One of the unexpected effects of living through the pandemic has been the increase in the number of households keeping a family pet. Months of corona virus lockdown and the prospect of increased future home-working have combined to give many people the extra time they need to bring a pet into their lives. Dogs have been particularly popular, perhaps because they offer the health benefits of exercise and access to the great outdoors as well as providing companionship. Stroking an animal’s fur can lower a person’s blood pressure, so even cat owners, whose pets are generally ill at ease on a walk, can get to see a health benefit too.
As with all things in life, the pleasure of animal ownership has to be weighed against the disadvantages that pets can cause. As a cat-owner I’m all too aware of the effects my felines have on the local rodent and bird population and I know that keeping a well-stocked bird table doesn’t redress the balance. I’ve tried to minimise predatory behaviour by fitting bell-collars and keeping the cat-flap locked at night, but neither action has had much effect. I was interested therefore to read about research from Exeter University which has found a strategy that appears to help. The study asked people to spend ten minutes each day encouraging their cat to pounce on a feather attached to a string, followed by play with a toy mouse. Over the twelve-week trial owners noted a reduction of twenty-five percent in prey caught. The study looked into diet too, and found that cat-food with a high meat content also reduced the number of prey animals brought through the cat-flap.
Sadly dogs are no more popular with birds than cats. When off the lead dogs can disturb ground-nesting birds and can threaten the breeding of endangered species such as larks and curlews. Keeping your dog on a lead on walks through bird-nesting habitats is advised. At least small mammals are safer with dogs than cats, although some types of dog are known to attack hedgehogs.
A different aspect of pet ownership which may affect wildlife is the use of antibiotics and anti-flea medications which, if used inappropriately, can have unforeseen consequences. Antibiotic resistance is a serious problem in human medicine and given that some drugs are used for both people and animals we should use antibiotics in pets only when they are absolutely necessary. Antibiotics should always be used with restraint, so that they stay effective when we really need them.Flea medications are pesticides and it is of concern that they are now being detected in rivers, including our own River Teme. These chemicals can harm fresh-water invertebrates, a lack of which impacts on creatures higher up the food chain, such as fish, amphibians, bats and birds. I would urge the use of anti-flea medication only in pets suffering an infestation. The common practice of using them regularly as prophylaxis against fleas is not justified and is likely to cause greater environmental disturbance in the future.