People who bought dogs during lockdown may have done so with the best of intentions, but the increase in demand for "pandemic puppies" has had serious consequences for animal welfare, a study has revealed.
High demand over the past 16 months has increased the risk of puppies being sourced from poor welfare environments, bred or raised on puppy farms, or illegally imported, according to the largest ever study into the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on puppy purchasing in the UK.
Researchers from the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) are therefore calling for enhanced support mechanisms for owners and greater welfare efforts for this vulnerable puppy population, which they say are "needed now more than ever".
Dr Rowena Packer, lead author of the study, said: “The unprecedented demand for puppies combined with social distancing restrictions during the pandemic has led to the perfect environment for unscrupulous breeders and puppy dealers.
"This also includes desperate buyers willing to pay above the odds for puppies, and an easy excuse to conceal poor conditions puppies were raised in.
"From our results, we are concerned that many well-meaning owners who were looking to add a puppy to their family to improve their mental health during the pandemic may have fallen into this trap, and inadvertently encouraged this deplorable industry."
“For worried owners of ‘pandemic puppies’ – all is not lost," counsels Dr Packer, lecturer in companion animal behaviour and welfare science at the RVC.
"If you are concerned about your puppy’s health, behaviour or wellbeing, please contact your vet or a qualified behavioural professional who will be able to support you and your puppy to address any problems that have arisen in their early life."
The RVC’s national study, which gathered the views of 5,517 owners, sought to understand the pre- and on-purchase motivations and behaviours of UK dog owners.
In line with the first official lockdown period, it focused on puppies purchased between 23 March - 31 December 2020. It then compared these to responses from owners of puppies purchased during the same timeframe in 2019.
The study, funded by the Animal Welfare Foundation, revealed that some ‘pandemic puppy’ owners were less likely to have sought credible breeders that performed health testing on their dog(s) or were a member of the Kennel Club ‘Assured Breeders Scheme’.
They were also more likely to pay a deposit without seeing the puppy, and pay more than £2,000 - an increase from average prices of £955 in 2019 to £1,550 in 2020.
Other 'risky' behaviours more likely to be undertaken by 'pandemic puppy' owners include being more likely to: see their puppy without their littermates; have collected their puppy from outside a breeder’s property or have it delivered; buy a younger puppy, in comparison to the recommended guidance of over eight weeks
Dr Dan O’Neill, senior lecturer in companion animal epidemiology at the RVC and co-author of the paper, said: “This study reveals the debt we owe to dogs for getting so many of us as humans through the pandemic. But it also suggests that a terrible price is being paid by many dogs from our choices on which breed to buy, our long-term commitment to the dog and even whether we can afford to look after a dog. It reminds us to ‘stop and think’ about life from the dog’s perspective too.”
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With 40% of ‘pandemic puppy’ owners also having no previous dog ownership experience compared with 33% of the 2019 owners, greater levels of support and education may be needed to maintain the welfare of the puppies, suggest the RCV researchers.
"Vets in practice and canine behavioural professionals could therefore need to play a greater role in helping to reduce factors such as behavioural challenges, health problems and relinquishment risk," they state.
"This includes owners’ inexperience of typical dog behaviours (which could then be perceived as problematic if not managed appropriately), unrealistic expectations around the roles pets play in children's lives, and the expense and time required for dog ownership and caretaking."
The researchers also state that focusing on training and raising awareness of day care and dog walking services, for example, could help to reduce distress amongst dogs and decrease the amount of time they are left alone when owners return to work.
"All these efforts will ultimately minimise the risk of the dog needing to be rehomed (where this in the dog’s best interests)," they conclude.
Previous research by insurer Petplan found that nearly half (46%) of people aged 18 to 34 regret their decision to get a pet during lockdown, and a third (32%) of those aged 35 to 54 feel the same.
Even among those who don't regret their decision to get a new pet, many are struggling to know how to look after their new arrival, with Wood Green, The Animals Charity reporting 66% more calls each month to their free pet behaviour helpline compared to last year.
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