Since March 2020, Buckinghamshire and Surrey Trading Standards have reported a 566% increase in the number of animal welfare consumer reports relating to puppy farms, puppy importing, puppy health and fake adverts selling puppies that do not exist.
With many of us spending prolonged periods of time at home and seeking companionship or a wellbeing boost from a four-legged friend, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted an increase in demand for puppies. This popularity has triggered a surge in organised crime associated with illegal puppy sales and trading activity, with reports of puppies not being appropriately health checked, microchipped or vaccinated, issued with fake documentation and facing heart-breaking health repercussions from deadly diseases such as parvo or distemper.
Clare Rusbridge, Professor in Veterinary Neurology at the University of Surrey and trustee of the Dog Breeding Reform Group, explains: “Criminals are deliberately concealing the mental and physical condition of the puppy they are selling, as well as where the puppy is coming from. Due to poor breeding or insufficient vaccinations, puppy-farmed dogs often have inherited diseases and suffer with life limiting health issues, with many dying prematurely.
“Buyers can’t secure medical insurance for a puppy that is already sick and if they can’t afford the medical treatment, we see puppies surrendered to a dog rescue or early euthanasia. Dogs bred unethically are frequently separated from their mother too soon and not socialised in a home environment, so they can also prove difficult to house-train and are likely to display behavioural issues such as anxiety or aggression around strangers or other dogs.”
So how can consumers be confident that they are buying a healthy, vaccinated puppy from a respectable breeder?
Professor Rusbridge says: “The best advice is to buy a puppy using the RSPCA and Animal Welfare Fund’s puppy contract, so that you are equipped to ask the right questions to assess whether a breeder is responsible. Any legitimate breeder should not only be willing to complete a contract – but they should be delighted that their puppy is going to a diligent owner.”
While reports of welfare concerns have steadily increased, so have the number of consumers who are being scammed by fraudsters promoting fake puppy adverts online.
Jack Whittaker, PhD Candidate in Sociology of Cybercrime at the University of Surrey and owner of the US website petscams.com, explains: “Pet scammers will steal cute photos and videos of puppies from the internet and share them with you, so that you start to form an attachment to the puppy. They will often prefer to communicate via text or email, and will want you to pay a deposit to secure ‘your puppy’, and then continue to request additional funds to cover insurance, vaccinations or delivery.
“Usually, pet scammers would only target buyers in large countries such as the US, Australia and Canada where buyers don’t normally visit their pet before purchase. However, the issue is becoming more prevalent in the UK due to prospective buyers not being able to travel to see their desired pet in person during the pandemic.”
Jamie Yates, Senior Trading Standards Officer specialising in animal health, said: “Before the pandemic, we received one or two reports a month from Surrey and Buckinghamshire residents citing welfare and fraud concerns relating to puppies. That figure has steadily risen throughout the last 12 months, with 20 incidents being reported in February 2021 – but what’s even more concerning is that we anticipate these figures are not representative of the enormity of the problem.
“Victims are often upset, embarrassed or feel intimidated when they realise they have been involved in a scam or purchased a puppy that has been breed irresponsibility or illegally, and don’t always feel they can come forward to report such a crime. The more information we can gather about negligent puppy breeders, the better equipped we are to work with our colleagues in District and Borough Licensing Authority and the Police to crack down on organised puppy crime.
“Please report welfare concerns or scams concerning a breeder or seller to Citizens Advice on 0808 223 1133 or Buckinghamshire & Surrey Trading Standards on 0300 123 2329. Anyone who becomes aware of fake adverts or an online pet scam should also contact Trading Standards.”