Animal cruelty involves all human behaviours towards animals that are morally and/or legally unacceptable, causing them to be inflicted with unnecessary and unjustifiable physiological, psychological, and behavioural discomfort or pain [1
]. It is a complex issue implicating animal welfare, moral concerns, criminal activity, and violence [2
]. It is regulated by state and territory law in Australia; for example, in Queensland by the Animal Care and Protection Act 2001 (ACPA [1
]). This state-based legislation empowers the State to appoint inspectors, some of whom are employed by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Queensland (RSPCA Qld), to investigate potential breaches of the Act and enforce compliance with the Act [1
]. There are two main offences under the ACPA, one is failure to fulfil duty of care responsibilities and the other is cruelty. There are a number of other specified offences. The Act recognises that a person who has charge of an animal owes that animal a duty of care. Failure to provide such care potentially constitutes a ‘breach of duty of care’ offence. This offence covers such actions as not providing sufficient food, water, exercise, veterinary care, and suitable living conditions. It is not only the owner that has a duty of care towards an animal. Anyone who even temporarily is in charge of an animal has a duty of care. The second major offence is ‘animal cruelty’ and the Act describes what it sees as cruelty in Section 18. A cruel act towards an animal can be committed by anyone, whether it is their own animal, another domestic animal, or even a wild animal [1
]. It is important to note, that under the ACPA, the intention of a person to be cruel is not a prerequisite for committing the offence of cruelty. If an action carried out by a person causes pain and suffering and the action was intentional (that is not accidental), the person may be charged with cruelty. The intention to carry out the action must be proved but not the intention to be cruel. If a lack of action deprives an animal of its fundamental needs then they may be charged with a breach of their duty of care or even cruelty, depending on the circumstances. Motivation may be considered during sentencing [1
]. Other offences under the Act include unreasonable abandonment or release, the carrying out of prohibited surgical procedures (e.g., tail docking, ear cropping, debarking, etc.), being involved in, or having items used for, a prohibited event such as dog or cock fighting, and allowing an animal to injure or kill another animal [1
Potential cases are reported to RSPCA through various means. RSPCA Qld has a ‘Cruelty Complaints’ telephone number manned 24 h a day, seven days a week; complaints also come in through emails. Complaints can be made by members of the public but also by veterinarians and veterinary nurses, council officers, and other government and non-government employees visiting a location as part of their duties. Animals surrendered to the RSPCA or that come in as strays may be investigated if cruelty is suspected. They are considered by RSPCA Qld inspectors and further investigated if necessary.
According to the annual statistics of RSPCA Qld, there were 15,102 animal welfare complaints reported by the general public in 2011 [5
], which had increased to 17,929 by 2017 [6
]. Of all species falling victim to animal welfare concerns, dogs (Canis familiaris
) are one of the most commonly reported species [7
Various risk factors have been identified as contributing to an unsuccessful dog–owner relationship, which potentially results in neglect or abuse. These include the age of the dog [8
], dog behaviour [8
], physical attributes of the dog [9
], the owner’s motivation to care for the dog [14
], the owner’s attachment to the dog [12
], costs of keeping the dog [16
], and the owner’s socioeconomic status [18
]. In relation to actions carried out by third parties, most studies have focused on organised industries such as dog coursing [20
] and fighting [21
]. There has also been research into the origin of ‘noxious abuses’, e.g., cruelty involving intentional abuse, such as beating, shooting, and burning, that lead to severe physical injuries to the animals [7
]. Literature dealing with the milder but more common forms of animal welfare concerns is limited. One report considers neglect, such as exposing dogs to poor nutrition, keeping dogs in a backyard for hours without a shelter, and failing to meet exercise needs [2
]. Most studies [20
] stress the moral, legal, and social aspects of animal cruelty, and few explore the epidemiological dimension of this topic. This study addresses the epidemiology of diverse animal welfare concerns reported by the general public, instead of actual neglect or cruelty cases in a typical Western society. It also aims to identify the age of dogs as a risk factor for different forms of canine welfare complaints. Other risk factors, breed and socioeconomic status of the complainant, will be the subject of future papers.
2. Materials and Methods
From July 2008 to June 2018, RSPCA Qld received 129,036 canine welfare complaints. Some involving more than one dog were recorded as multiple complaints sharing the same case number, while others were recorded as one complaint with multiple animals. To avoid sample bias due to multiple entries, we only retained the first complaint of case numbers with multiple entries, discarding 21,439 entries as a result. There remained 107,597 canine welfare complaints for this retrospective study. Complaints that fell within the zone of responsibility of RSPCA Qld (determined by a Memorandum of Understanding between RSPCA Qld and Biosecurity Queensland, the Government Department tasked with the administration of ACPA) were investigated by RSPCA Qld inspectors. All other complaints were referred to Biosecurity Queensland to be investigated by their inspectors.
