Susan Hazel, BVSc, BSc (Vet), PhD, GradCert (Public Health), GradCert (Higher Education)
School of Animal & Veterinary Sciences, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, SA, Australia
The Popularity and Market for Pets
A large proportion of the population live with a dog or cat in many parts of the world. These pets can become part of the family, and people spend enormous amounts of money on care of them. In many parts of Asia, such as Singapore and China, there is an exponential increase in the keeping of dogs and cats as pets.
As most dogs and cats live considerably less time than their owners, there is a large market for breeding and selling pets. Prior to the introduction of the internet, people would find their dogs and cats mostly through friends or family who bred the puppies or kittens, or local breeders or shelters. If people wanted a rarer breed then they might use newspapers or magazines to find an animal in another area, and then drive to pick the puppy or kitten up.
Today in our online economy, people have moved to buy most goods and services online, and the online sale of dogs and cats has also increased dramatically. To find out more about pets traded online we collected Gumtree ads for dogs and cats at three time points during February 2016.1 To date we have analysed only dogs and cats identified as being relinquished by their owners, not the younger puppies and kittens being sold. Extrapolation gives an estimate of over 31,000 dogs and 24,000 cats relinquished on this single website per year around Australia. The numbers are likely to be much lower than the total numbers traded online as there are many more online websites on which pets are traded, including Facebook®.
While there is limited research into the numbers of dogs and cats sold online, research in the European union suggests there are up to 269,620 dogs and 67,847 cats advertised online on any given day.2 In fact it is estimated that online sales are now the most common method people use to find a pet.
Why Do Online Sales Matter?
The main implications for the exponential rise in online sales of dogs and cats can be grouped into five main areas as described below. None of the reasons listed are specific to the internet. However, the inherent risks related to the large numbers of animals that can be easily advertised to a wide market, and the potential anonymity of sales online, are substantially higher than through other methods of trade.
1. Risk to the welfare of the dogs and cats: Selling online has opened up the market for breeders only interested in making a profit. These breeders can now advertise to a much larger audience, and the anonymity of the internet makes it easier to hide the breeding premises if they are not complying with local standards of animal welfare (also see point #5 below). Puppies and kittens may be weaned too early, and breeders may lie about the true age of the animal.
2. Biosecurity and movement of diseases between regions: Diseases such as heartworm and leptospirosis only occur in some regions of Australia. There are other examples around the world where animals are taken from an area where a disease is endemic to another area in which the disease is less common or does not occur. Further research is needed to determine the implications to disease spread of this movement of dogs and cats.
3. Unknown or incorrect previous history of the animal: In well-managed animal shelters the dogs and cats have their behavior and health assessed prior to being made available for adoption. In contrast, animals traded online may have a blank history, even if there are problems with their behaviour and/or health. Responsible breeders and owners will inform new owners of a health or behavioural problem, but not all owners are responsible. They may also be conflicted, as telling people that the dog they want to rehome has a behavioural problem may mean that they cannot find a new home for it.
4. Long-distance transport: In many areas the air transport of young puppies or kittens is not regulated, for example there are no regulations in Australia. For a young animal, being taken abruptly from its mother and littermates and put into air freight with loud noises and unfamiliar people, must be a frightening experience. The timing is also likely to coincide with the socialisation period in which positive or negative experiences are magnified, which may set the animal up for anxiety-related problems throughout its life.
5. Scams and misleading ads: There are reports of scams on the internet, including people receiving sick or diseased animals, or a breed unlike the description on the online ad. Veterinarians are left supporting their clients through expensive veterinary treatments and sometimes even legal battles.
What Can Veterinarians Do?
In the UK the Pet Advertising Advisory Group (https://paag.org.uk/) promotes responsible advertising and minimum standards for the online sale of animals. Although voluntary, this at least provides some improvement in advertising and also education via pop-ups, for people looking for a pet online about what to look for to identify a ‘good’ ad. Similar groups have now arisen in other countries. As a profession we should be advocating for a group to be developed in Australia.
Individual veterinarians in practice can have a significant impact by educating the pet owners they see. Good advice includes always seeing both parents when buying a puppy or kitten, and meeting the animal and finding out its history before taking home a relinquished pet. This needs to be case specific. For example, mature people with dog training experience can take home a dog with some behavioural problems, but a young busy family with children under 5 years of age should be counselled not to. Veterinarians can also inform people of the risks of online trade, including scams where there is no pet, receiving a sick or diseased animal, or even receiving an animal that does not fit the breed advertised.
The internet has changed forever the way people find their new pets. There are reputable breeders and owners using the internet to advertise their pets. The main problem is for members of the public to be able to easily determine the good from the bad ads.
Veterinarians in clinical practice are at the frontline in seeing newly acquired pets, and should include in their history both the location the pet came from and how it was found. Veterinarians also have an important role in education. Protecting the welfare of pets will help to nurture the human-animal bond which is a great outcome for everyone.
1. Hazel SJ, Jenvey CJ and Tuke J. (2018) Online relinquishments of dogs and cats in Australia. Animals 8(2), 25. doi.org/10.3390/ani8020025
2. EU Dog & Cat Alliance®. Online Sale of Pets: What’s the Cost? Available online: https://www.dogandcatwelfare.eu/news/online-sale-pets-whats-cost/.