Centre for Companion Animal Welfare
Welfare problems are widespread among companion animals, often with major consequences for both animals and their owners. The newly established Centre for Companion Animal Welfare will facilitate research into the nature and scale of the problems and how they are best eliminated or reduced.
Today, research into the welfare of farm and laboratory animals are well-established research areas at universities and other research institutions around the world. Only recently, there has been a growing interest in the welfare of the many animals kept as companion animals, e.g. dogs, cats, rabbits and horses. One of the reasons why the interest in companion animal welfare has not been as pronounced as it is today is the widespread, albeit erroneous, assumption that companion animals are doing well - as they are kept for leisure and not for the sake of money.
For millennia, these animals have lived with humans under completely different conditions. In the transition from being 'useful' animals to becoming family members the animals have been exposed to dramatic and sometimes welfare-compromising changes. They respond with behavioural problems and various forms of lifestyle-related diseases. In addition, and despite good intentions, selective breeding has in many cases had major negative consequences for animal welfare.
Companion animals are in most cases kept by people who feel great love for their animals. However, love, as is well known, can make blind; and sometimes people will project their own needs and expectations onto the animals to the detriment of both animal welfare and the relationship between owner and animal.
The Centre for Companion Animal Welfare will contribute with a diverse set of research initiatives into the welfare of companion animals and work hard to ensure that results are made visible and applied internationally. The research will focus on the direct welfare consequences of the ways in which companion animals are kept, trained, cared for and bred. The animals concerned are dogs, cats, horses and other animals kept as companion or hobby animals.
The following research subjects will be studied in a Danish context but also in the form of international collaborative projects, which provide an opportunity for cross-country comparison.
Rearing and early experiences
Welfare problems often occur when thing goes wrong early in life, e.g. when the animals are taken from their mother, if their mother is stressed or sick, or if appropriate socialisation with humans is not ensured. Import, legal and illegal, especially of young dogs may also have a detrimental effect on the welfare of the animals.
Especially purebred dogs and cats are targets of selective breeding which have shown to be detrimental to their welfare. For example, when extreme breeding goals engender brachycephaly (shorter skull) or fixation of mutation of diseases in small closed populations. Focusing on the appearance of animals has also had undesired behavioural consequences, e.g. higher risk of fear or a tendency to show aggressive behaviour. So-called dangerous dog breeds make up an issue of its own. Selective breeding of sports horses has in some cases made the horses so nervous that they have become dangerous to non-professional riders. It is also a problem in organized dog and horse breeding that a large number of genetic tests are offered for the diagnosis of hereditary diseases, where unfortunately not all tests are equally predictive.
Nutrition and feeding
In the past, there was a major problem with malnourished dogs, cats and horses. Today, the biggest nutritional problems are overfeeding and related problems with overweight and obesity. Obesity in dogs, cats and horses increases the risk of developing e.g. joint problems, arthritis, diabetes, breathing difficulties, pancreatitis and urinary tract disorders. Even moderate obesity has been shown to reduce the lifespan of dogs by up to two years across small and large breeds. For horses, there may also be problems with a concentrated feeding, where the animals cannot not meet their need for grazing.
Training and behaviour problems
A common reason why many companion animals end up being euthanised or relinquished is that they exhibit behaviours that are perceived as problematic by their owners. Many behavioural problems can be prevented through proper training but at the same time, there are training methods in circulation that may worsen the problems and give rise to welfare problems. The use of horses for sports may involve inappropriate training methods, which can impair their welfare.
In some countries, especially in the United States, it is a commonly held view that all companion animals that are not to be used for breeding should be neutered. This view may be justified with regard to cats and horses but is far more problematic and controversial when it comes to dogs. Particularly male dogs are at risk of becoming lethargic and obese if they are neutered.