Complaints were recorded in Shelter Buddy®
, the RSPCA Qld database. The following information was requested from the reporter of each incident by the inspector at the time of taking the complaint: the number of dogs involved (n = 106,104), their age (n = 107,597), their breed(s) (n = 92,021), the coded complaint type(s) (n = 106,983), the suburb (n = 107,413), and the postcode (n = 107,270); in addition, the date was recorded (n = 107,597). Dogs’ ages were dichotomised into adult dog and puppy, based on reporters’ interpretation. It is important to recognise that the information recorded from the complainant may have been inaccurate or inaccurately interpreted, e.g., a small dog is commonly referred to as a puppy. Records regarding breed and the number of dogs involved were based on either complainants’ initial reports or comments from trained inspectors, again recognising inaccuracies with identification of the breed and the number of dogs involved. The ‘complaint code’ was selected by the staff member receiving the call or email from a drop-down menu of 18 possible complaints (Appendix A
, Table A1
). Multiple ‘complaint codes’ were able to be selected for each case, according to the description of what was alleged to have happened to the dog(s), and each was treated as a separate code for analysis.
2.2. Statistical Analysis
Data were analysed using the statistical package Minitab® 17.3.1. Descriptive analysis was used to investigate the distribution of complaint codes. Polynomial regression analysis and simple linear regression analyses were used to model the prevalence of different complaint codes from 2008 to 2018. The model chosen was that with the highest R-sq value, after ensuring that all components in the model were significant (p < 0.05). In 2008 and 2018, only data from July to December, and January to June were available, respectively. Therefore, data in 2009 and 2017 were used to test for within year variation in code citation rates for 2008 and 2018, respectively. Specifically, chi-squared analyses were conducted to compare whether the reported prevalence of each complaint code from January to June were different from those in July to December in 2009 and 2017. If there was no significant (p < 0.05) difference between the two six-month periods in that complaint code in 2009 and/or 2017, then the prevalence of the particular complaint code in the six-month period in 2008 and/or 2018 was/were assumed to be partially representative of the entire year(s). However, if there was a significant difference between the two six-month periods in that complaint code in 2009 and/or 2017, the data of the specific complaint code in 2008 and/or 2018 were excluded from the polynomial regression analyses of year effects. After that, a Grubbs’ test was used to identify outliers of each complaint code, which were excluded from polynomial and simple linear regression analyses. In polynomial regression analyses and simple linear regression analyses, years were entered as input variables and the prevalence of the complaint code as the output. The models were chosen on the basis of significant p values and the greatest R-sq values yielded. Three complaint codes, Causing captive animal to be injured/killed by a dog (N = 29), Keeping or using animal for blooding/coursing a dog (N = 18), and Emergency relief (N = 8) were not included in polynomial and simple linear regression analyses because the number of reported cases in the past decade was too few. Eighteen stepwise forward binary logistic regression models were constructed to understand how dogs’ ages correlated with each complaint code. To determine the effect of age on complaint codes, age was entered (in dichotomous data form) into a binary logistic regression model as a fixed factor, using a logit function, with an alpha value to enter of 0.15. Complaint codes were entered into the model as outcomes. Separate models were constructed for each complaint code with the same input variable.
This study identified prevalence, trends, and the age of dogs as a risks factor for different types of complaints. Breed of the dog and socioeconomic status of the complainant will be the subject of future papers. Some neglect-related complaints, such as offering insufficient food and water, providing poor living conditions, and leaving a dog unattended in a heated vehicle apparently became more prevalent in recent years, probably indicating greater public awareness rather than an increase in neglectful behaviour. However, some serious complaints have been consistently reported over the past decade, including those involving animal abuse or severe injuries, and consequently should be closely monitored. The age of dogs was correlated with complaints about abandonment, neglect-related mistreatment, cruelty, and inappropriate surgery. Adult dogs were more likely to be reported as receiving inadequate exercising and shelter, having been abandoned, and having been left unattended in a hot vehicle; puppies were more likely to be reported as having poor living and health conditions, having undergone inappropriate surgery, and having suffered abuse. Recognising which dogs are at most risk of cruelty will inform strategies to address this serious welfare problem. Furthermore, the local or state government can direct specific attention to the most common and growing types of neglect and cruelty.