinary reports by experts differ significantly in the opinions of suffering and the actions of an owner (Baumgaertner et al. 2016). This tool may help to create consistency between veterinary reports and to prepare for presenting expert evidence in court, using the EWAG as an aid to their opinion of the animal’s mistreatment before them.