Fresh legislation introduced aims to get lost pets home much sooner

Alyssa Fritzlaff

Lost pets will soon be able to be taken to local veterinarian clinics and animal shelters instead of local councils.

The Domestic Animals Amendment (Reuniting Pets and Other Matters) Bill 2021 was introduced in parliament on October 6, and aims to reunite Victorians with their missing dogs and cats sooner.

The new legislation will allow veterinarians or animal rescues to directly return pets to their owners, rather than having to take them to local council.

It has been created to ensure pets are handed to their correct owners, and will include a “robust verification process”.

“We will ensure that lost pets are reunited with their owners sooner and reduce the pressures placed on councils by allowing vet clinics and registered animal shelters to play a bigger part in the reunification process,” Agriculture Minister Mary-Anne Thomas said.

Currently, lost pets must be handed into the local council where the animal is found, or to vets or shelters who have an agreement under the Domestic Animals Act 1994.

The proposed reforms come after consultations with community and various stakeholders including veterinarians, councils, shelters, animal registry services, and animal rescue groups.

Dr Kerrie Piper of Trafalgar Veterinary Centre, said she supports the new legislation.

Dr Piper has been working in the region for almost 18 years, and said she has been working as a veterinarian long enough to remember a time before the current legislation was in place that required vets to return lost animals to the pound.

She explains that in some ways, the legislation helped stop repeat escapees – with the council having powers that vet clinics do not.

“When the (current) legislation came in and the shire became involved, they could keep track of how often they’re collecting these lost dogs, where they’re collecting them from, and then they can provide welfare checks on where the dogs are living,” Dr Piper said.

However, Dr Piper said that currently people are reluctant to bring animals they find to the vet, as they know they have to contact the pound.

“What we’ve found is, because of the legislation people don’t like the idea of the dog that they’ve found going into the pound… so we see a lot of lost animals posted up on social media and people tend to hang on to them… and that makes it even more difficult to reunite the dog or cat with their family,” she said.

“I’m hoping with the removal of the rules as they stand… people will again start bringing us animals so we can do the identity checks with the microchips and contact the owner directly.”

She encourages people “to make sure your animal’s microchips details are up to date and current – because the vets are going to be using microchip details to reunite the pets with their owners”.

In 2021, the state government reported an average of 665,000 dogs and 215,000 cats are registered with councils every year.

According to Latrobe City Council, an average of 4500 animal-related requests are received for the area each year, half relating to lost animals.

“Fortunately, most lost animals are reclaimed by their owners within 24-48 hours. Animals that are not registered or microchipped often take longer to be reclaimed by owners as Council’s Animal Management team are unable to easily identify their owners,” a council spokesperson told The Express.

“Latrobe City Council strongly supports any new measures that will help to reunite owners with their lost pets and reduce the anxiety and stress that comes with these situations.’’

The council partners with 20 animal rescue agencies, with whom they have formal contracts that meet current requirements.

Adoptions for animals that have not been claimed after an eight-day period are handled by council or their partners, as required by the Domestic Animals Act 1994 (DAA 1994).

“During this time a photograph and description of the animal are posted on the council website in an attempt to connect with their owners,” the council spokesperson said.

Owner of Traralgon’s Grounded Paws Animal Rescue (GPAR), Shellie Chessum said “there’s always animals in the pound, sadly”.

“Most of the time, the two reasons why they stay in the pound for come to us is that they’re not microchipped or their microchip is not up to date,” she said.

Ms Chessum’s rescue group receives animals from Latrobe City Council, and the Baw Baw Shire Council, with their primary focus being cats and kittens.

GPAR is very supportive of the new lost pets’ legislation, and hopes it will take pressure off local pounds.

“Especially around kitten season they (the pound) get absolutely slammed, but all year round they’re dealing with lost animals,” Ms Chessum said.

RSPCA chief executive officer Dr Liz Walker said “this is a great outcome for animal welfare and for pet owners in Victoria”.

“Enabling vet clinics and animal shelters to directly reunite animals with their owners without the need for an 84Y agreement with local councils would reduce the period of separation, avoid additional transferring of the animal and reduce the load on pounds,” she said.

From 2019-2020 the RSPCA reported receiving more than 112,000 animals nationally, 36.36 per cent of dogs were reclaimed, and only 5.47 per cent of cats.

“That is why Grounded Paws was created and why we work specifically with cats, is because they seem to be treated like disposable pets… you can get free kittens so easily, but there’s no such thing as a free puppy,” Ms Chessum said.

During kitten season, which extends throughout spring and autumn, GPAR has approximately 200 kittens come through the shelter.

Ms Chessum said there actions pet owners can take to ease the pressure on pounds and rescues.

“The most important thing – to take the pressure of the pound as well – is getting a microchip and making sure those details are up-to-date… it’s so easy, you literally just jump online and change it… that can literally mean life or death for your pet,” she said.

The proposed reforms also allow for circumstances in which lost pets should be handled by council, including declared dangerous animals and situations in which ownership cannot be verified.

“When a pet goes missing, it is stressful for the animal and its owners. This reform will make the reuniting of pets with their owners much easier and quicker, improving the welfare of all involved,” Ms Thomas said.

The changes are set to take effect by October 1, 2022.