"During our country's presidency of the Council, we are underlining the important role of companion animals in civil society," said Onkelinx, speaking at the launch of a website on dog welfare in Brussels.
"Dog and cat overpopulation creates a lot of suffering for unwanted animals," she added, explaining that "sharing information and experience is the basis for every development in animal welfare, and here, for a Europe-wide solution and strategy to create an appropriate and responsible attitude by us humans towards animals".
Onkelinx pointed to the Treaty of Lisbon, Article 13 of which reads "the [European] Union and the member states shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals," as a possible basis for further EU action in this area.
Commission mulls legislation
Yesterday's conference came as the European Commission is working to draw up its second Animal Welfare Action Plan (2011-2015).
Denis Simonin, an animal welfare official in the Commission's health and consumer protection directorate, yesterday confirmed statements made earlier this year by EU Health Commissioner John Dalli that the EU executive was considering tabling specific legislation on the welfare of companion animals in its upcoming review.
"The health and welfare of dogs and cats is crucial to human welfare," Simonin said. "As there are no EU rules governing the protection of companion animals, the Commission is considering developing specific actions […] in the framework of its forthcoming animal welfare strategy," he added.
The CAROdog.eu website – which was initially created by animal welfare organisation Four Paws and the Istituto G. Caporale – is described as "a management database containing the most recent scientific and practical information regarding companion animals, including stray animals, in Europe".
The initial aim of the site, the editorial board of which the European Commission and the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe are also members, is "to provide, generate and disseminate reliable knowledge about dog health and welfare in Europe, focusing on strategies against canine overpopulation".
It offers a comprehensive library of literature and scientific research on dog welfare, as well as a glossary of terms.
Website 'source of inspiration'
"I hope the website will help EU member states to deal with animal welfare issues until harmonised EU rules on animal welfare are brought out. Let it be a source of inspiration for us," said Onkelinx at the website's launch yesterday.
Echoing the minister, Paolo Dalla Villa, head of the animal welfare department at the Istituto G. Caporale, said "the website offers a unique way to use new technology to share knowledge," expressing hope that it would help develop EU policies and prove useful for governments across Europe and beyond.
CAROdog.eu seeks to offer scientific, legal and practical tools for political strategies and concrete programmes "to build up a Europe-wide culture of responsible dog ownership," reads a statement on the site.
"Only a multidisciplinary, systemic approach can strengthen the European culture of responsible ownership of animals," argues Four Paws.
Other participants in yesterday's event stressed the importance of acting early to prevent problems from manifesting themselves.
"Rules and regulations will never do the job alone. We need to join forces and reach out to animal owners to get their commitment, not just stay on out little islands," said Jan Vaarten, executive director of the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe (FEV).
"This initiative goes in that direction," he added.
Asked why the website was only available in English, Marlene Wartenberg, director of Four Paws' European policy office, said "our budget is limited, so we started with translating the flyers," expressing hope that volunteers would step in to translate the website now it has gone live.
Next month, the European Commission will host the first international conference on animal welfare education (1-2 October).
The event will be followed by another Brussels conference, organised by Four Paws, on responsible dog ownership in Europe (4-5 October).