The Charity Perspective: Animal Welfare in the Covid-19 Pandemic

Jan McLoughlin

Director General, The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals

The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) is the UK’s leading veterinary charity and has been providing free and low-cost veterinary care to the pets of people in need for over a century. Helping over 470,000 pet patients each year, the charity is a lifeline for owners in financial difficulty. In this piece, PDSA Director General, Jan McLoughlin, reflects on how the organisation swiftly adapted to help the most vulnerable during the pandemic and what the enduring bond we have with our pets has meant to people during lockdown.

As I watched the Prime Minister announce a lockdown of the UK on 23 March 2020, I knew that his words were marking a historic moment. Leading PDSA, an organisation which was founded during the First World War and weathered the Second, survived the financial challenges of the Great Depression of the 1920’s right through to the global financial crisis of 2008, means you feel the weight of that history. PDSA is a unique organisation, one which recognises the incredible value of the human animal bond, and allows people, no matter what their financial circumstances, to experience the benefits of pet ownership, by providing a lifeline of free and low-cost veterinary treatment to the pets of the most vulnerable in our society.

Our research has shown that 84% of pet owners say their pet makes them mentally healthier and 64% physically healthier, rising to 85% for dog owners

The benefits of pet ownership to people are well documented; our own research shows that 84% of owners say that having a pet makes them mentally healthier, with 63% of pet owners agreeing that having a pet makes them physically healthier – this rises to 85% for dog owners. Findings like these show us one aspect of why pets are so important to us, and why they have been such
a comfort to so many throughout this pandemic. Our responsibility to the hundreds of thousands of pets, owners and their families who rely on us meant that we needed to change ways of working in our Pet Hospitals almost overnight – including a rapid digital transformation, so that we could continue to protect animal welfare whilst also playing our part in safeguarding public health.

In line with Government advice that only essential travel could take place during lockdown, only emergencies and the very sickest of pets were able to attend our 48 Pet Hospitals across the UK. All of our preventive healthcare (such as neutering and vaccinations) was stopped and telemedicine – such as consultations done over the phone or online – replaced many face-to-face hospital visits.To give you an idea of the scale of this, since lockdown we have provided 231,000 remote consultations via phone or video call, provided a further 64,000 consultations at our Pet Hospitals, and carried out over 6,000 emergency operations. And we are now seeing more pets as we get used to the new ways of working. In June we helped 57,000 pets – which was 20% more than in April. That’s an encouraging response at the most difficult of times, especially as we develop new ways of working within the new normal and adapt to further challenges such as localised lockdowns.

Every year we bring peace of mind to over 300,000 owners who have nowhere else to turn when their pet falls sick or is injured. With the current crisis putting people out of work, we anticipate a significant increase in those becoming eligible for our service. Unfortunately, to protect our staff and in line with Government guidance, we had to close our 120 high-street charity shops and furlough those teams, with significant losses of income, and we anticipate the situation will worsen with major fundraising events cancelled and a predicted fall in donations from our loyal supporters who donate every month.

However, we know from our experience navigating the 2008 crisis, severe financial times only increase the need for PDSA – at a time when our income is most affected by donors often being no longer able to financially support us. In addition to these financial concerns affecting our frontline service, there are also wider animal welfare implications to consider.

Pets have provided companionship to those shielding, many of whom live alone, whose pet has been their only source of company. They have provided stress relief to tired, emotionally drained keyworkers, got families out walking, made comical appearances on work video meetings and have generally cheered us with their endearing habits, possibly overlooked previously when we spent less time at home. In the same way that many have turned to nature to provide a sense of consistency and respite from what can seem like endlessly sad and challenging news, many have relied on their pet to ease their own personal burdens.

During the pandemic, perhaps seeking these benefits, higher than usual numbers of people have sought to acquire pets. However, taking on a pet is a decision which should be undertaken thoughtfully, with full consideration of how you could care for that pet once life resumes its previous pace. Owners have a duty of care to their pets, to provide for their five welfare needs (diet, environment, behaviour, companionship and health), as enshrined in UK law. We have a responsibility to consider if we can provide those for a pet before we look to acquire one. There is a concern shared across UK animal charities that rapid pet acquisition during lockdown may lead to abandonment or relinquishment in cases where there hasn’t been this thoughtful consideration of the pets’ long-term welfare needs.

There is a concern shared across UK animal charities that rapid pet aquisition during lockdown may lead to abandonment or relinquishment.

Irresponsible breeders and puppy farmers have seen an opportunity to make a profit from this high demand, with puppies selling online for thousands of pounds and travel restrictions allowing them to be delivered to purchasers in a manner which may usually raise red flags for prospective owners. Fraudsters have cashed in too, with reports of some posing online as breeders, taking deposits for puppies who never existed in the first place.

With vets unable to provide many preventive procedures such as vaccinations or neutering, outbreaks of preventable disease are possible, and rehoming charities are braced for a tide of unwanted kittens, as unneutered cats can become pregnant from as early as four months old – something many new owners won’t have realised. In addition, with the end of the furlough scheme approaching, many workers will resume their previous working hours and we expect to see issues, such as rabbits being forgotten in their hutches and separation anxiety developing in dogs who have, until then, spent all of their time at home with their owner.

PDSA has worked tirelessly with other charities and pet organisations to prevent some of these likely consequences, producing social media and press advice for owners at each stage of lockdown.We’ve also reached almost a million people who have visited our online Pet Health Hub for veterinary information and supported over 500 families and thousands of children with pet-related home-schooling resources and our fun PetWise activity packs.

However, despite all of this hard work, there are difficult times ahead, both for animal welfare, and for organisations like PDSA at the forefront of efforts to prevent suffering while under extreme financial pressure. Nevertheless, I remain optimistic about some of the opportunities to improve the care of our pets presented by this pandemic. The huge increase in use of telemedicine, surge in sales through our online shops and staff moving to homeworking, for example, have moved our organisation forward significantly in terms of our capability in these areas as well as reducing our environmental impact. We’re adapting fast and endeavouring to build back better.