Covid-19, Pets & Strata in 2021
It’s a brave new world for pets [and others] in strata buildings …
As we start learning to live with the longer-term impacts of Covid-19 in strata buildings, one of those is the acceleration of existing trends towards increased popularity, prevalence, and acceptance of pets in apartments and townhouses. So, what are the drivers and issues, and how can stakeholders best deal with a new pet-filled strata world …
[10.25 minutes estimated reading time, 2018 words]
COIVD-19 has impacted everything in our world in both expected and unexpected ways including in strata title buildings and for strata owners and residents. And, many of the changes are permanent so that things will not return to the way they were before.
In some cases, they’ve accelerated existing trends [like electronic strata meetings] and in others, they created a whole new way of doing things [like masking in common areas].
In this article, I’m focusing on the shifts that were, have and are occurring in relation to pets in strata apartments and buildings.
Existing and future strata pet law trends
I’ve written before about the shifting legal environment affecting pet controls in strata buildings with my analysis of the NSW Court of Appeal’s 2020 decision in Cooper’s Case [see ‘The Dogs of Strata War or The By-Law is Dead: Long Live the By-Law’ and the changes to NSW strata laws due to start later in 2021 in my article ‘A Few Strata Law Quickies in NSW’.
And, there are very similar shifts happening in strata laws regarding pets in other parts of Australia.
These legislative changes started well before Covid-19 in response to changing social attitudes generally towards pets in strata and other buildings in Australian society, the rejection of blanket bans and one size fits all solutions to strata title challenges and the recognition that majority decisions are not always right or fair.
That was a slow and gradual process of change [taking 10-20 years] until 2020.
I predict we will see those changes continue more rapidly from here to end up with a standard position for pets in strata buildings that is the opposite of the past. Namely, that strata owners and residents can have a pet provided its existence is notified to the strata building and they take appropriate care of the pet so that it does not damage things or bother people and where strata buildings can get the pet removed if and when there are unresolved problems.
That’s the default position for pets now in Victorian strata and in some states for renters, but the reverse of the current default positions for pets and pet owners in all other states.
More pets are on the move into strata apartments
A significant factor that is and will drive this accelerated change is the way people have turned to pets to deal with some of the impacts Covid-19 has had on them.
So, even though I’m sure there were already plenty of ‘secret’, undisclosed and unapproved pets living in strata buildings, it’s clear that there are now more and that there will be even more pets living in strata buildings in the future.
Here are just a few Australian news reports over the last 15 month that demonstrates the changes during the early phase of Covid-19:
In April 2020, ABC News reported on pet demand increases in ‘Coronavirus restrictions see demand for pets surge as shelters issue warning to prospective owners’
In September 2020, ABC News reported increase puppy prices in ‘Pandemic puppies selling for exorbitant prices as demand soars in lockdown-hit Victoria’
In May, 2021 the ABC News reported about a pet adoption boom in ‘Victoria's pet adoption boom hits a decade high at one Melbourne shelter, despite end to lockdown’
So, it is pretty clear what’s been happening and that the current lockdowns spreading across the country will continue those trends.
It’s common sense to me, but why do the experts and smart people say these things are happening?
A recent research paper published in the Humanities and Social Sciences Communications by Liat Morgan, Alexandra Protopopova, Rune Isak Dupont Birkler, Beata Itin-Shwartz, Gila Abells Sutton, Alexandra Gamliel, Boris Yakobson & Tal Raz called ‘Human–dog relationships during the COVID-19 pandemic: booming dog adoption during social isolation’ describes the phenomena we’ve experienced as follows:
The recent COVID-19 pandemic led to uncertainty and severe health and economic concerns.
Previous studies indicated that owning a companion animal, such as a dog or a cat, has benefits for good mental health. Interactions with animals may help with depression and anxiety, particularly under stress-prone conditions. Human–animal interactions may even improve peer-to-peer social relationships, as well as enhance feelings of respect, trust, and empathy between people.
Accordingly, we hypothesized that the COVID-19 pandemic, and the related social isolation, might lead to dramatic changes in human–dog bidirectional relationships.
Overall, according to our analysis, as the social isolation became more stringent during the pandemic, the interest in dog adoption and the adoption rate increased significantly, while abandonment did not change.
Moreover, there was a clear association between an individual’s impaired quality of life and their perceptions of a parallel deterioration in the quality of life of their dogs and reports of new behavioural problems.
As humans and dogs are both social animals, these findings suggest potential benefits of the human–dog relationships during the COVID-19 pandemic, in accordance with the One Welfare approach that implies that there is a bidirectional connection between the welfare and health of humans and non-human animals.
As our climate continues to change, more disasters including pandemics will likely occur, highlighting the importance of research into crisis-driven changes in human–animal relationships.
So, it seems that strata stakeholders need to get ready for plenty more pets in strata buildings.
Issues & solutions for pets in strata
Here are my thoughts about the issues that pets in strata buildings and more open legal controls create and the kinds of solutions that are required.
Strata buildings need to know that a pet is in the building, where and who is responsible for it.
