Children can change the world!

Emma Milne, TV vet and author, tells us why she believes children and education are the absolute key to improving animal welfare.

Over the years I have had the great privilege to work alongside many excellent charities like World Animal Protection.  One of the over-riding messages I’ve seen in the time and work I have done is that children and education are the absolute key to improving animal welfare.

One of my strongest memories is from a trip to Egypt where a vet was telling the owner of a working horse that he should not use a chain noseband on the animal because of the injuries these horrible devices cause. A few metres away one of the education teams was teaching the local children these things using pictures of what to do and what not to do. One of the children heard the conversation between the vet and the owner and ran over to them, proudly brandishing the laminated sheet he’d been given with the picture of the right noseband to use. His face lit up as he chattered away to the adult about what he’d learned. It was such an emotional sight and one that will stay with me forever.

In the UK we may seem to be far ahead of such out-dated practices like this but we are still woefully neglecting animals through unintended ignorance and misguided practices that have been handed down from generation to generation. The prime example that springs to mind is keeping rabbits in small hutches and on their own. Just because they have been kept like this for hundreds of years doesn’t mean that it’s right. Our understanding of animal behaviour and needs has changed massively in recent years and we need to somehow get this information to prospective owners.

Children have a wonderful natural empathy for animals

Children have a wonderful natural empathy for animals and harnessing that from a young age is a brilliant way to improve welfare. We now use the five welfare needs as an easy and consistent way to teach people about all animals and their needs. It’s the five needs that also underpin the law in the UK as well. They are;

  • The need for fresh water and the right diet
  • The need for the right environment
  • The need to be protected from injury, pain and disease
  • The need to be with or without other animals
  • The need to behave normally

The physical needs like food, water and a home are still areas that need work but many people manage them. For me the mental needs - social contact and to be able to behave in a natural way - are by far the most misunderstood areas, but also the ones that are SO important to have pets that are happy as well as healthy.

There are lots of welfare organisations that would love to see animal welfare taught on the national curriculum but there just isn’t room. The UK may be ahead of some developing countries when it comes to welfare but we are way behind lots of other countries, especially in Europe. At the moment children here are taught that animals need air, water and food. Not exactly the best messaging! Anyone can own a pet and we don’t have to prove any knowledge at all before taking on a sentient being for whom we are totally responsible.

Helping children learn the importance of being happy and healthy is a no-brainer. Analogy is a brilliant way to get kids thinking about how they would feel in similar situations. For example, so many animals kept as pets are social creatures by nature like rabbits, guinea pigs, rats and dogs. And US! We are social creatures too. If you ask a child to imagine a scary situation like walking past the school bully then ask if they’d like to do it on their own or with a group of friends, the answer is obvious.

As a parent and a vet I know how much pressure kids can put on their parents, but impulse buying is a major cause of abandonment once the family realises that it can’t keep the animal properly or that the animal really doesn’t live up to their expectations. In my series of children’s pet care books I tell children that they can change the world by learning the facts before they get a pet, and I really believe they can. Let’s face it, us grown ups have messed it up for centuries!

Further reading

Emma’s series of books is called The Pet Detective Series. They are a fun and educational way to teach your children about pets before you get them. The books all have a virtual month project for the children to complete at the end so they can either prove they have what it takes to be a great owner or, just as importantly, that a different pet would suit the family better. Available from Amazon, 5M publishing, online bookshops and some welfare charity websites. 10% of all royalties go to the supporting charities.


* This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog belong solely to the blog owner and do not necessarily represent the views or policies of World Animal Protection.