When animals become seriously ill, they must either be treated or killed. There can be challenges at both ends of the spectrum: on the one hand, there are many sick animals that do not receive the necessary treatment due to ignorance and/or financial inability of owners. On the other hand, the advanced veterinary treatment offered may tempt owners to extend treatment beyond what may be considered ethically sound. Insurance schemes, which are mainly used on horses and dogs, provide financial support and contribute to veterinary diagnosis and correct treatment, but can also create inappropriate incentives in relation to treatment or euthanasia.
Unwanted and stray animals
In a number of cases, humans find themselves forced to part with their animals. In the case of cats, they may end up as stray animals. Dealing with unwanted and stray animals is an important welfare issue, e.g. what is a tolerable limit for staying in a shelter, and also involves ethical dilemmas, e.g. ‘kill’ versus ‘no-kill’.
The research subjects will be studied by the means of a wide range of methods, for example:
- Behavioural studies
- Clinical trials
- Physiological measurements
- Genetic studies
- Questionnaire surveys
- Other social science studies, e.g. collection of information via social media
- Epidemiological studies
The senior researchers involved have extensive experience from interdisciplinary collaboration, which includes several of these methods.
Among students affiliated with Danish Universities within disciplines such as veterinary medicine and biology, there is already a great deal of interest in companion animal welfare. To complete their master’s degree, the students must write a thesis which typically takes four to eight months of full-time work. With a combination of talented students and committed supervisors, such projects can lead to important research that can be published afterwards. The senior researchers involved in the Centre for Companion Animal Welfare have supervised a number of projects and together with the students helped publish the results in international journals.
The manager of the centre is professor Peter Sandøe and Professor Søren Saxmose Nielsen is the deputy manager. They are supported by six additional senior researchers: Professor Charlotte Reinhard Bjørnvad, Associate Professor Janne Winther Christensen, Professor Björn Forkman, Professor Merete Fredholm, Associate Professor Thomas Bøker Lund, and post.doc. Iben Meyer.
Peter Sandøe spends at least 40% of his working time on work related to the centre. Three months a year he is paid based on centre funds and two months a year his salary is based on co-financing (with one month from each of the institutes he is employed at). The other senior researchers will, in agreement with the centre management, be paid to the extent they contribute.
The centre is affiliated with the Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences at the University of Copenhagen (where Peter, Søren, Björn and Merete are employed) and collaborates with the Department of Veterinary Clinical Medicine, University of Copenhagen (where Charlotte is employed), the Department of Food and Resource Economics, University of Copenhagen (where Peter and Thomas are employed), and with the Department of Animal Science, Aarhus University (where Janne is employed).
Peter Sandøe has the overall responsibility of the centre; for planning the centre's research in collaboration with the group of senior researchers and for ensuring public dissemination of research activities, e.g. via this webpage and via an annual conference. Søren Saxmose Nielsen assists with financial management and accounting as well as with data management. Should Peter Sandøe not be able to undertake his position as manager anymore, Søren Saxmose Nielsen takes over the responsibility for the centre.
At least four times a year, the group of senior researchers meets and plans the centre's work. To ensure the relevance of the centre's work in a Danish context, an advisory group has been set up. The group meets with the group of senior researchers once a year and has the opportunity to comment on completed, ongoing and planned research. The members of the advisory groups are:
- Christine Fossing, Chair of the Companion Animal Group at the Danish Veterinary Association
- Jens Jokumsen, Head of companion animals, shelters and education at Animal Protection Denmark
- Maria Gravgaard Laursen, Veterinarian at the Department for Animal Welfare and Veterinary Medicine, Danish Veterinary and Food Administration
- Mette Uldahl, Veterinary consultant at the Danish Equestrian Federation
- Helle Friis Proschowsky, Special Consultant at the Danish Kennel Club
- Charly Riis, Chair of the Danish Siamese and Orientales Ring Club
Scientific Advisory Board
To strengthen the academic quality and international collaboration, a Scientific Advisory Board is set up. The Scientific Advisory Board consists of the following people:
- James Serpell, Professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine
- Susan Hazel, Senior Lecturer at the School of Animal and Veterinary Science, University of Adelaide
- Dan O'Neill, Senior Lecturer at the Royal Veterinary College, University of London
- Uta König von Borstel, Professor at the Justus-Liebig-University of Giessen
- An opening conference focusing on keeping and managing cats in Denmark was held on 28 November, 2020. Results from research projects were presented and there was a debate with key stakeholders.
