Cattle in the stable in Germany

The Animal Health Law and FOUR PAWS’ Work 

On the 21st of April 2021, the Animal Health Law entered into force and will hopefully contribute to a more animal-friendly European Union


The Animal Health Law (AHL) is a piece of EU legislation that was adopted in 2016 and enters into force in April of 2021. It concerns itself with all matters regarding transmissible animal diseases and affects companion animals, farm animals and some wild animal matters. This means, that the law affects many of the areas that FOUR PAWS works in and brings many improvements, but also some drawbacks. 

Farm Animals and the Animal Health Law

How does the AHL simplify EU legislation? 

The AHL offers one single, clear framework, replacing multiple regulations, and focuses on preventive measures and disease surveillance. It also recognises the corelation between animal health, animal welfare and human health. This focus, and the fact that it is all packed into one law, rather than multiple regulations is an important step in the right direction and towards the implementation of a One Welfare approach. 

How will the AHL help to prevent disease outbreaks? 

The earlier disease outbreaks are discovered, the easier they can be contained. The AHL clarifies the competencies of owners, veterinarians and authorities, which should accelerate proceedings in theory, in practice however, a lack of personal might pose a challenge. To comply with the law, animal owners themselves will have to acquire extensive knowledge in animal welfare and animal health. The AHL also prescribes regular health checks from veterinarians to take further steps towards disease prevention and early discovery of outbreaks. FOUR PAWS sees it as a very positive development towards disease prevention.

A further improvement is, that the AHL states that microorganisms that develop antimicrobial resistance should be treated like transmissible diseases and that there is a relation between animal health and antimicrobial resistance. This follows the European One Health Action Plan against antimicrobial resistance and focuses on preventing it from happening. Antimicrobial resistance, mostly bacteria that become resistant to antibiotics, is not only a matter of animal health and animal welfare but can also pose a big threat to public health. 

What are the AHL’s shortcomings? 

However, despite the improvements that the AHL brings, there are still certain gaps in the legislation that need to be addressed. While it is mentioned that animal health and welfare are linked, animal welfare criteria are not included in the law itself. The legislations that do address those issues  are notorious for problems with implementations and enforcement. The AHL is also not very specific on the matter of animal husbandry. It does state, that good husbandry results in healthy and immune competent animals, but does not define what constitutes good husbandry and again, current EU legislation on this matter is not strict enough. 

Overall however, the AHL is a step in the right direction for farm animal health and welfare and will hopefully contribute positively to FOUR PAWS’ work in this field. 

Wild Animals and the Animal Health Law

How will the AHL affect wild animals?

The Animal Health Law also concerns animals bred for their fur, such as mink and raccoon dogs. 

Why are disease outbreaks in fur farms a risk to public health?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of fur farms in 10 EU countries have been infected with SARS-CoV-2. The virus has not only spread rapidly amongst the animals and between farms but also mutated and was passed back to humans. The evolution of new virus variants in mink poses the risk, possibly of decreasing vaccine efficacy.  

As a reaction, the Commission issued an implementing decision which applies until 20 April 2021 and requires Member States to inform the Commission of any outbreaks in mink or raccoon dog farms and the control measures taken. However, the uncontrolled spread of the virus on several mink farms despite the implementation of strict biosafety measures – for example in Denmark and the Netherlands - has clearly shown that this is far from enough. 

How will the AHL help prevent disease outbreaks in fur farms? 

The Animal Health Law requires regular veterinary visits and fur farms will have to notify authorities of any suspicion of disease outbreaks, even after the COVID-19 pandemic. It also offers Member States and the European Commission greater opportunities to take appropriate action in the event of emerging diseases.  

Is the AHL sufficient in addressing this issue? 

In view of the aforementioned risks to human and animal health, FOUR PAWS considers that the immediate suspension of mink farming throughout the EU would be an appropriate reaction. The AHL requirements will hopefully contribute to both, better animal health and a lower threat to public health. However, as the current pandemic has shown, even reinforced biosecurity does not guarantee disease prevention, and in the interest of animal welfare and public health, FOUR PAWS continues to call for a final end on all fur farming in the EU. 

Companion Animals and the Animal Health Law

What issues does the AHL address?

The AHL will hopefully be a first step towards more transparency and traceability in the European pet trade, particularly the booming puppy trade. A rising demand for puppies across Europe has led to an increase in puppy trade activities in the last decade. The internet facilitates this trade and enables an anonymous, fast and cross-border means for illegal puppy trade to advertise.  

How does the AHL provide traceability and transparency? 

The AHL will require sellers, breeders, transporters and assembly centres for dogs and cats to register with their national governments. This presents an opportunity to identify whether someone in the business of selling puppies is legally operating, and should problems arise post-sale – such as a disease outbreak – the origins of the dog can be identified.

What are the shortcomings of the AHL? 

While this is a major step in the right direction, the AHL still fails to define who is considered a breeder, leaving this up to the countries to regulate. While some Member States consider anyone who owns a female dog and produces even a single litter of puppies a breeder, others do not consider someone to be a breeder until they produce several litters a year or earn a certain amount of money from their breeding activities. A Europe-wide definition of who needs to register as a breeder is needed to allow the AHL to fulfil its full potential in combatting the illegal puppy trade. FOUR PAWS is calling on governments to register breeders and sellers from the very first animal they have bred/sold/given away, onwards.

Crucially, for the AHL to provide significantly more traceability, an EU-wide requirement for identification and registration (I&R) of all companion animals is needed. Many of the available I&R (pet microchip) data bases already share information and belong to larger networks such as 'Europetnet'. This, combined with the AHL’s breeder/seller registration requirement, would allow cross-border transparency and make it easier to trace a dog or cat’s place of origin at a later point in time. But I&R laws must be harmonised and mandated across the entire EU for this to be fully effective. 

How would the definition of breeders and registration of pets help combat the puppy trade? 

A definition of who falls under the breeder registration and the harmonised implementation of pet registration across all EU Member States would provide an excellent base to later implement the FOUR PAWS Model Solution. If a dog is ever advertised online, a confirmation code would be sent to the phone number provided at the dog's registration, before the ad can be posted live. This would take the anonymity out of the online pet trade. If a seller is additionally registered as a breeder, they could also be verified through such checks, before an ad goes live.

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Overall, the AHL as it is now is a step in the right direction. It shows, that the EU is interested in a preventative disease approach when it comes to farm animals and farmed wild animals, such as mink. It requires more frequent vet treatments and visits and will hopefully lead to an improvement in animal health and help protect European citizens from zoonotic diseases in the future through quicker discovery of disease outbreaks. The AHL is also a first step towards more traceability in the online pet trade and will help FOUR PAWS’ fight against illegal puppy trading. However, many clarifications are needed and legislation gaps need to be filled in order for the AHL to become an effective tool in promoting animal health and welfare and FOUR PAWS will continue to fight for stricter legislation. 

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