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The impact of ‘star pets’ on animal welfare

Casey Cooper-Fiske looks at whether pets with famous owners and iconic pets of film and TV such as the Dulux dog make good ambassadors for their fellow pets or whether you should never work with animals – as the saying goes

As wedding bells chimed at Windsor Castle, over two billion people watched on from their television sets as Meghan Markle and Prince Harry got married. The wedding guestlist was a who’s who of celebrities with David Beckham, George Clooney and Oprah Winfrey all invited. One of the guests stole the show however, Markle’s rescued pet Beagle, Guy was spotted riding in style in the Queen’s Land Rover alongside her majesty herself. The resulting week saw what became known as ‘Beaglemania’ as The Kennel Club saw a 50 percent rise in searches for Beagles. The Kennel Club also saw a dramatic 156 percent rise in specific searches for rescued beagles. Guy is not the first royal dog that has raised the desire for the breed, in 2016 Kate Middleton’s Cocker Spaniel Lupo’s role in the royal wedding caused searches for Cocker Spaniels to rise by 50 percent. Despite the increase in people wanting to home homeless animals, Kennel Club secretary Caroline Kisko was reluctant to embrace ‘Beaglemania’ urging wannabie dog owners to “look beyond the obvious choices enjoying the media spotlight, and give a dog a home for life, by choosing the right one for their lifestyle” with rehoming coordinator Clare Clark adding “the media can have a huge impact on impulse buys and later abandonment”. Similarly Lupo’s also caused trouble with a spike in Cocker Spaniel thefts after a pet detective told media they were dealing with 13 separate cases of theft involving black Cocker Spaniels in the week following William and Kate’s wedding.

It’s not only pets with famous owners having an effect on their fellow animals, pet film and TV stars also cause euphoria amongst those on the lookout for a pet. The Dulux dog became one of the first pet TV stars in 1961 when it was introduced as the paint companies brand ambassador. Whilst the first Dulux dog Dash lived a reasonably normal life, his successor Digby had his own chauffeur driven limousine, had three stunt doubles and starred in the 1973 film Digby, The Biggest Dog In The World. The Dulux dog has led many pet owners to the Old English Sheepdog breed, and now modern pet film stars are following in his footsteps.

One pug is about to become a star in Disney’s latest film Patrick, causing vets, pet industry professionals and filmmakers to work together to ensure Patrick makes a positive impact in the lives of many ordinary pets. Experts initially predicted that the film would have a negative impact with John Fishwick, president of the British Veterinary Association (BVA), saying that his organisation alongside the Brachycephalic Working Group (BWG) is “concerned that this film’ release will lead to a surge in demand for pugs”. From the outside, a surge in demand for a breed looks like a positive consequence of the new film, however Fishwick explains “many people are still unaware that their cute looks mask serious and often life limiting health problems”. Following meetings with Disney to raise their concerns and provide advice on how to manage the anticipated interest in Pugs, Fishwick now says that the groups are now “extremely pleased with Disney’s positive engagement”. Disney has agreed to use Patrick as a “vehicle to highlight to the public the health issues of pugs and why anyone considering adding one to the family should think twice”. In order to raise awareness of the issues that Pugs face Disney is to include a welfare message in the film’s credits, distribute a leaflet to journalists and filmgoers explaining that Pug ownership should not be taken lightly and to have no merchandise or marketing material featuring Pugs dressed in human clothing. Fishwick hopes that the work of the two groups alongside Disney will set a “positive precedent for the industry”.

A spokesperson for the world’s oldest animal welfare charity Dogs Trust was however keen to point out that “when the trend was particularly high for small dogs” they “saw a peak in those types handed in to us”. The spokesperson said that new dog owners must not “overlook our commitment to them, on both a financial and emotional level” adding that it is important that people carry out research before purchasing, as “each dog will have their own requirements”. One of the biggest impacts a star dog has had on hand-in rates for Dogs Trust is the Huskies of Game of Thrones and Twilight, their spokesperson explained that “we did see a rise in the number of those types handed in to us”.

While opinion is divided on whether superstar pets help their colleagues, the stars themselves often have a rags to riches story. Davinia Hamilton-Maddox, who runs pet modelling agency Animal Direction explained: “lots of rescue dogs go on to become very well trained and possess an abundance of skills, it is a very nice feeling and a very nice story when we can place a rescue dog in a TV commercial”. Hamilton-Maddox said that the rescue side of the world of dog showbiz “doesn’t always get talked about” but goes on to say “it’s nice for the owner of that rescue and makes them feel good about what they’ve done”. Animal Direction aims to feature as many rescue dogs as they can, “we prefer it” says Hamilton-Maddox. One of the agencies rescue dogs recently made history in the first TV advert for Webbox’s Pets Choice, the dog’s performance involved chasing his own tail. The dogs can certainly cause mischief on the set, during the filming for the Pets Choice advert, Hamilton-Maddox knocked a jumbo bag of sausages on the floor leading the dogs to pounce and devour the lot. Hamilton-Maddox says the sausage incident led to the crew facing the dilemma of “three very excited dogs who all wanted more sausages, despite the fact that we had no more treats to bribe them with”. The company doesn’t feature solely dogs on its books, Hamilton-Maddox says “rabbits, rodents and reptiles, as well as horses and exotic birds such as parrots and cockatoos” star in many commercials they are contacted for. Hamilton-Maddox explains the only animals she wouldn’t consider are “farm animals and insects”, so perhaps we shouldn’t rule out a return to monkeys moving pianos.

Ultimately it seems that celebrity pets can and do, do a lot to help ordinary pets. The work carried out between Disney, the BVA and the BWG is a blueprint for how the pet industry can work closely with celebrities and the world of film and TV to put the right message across benefiting everyone. The work of Animal Direction in placing rescue pets in major commercials has to be good for encouraging more people to take them in.

I asked a Dogs Trust spokesperson if those it claims make impulse buys would have bought a dog anyway and were only swayed on which breed to go for upon seeing the star pet. Dogs Trust said: “We often see the popularity of certain breeds of dog growing after they are featured in films or seen in the arms of a celebrity. Dog ownership is incredibly rewarding, but it is important to do the right research before committing to getting a particular breed.

“Knowing about breed traits, the type of lifestyle they need, and any potential health conditions you may need to care for are all vital to think through before taking a four-legged friend home. Seeing a celebrity with a dog may highlight a certain breed to a potential owner, but the reality of ‘a dog is for life’ should not be forgotten. Whether going to a breeder or a rescue centre, we would urge any potential owner to seek advice on the best dog for them and their lifestyle, ensuring your new canine companion fits perfectly into your family.”

Dogs Trust’s comments indicate that if more films, TV series and celebrities can put out the right message the power of star dogs may be less of a controversial issue in future. For the time being however, it seems that some breeds are still being let down by their famous friends.

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