- In collaboration with the Danish Centre for Animal Welfare, a public seminar on behavioral problems in dogs was held on 8 October 2020. Approx. 150 participants participated, the majority were online due to corona restrictions.
- The preparatory work for a large representative questionnaire survey of attitudes to companion animals among the general public and the keeping of companion animals in a Danish context has been carried out. The survey will be completed in the first half of 2021.
- With support from the Danish Centre for Animal Welfare, a project has been initiated which will serve to map and compare rules and norms for good practice in relation to breeding, sale and keeping of dogs in a number of countries.
- In collaboration with ViNordic, which is the Nordic industry organization for manufacturers of medicines for animals, a project has been initiated on the status of cats and dogs in today's Denmark. Via inventories of sales of veterinary medicines on the Danish market, which are made available by ViNordic, it is investigated to what extent there is a difference in the scope of veterinary treatment of dogs and cats, respectively. The hypothesis is that cats receive less veterinary treatment than dogs.
- Three master students have finished their thesis projects on:
- The occurrence of a hereditary eye disorder in labrador retrievers and the possibility of preventing it via a genetic test
- Three master students are working on their thesis projects with subjects such as:
- The occurrence of behavioral problems in dogs with a focus on separation anxiety
- Stress-physiological and behavioral reactions in dogs when playing
- A comparison of the effects of surgical and non-surgical insemination of greyhound bitches in the Australian greyhound industry
- During 2020, four papers have been submitted to international journals with peer review and they have all been published. The research presented in these articles has taken place prior to the establishment of the Center for Companion Animal Welfare, but it is the grant that has enabled the relevant senior researchers to spend time writing the papers:
Jensen JBH, Sandøe P & Nielsen SS. (2020). Owner-related reasons matter more than behavioural problems: A study of why owners relinquished dogs and cats to a Danish Animal Shelter from 1996 to 2017. Animals, 10, 1064.
- Christensen, JW, Beblein, C, Malmkvist, J (2020). Development and consistency of fearfulness in horses from foal to adult. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 1051062.
- Bruun CS, Andersen CM, Marx T, Mark T & Fredholm M. (2020). Breeding schemes for intervertebral disc disease in Dachshunds: Is disc calcification score preferable to genotyping of the FGF4 retrogene insertion on CFA12?. Canine Medicine and Genetics, 7, 18.
- Christensen, JW, Ahrendt, L, Malmkvist, J, Nicol, C (2021). Curious learners: Exploratory behaviour towards novel objects is associated with enhanced learning in young horses. Scientific Reports, 11, 1428.
- Seven publications relevant to professionals or the wider public in Denmark have been published.
- A 7,5 ECTS master's course in companion animals aimed at students from a wide range of disciplines has been planned and is awaiting the final approvals. The course will primarily be web-based.
Annual conference on the welfare of companion animals
The working title of the conference is "Equestrian sports towards 2030". Across the equine world, there is support for ensuring proper welfare of the horses involved in equestrian sports. Highlights of a new EU guide on keeping and training horses will be presented at the conference, as well as input from the Animal Ethics Council, which is currently working on projects relating to horses. Furthermore, results from recent studies of the effect of different training methods and types of equipment on the welfare of sport horses will be presented. All this will form the basis for debates on how to ensure acceptable animal welfare in equestrian sports in the future.
In the first half of 2021, a representative questionnaire survey of Danes' attitudes to companion animals will be conducted. We are aiming for a high-quality survey, which is carried out by Statistics Denmark, with approximately 2,500 participants. The questionnaire survey will shed light on the two most common family animals, dogs and cats, but also on less common companion animals, horses and rabbits, as well as on rodents, birds, fish and terrarium animals.