Today, it’s very likely that there are a lot more dogs, cats, birds, fish and the rest of Noah’s ark living in strata apartments. According to the RSCPA there are more than 29 million pets in Australia and approximately 61% of households have a pet. That’s 1 pet for every living Australian.
Even if you discount that by half for strata buildings because of the renter overlay, that’s 1.1 million pets for 2.2 million strata residents in 340,000 strata buildings.
So, mechanisms are needed to make it easier and safer for strata owners and residents to disclose their pets to strata buildings.
Reasonable, appropriate and building specific controls need to be imposed on pets and pet owners/carers by strata buildings.
We know from Cooper’s case that blanket bans and other rules are not valid. And, it makes sense that, like people, pets will not always follow rules even though they’re not bad pets.
So, both generic and special conditions need to be imposed. That includes basic things like pet identification, registration, health, etc and behaviour matters.
And, more importantly, those conditions and expectations need to be communicated clearly to everyone and monitored effectively and efficiently [see more on this below].
3. Behaviour [pets and pet owners]
Of course, one of the key issues that have driven the anti-pet sentiment in strata buildings is pet behaviour [or is that pet owner behaviour?].
Clearly, pets that make noise, smells or worse, roam common areas, or menace other people and pets are a problem and those behaviours need managing by rules, complaint management, education [for the pet owners and other residents], and more.
At the same time, other strata owners [whether pet owners or not themselves] may need to compromise on their expectations about pet behaviour too.
So, rules are needed to guide behaviour issues that balance those needs and expectations. That means looser and softer rules which are harder to strictly apply and, therefore, necessitate the kind of dialogues that develop better relationships in strata buildings.
Who knows, but maybe, forced interactions over pet issues forced on strata stakeholders by Covid-19 might improve interactions on all strata issues ???
If, and when, a pet causes damage to common or private property that needs to be fixed and/or compensated.
So, pet owners must be liable and quick ways to identify, apportion, and fix the damage must be in place. They can include pet owner actions, strata building actions, third party actions and more.
Plus, security for the costs and losses should exist [either generally in the strata building or specifically for the pet].
But, these things are way easier to solve than everyone makes out.
5. Complaint management
Like most behavioural issues in strata buildings [parking, noise, smoking, etc], we often see a serious disconnect between the complaint about the behaviour and the outcome of the complaint that usually leaves the complainer and the offender unhappy and sometimes the problem unresolved.
That’s a consequence of poor systems and processes for capturing the complaint and the details, accurately identifying the culprit, defining the problem and issues, communicating the problem, mediating a solution and monitoring compliance.
As I’ve written before a number of times, a by-law or rule doesn’t guarantee compliance, enforce itself or fix problems without a lot more. So, a lot of improvements are needed generally in strata title building operations and management to achieve these things.
In the case of pets [like children], it’s likely to be even more challenging because of the personal and emotional impacts.
So, when there are problems with pets in strata buildings those processes need to be softer or more ‘humane’ than we typically see for by-law enforcement in strata buildings since the pet and their owner will be more emotionally invested in the animal, the issues and the outcomes, and, because it’s all more personal.
Some pets shouldn’t be in strata buildings, some owners shouldn’t have pets in strata buildings and sometimes, good pets and good pet owners go bad because of changes in their lives and circumstances.
When that happens, approved pets may need to leave the strata building.
So, fair and graduated processes are needed to manage that exit for legal compliance reasons [since strata buildings may need to prove that ending approvals and removing pets is appropriate if challenged] and for interpersonal reasons.
They may involve requests for the pet and pet owner to undertake training, engage pet sitters/walkers, and more. It might also require pet rehousing options being provided to ease things.
I know that sounds like it’s outside normal strata abuilding duties, but it may be necessary if strata buildings don’t want to end up with un-removable pets that behave badly.
7. Education and communication
I’ve left this strata challenge to last as it may be the hardest.
There will always be better outcomes for all strata stakeholders if things are communicated better and they are more educated on the issues. Pets in strata buildings are no different.
Plus, there’s a lot of useful education for existing and potential pet owners in strata buildings and everyone else about the rules, reasonable expectations, more or less suitable pets and breeds, things that improve or worsen things, and solutions to the inevitable problems. And most of it is already available.
For instance, RSPCA ACT has published this guide about pets in strata buildings called ‘Should I share my apartment with a dog’ that’s a really great resource. There are plenty more and it would not be hard to create even more.
Here’s how I see things in relation to pets in strata buildings.
There are already plenty of pets in strata buildings; some approved, some unapproved and others in hiding.
There’ll be plenty more pets in strata buildings in the future due to Covid-19 and social isolation issues.
Strata laws will favour pets and pet owners more and more as time goes by.
The pets in strata buildings need to be identified and managed.
Pet management in strata buildings need to be more sensitive to human or humane issues.
Pet caused damage can be covered more easily than people think.
Hard issues over pets [like removal] need better solutions than simplistic by-law or rule breach processes.
Everyone needs better information and education about pet ownership issues.
Since there’s going to be a pet filled strata future, why not start solving the issues now.
Maybe, doing so might make strata a more desirable place for people to live in.
July 21, 2021