By DAVID DERBYSHIRE
People could be prosecuted for being cruel to pet spiders, octopuses and restaurant lobsters under animal welfare plans being considered by the Government.
The Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is investigating whether invertebrates - the family of animals that includes insects, spiders and molluscs - should get the same protection under the law enjoyed by dogs, cats and horses if they are kept in captivity.
Ministers are under pressure from animal campaigners, who argue that some invertebrates are capable of feeling pain.
The move follows the introduction of the Animal Welfare Act in April, which made people legally liable for the basic welfare of animalsin their care and introduced new fines of up to £20,000.
Despite claims that some higher invertebrates, such as octopuses, can feel pain, the law covers only creatures with a backbone such as mammals, reptiles, birds and fish.
While it is illegal to mistreat a goldfish, there is nothing to stop people mistreating pet tarantulas or lobsters kept in restaurant aquariums.
Although proposals to widen the range of animals protected by law appeared to have been thrown out last year when the Act was drawn up, Defra has been consulting with scientists, animal rights campaigners and lawyers since November over how animal welfare could be improved in the future.
The results of the consultation were published this week. The report says: 'The proposal to include only vertebrate animals in the scope of the strategy was met with a mixed reception.'
It said 'a significant minority' of those consulted believed some of the more sophisticated invertebrates should be included in animal welfare laws.
Octopuses, squid, cuttlefish, lobsters, crayfish, prawns, shrimps and crabs were among the animals that generated concern.
Octopuses - which can be taught to make their way through mazes and open screw-top jars - are already protected under animal experiment laws, but have no such protection outside the laboratory.
Defra officials will draw up their final Animal Welfare Delivery Strategy over the summer based on the findings.
Any extension of the laws could mean restaurant owners being prosecuted for mistreating lobsters or crabs on their menu.
While they would still be able to boil the crustaceans alive to kill
them, they would have to make sure they are kept in clean, warm uncrowded tanks up to that point.
Similarly, while little boys will not be punished for pulling the legs off a back-garden spider, people with pet tarantulas will have to ensure they are kept warm and well-fed.
The RSPCA called on the Government to extend the welfare laws to include all sentient animals.
'We are firmly of the view that cephalopods - octopus, squid and cuttlefish - which are invertebrates, are capable of feeling pain, as there is widespread scientific consensus on this point,' a spokesman said.
'The RSPCA works on the principle that if an animal is capable of suffering it should receive protection.'
A spokesman for Defra said invertebrates would not get protection in law unless the Animal Welfare Act was changed.
'There are no plans to change the Act in relation to invertebrates,' a spokesman said.
'The Government did not include these because there was not sufficient evidence that cephalopods - squid and octopus - or crustaceans - prawns and lobsters - feel pain or suffering.'
Under the Animal Welfare Act, owners of non-farm animals must ensure they have a proper diet, are housed properly, have the ability to express normal behaviour, and are protected from pain, injury and disease.