The themes of the study will include:
- The prevalence of companion and hobby animals among Danes
- Procurement conditions (including origin and price)
- Welfare problems among the animals, e.g. whether and how illness is treated and whether the animal is insured
- Ownership of different types of animals and possible health effects of keeping animals
- The general Danish population's attitude towards companion animals (with special focus on dogs)
At least two new thesis projects will be completed.
Dissemination of research
The Center's researchers will present the research at at least three different international conferences.
Possible conferences are:
- Canine Science Forum (Peter Sandøe has been invited as a keynote to the conference in 2021)
- European Veterinary Congress of Behavioral Medicine and Animal Welfare
- International Society for Anthrozoology
- International Society for Applied Ethology
- European College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
- International Society for Equitation Science
- International Conference on Canine and Feline Genetics and Genomics.
Papers in international journals
At least three papers will be accepted for publication in international journals with peer review. At least one of these is based on a thesis project initiated in 2020.
The following paper is already in the making:
- Bjørnvad CR, Lund TB, Mortensen CM, Tams MLS, Sandøe P. Risk factors for obesity in Danish cats.
- The paper is based on a study where two master students have evaluated the body composition of 199 Danish cats in their homes. The key finding is that indoor cats have an increased risk of being overweight, and that owners of indoor cats (and thus overweight cats) are more attached to their cat than owners of outdoor cats.
External funding for projects
Additional funding will be provided for at least one project relating to companion animals. So far, funding for a project on keeping rabbits in Denmark and a number of comparable countries has been sought at the Danish Centre for Animal Welfare. Previously, rabbits were kept for children, often individually and in small cages but recently they have undergone a change in status. It has now become more common for adults to keep rabbits, and for these to be kept as so-called "free rabbits". While there is a great deal of knowledge about keeping rabbits as production animals, there is a lack of knowledge about rabbits as hobby and companion animals.
In addition, the plan is to prepare a research application for the Agria and SKK research fund to finance a study on veterinarians' management of obesity in dogs and cats.
Papers for the wider public
At least four papers aimed at professionals or the wider public in Denmark will be published, and the Center will be visible on Twitter and via interviews in written and electronic medias.
Peter Sandøe will continue to be the driving force in this part of the Center's activities, but work will be done to increase the exposure of the other researchers and their work.
Strengthening international cooperation
International research collaboration in the field of companion animal welfare will be strengthened. Björn Forkman and Peter Sandøe have established a collaboration with a group under the Animal Welfare Science Center, The University of Melbourne in Australia. This collaboration will tentatively include the preparation of a review paper on measuring welfare in companion dogs and a joint application for a project aimed at developing interventions to deal with welfare problems in companion dogs. Funding for the project is being sought from the Australian Research Council, and the Danish Center for Companion Animal Welfare is expected to participate, e.g. by testing the interventions in a Danish context.
Establishment of master's course
Work will continue on establishing a 7.5 ECTS master's course in companion animals aimed at students from a wide range of educations. In 2021, work will be done to get the course recognized in a number of relevant educations, so that the course can start with a suitably large number of participants in 2022.
|Björn Forkman||Professor||+45 353-33581|
|Charlotte Reinhard Bjørnvad||Professor||+45 353-32864|
|Iben Meyer||Postdoc||+45 30 23 38 79|
|Merete Fredholm||Professor||+45 353-33074|
|Peter Sandøe||Head of section, professor||+45 353-33059|
|Søren Saxmose Nielsen||Professor||+45 353-33096|
|Thomas Bøker Lund||Associate professor||+45 353-36861|
Centre for Companion Animal Welfare has received funding to cover the costs of establishment and operation from Skibsreder Per Henriksen, R. og Hustrus Fond.
Centre name: Centre for Companion Animal Welfare
Start: Januar 1, 2020