Animal welfare advocates, veterinarians differ on proposed board for pets

As pet ownership has skyrocketed during the COVID pandemic, some animal welfare organizations say it’s time for a new way to keep pets healthier and safer. But the state’s largest veterinarian group contends a new companion animal board would only muddle the efforts to protect dogs, cats and other pets in the state.

“We know that the [Minnesota] Board of Animal Health really does a good job with what they do,” said state Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point.

At a Tuesday press conference, complete with squeaking puppies, Ruud continued, “But we think these are not livestock. other [the Board of Animal Health’s] focus is livestock, and their mission is keeping the food source in the state of Minnesota healthy.”

Ruud is sponsoring a bill that would create an additional animal welfare government arm aimed at curbing cruelty to animals and neglect, beyond just keeping them from getting sick or spreading disease.

The 13-member board appointed by the governor would include veterinarians as well as representatives of breeders, rescue organizations and animal shelters.

Advocates say the existing focus on clinical animal health doesn’t address issues like safe transport of adoptable pets from out of state, among other animal welfare concerns.

Janelle Dixon, CEO of the Animal Humane Society based in Golden Valley, sees communities unable to cope with too many strays and feral cats.

“There are no resources at the state level to help understand the issue and how to best address it,” Dixon said. “Some cities are considering feeding bans. Some are considering broad-scale euthanasia for stray cats. Others would like to find ways to trap and sterilize those animals.”

Puppies and kittens brought together DFL state Rep. Mike Freiberg, of Golden Valley, and GOP state Sen. Carrie Ruud, of Breezy Point, to call for a new state board to address companion animal welfare, focusing on pets, on Tuesday. They contend a 13-member Companion Animal Board would complement Minnesota’s existing Board of Animal Health, although the state’s veterinarian trade group fear pet regulations could be expanded to interfere with the livestock industry.

Tim Nelson | MPR News

Supporters say a companion animal board could serve as a resource for that and for everything from developing respite care for pets of people with serious illness, to help finding spay and neuter services.

Golden Valley DFL Rep. Mike Freiberg, who is carrying the bill in the house, said the sheer size of the pet population and changing attitudes toward animals call for a different stance by state government.

“There’s no place in the state to address companion animal issues and the unique bond between humans and animals,” Freiberg said.

But some veterinarians are opposed to a new board.

The Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association said veterinary expertise, as represented by the longstanding Board of Animal Health, is the foundation for animal welfare.

“In welfare situations, we can always do better. But this really complicates and muddies the water,” said Eric Ruhland, a veterinarian with a practice in St. Paul.

Ruhland said dogs brought into Minnesota for adoption, a common practice, can pose serious risk of spreading diseases. He adds that simply monitoring their transportation or distribution isn’t enough to keep dogs healthy and safe.

Ruhland fears that even though the bill specifically excludes farm animals, it’s possible one neighbor’s regard for a backyard chicken flock may mean the family across the alley is reported for butchering and eating their own birds.

Veterinary Medical Association members worry the companion animal board could eventually contend with agricultural regulations, for oversight of animals like cows and pigs.

“We have heard a lot from our large animal veterinarians, the concern there for their producers and their profession,” said association executive director Kelly Andrews.

So far, the bill has won limited support: it passed through the House State Government committee, but doesn’t have a Republican author. The Senate version has DFL, GOP and independent support, but no hearing yet.

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