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The coronavirus pandemic has led to a surge in pet purchases in the UK, with many desperate for animal companionship to help them cope with grief, loneliness and anxiety in these exceptional times.
With millions of Britons working from home, charities have noticed a huge spike in demand for so-called “pandemic puppies” or “quarantine kittens”.
Google searches for “buy a puppy” rose by 120% after the announcement of lockdown on March 23, according to data from Propellernet.
Research conducted by the animal welfare organisation FOUR PAWS found as many as 4,000 adverts for dogs and puppies on just Gumtree and Pets4Home alone during the peak of lockdown.
Owen Sharp, chief executive of Dogs Trust, said although there were no exact figures of dog registration, “the evidence does point to the fact that a lot more people have been getting dogs than usual”.
With the rise in demand and prices, his charity is concerned people have increasingly turned to unregistered puppy smuggling or unregistered puppy farmers.
“We have seen quite a lot of puppy smuggling from eastern Europe,” he told HuffPost UK.
Since the beginning of lockdown, the charity has rescued dozens of dogs that were illegally imported into the UK from central and eastern Europe, with an estimated street value of £80,000.
In one case, six “terrified” underage puppies were found covered in oil in the back of a van at Dover port, having been imported from Romania.
The puppies were described by the charity as being in “an appalling condition, drenched in oil and suffering from diarrhoea.”
Dogs Trust has found puppies transported in similarly horrific conditions – including in a wicker basket with just cling film over the top.
Puppy smuggling isn’t just illegal – it’s also a cruel trade that puts both the mother and her litter through a long and arduous journey, often with little to no food or water and no toilet breaks.
Sharp said in many cases heavily pregnant dogs are being brought into the country so they can give birth in Britain, with no or poor access to vet care. “We’re talking about a very stressed dog going through a bad gestation,” he said.
The first few weeks of a puppy’s life are formative for its long-term mental and physical well-being, however in many cases these puppies will not have spent enough time with its mother or siblings.
“These interactions are really important to a puppy growing up,” Sharp said. “If you’ve got [illegal] breeders working on a volume, they want the puppies out as soon as possible for the next lot in.
“The mothers are being treated really badly. There needs to be a significant time between a mother’s pregnancy, yet we are seeing cases of bitches with fresh cesarian scars who are already heavily pregnant.”
Paula Boyden, Dogs Trust’s veterinary director, said it was “absolutely heart-breaking” to see dogs being illegally imported into the UK in terrible conditions to “make huge profits for cruel puppy smugglers”.
“We might be in the midst of a pandemic, but these devious sellers will still use every trick in the book to scam unsuspecting dog lovers,” he said.
Cat charity Cat Protection told HuffPost UK its centres had reported seeing more and more kittens being sold online for very elevated prices.
It said regular pet cats – not belonging to a specific breed or pedigree – which would normally sell for around £50 were now being advertised for up to 10 times the normal price.
“We’ve long been concerned about those that sell sick and underage kittens putting profit before welfare,” said Jacqui Cuff, Cats Protection’s head of advocacy.
“Unfortunately many vets have been unable to offer routine neutering during lockdown so there are plenty of kittens around which plays into their hands.”
The RSPCA said it has also investigated many complaints of underground puppy farming by “criminal gangs who are willing to exploit animals” to “make a quick buck”.
Its spokesperson said: “We do have concerns that the Covid-19 lockdown will have a huge impact on animal welfare in this area – and that many puppies who have been bred to sell in time for the summer boom will be left languishing and suffering in silence in terrible conditions on puppy farms, or will be abandoned and left to fend for themselves.”
As with Christmas time, charities are concerned the surge in demand for pets means tragically many of these animals will find themselves later in shelter homes and in need of rehoming.
Sharp said the biggest reason people give up dogs for rehoming is behavioural issues – of which there is a higher risk for puppies that were purchased during lockdown.
“People are currently around at home all of the time, so it feels like a great time to get a puppy,” Sharp said. “But they’re not thinking about the long-term implications. What happens when we go back to some level of normality?”
Animals who have been adopted or purchased during lockdown might not be as well socialised as people hope, and may exhibit behavioural problems once places become more crowded.
There is also significant risk these pets will suffer from separation anxiety once people return to work or spend more times outdoors, as lockdown restrictions begin to ease across the country.
The British Veterinary Association said it was concerned many of these “lockdown pets” have been acquired “without full consideration given to whether owners will be able to meet their health, welfare, socialisation and behavioural needs in the future, once the lockdown lifts.”
BVA president Daniella Dos Santos said: “We’ve been hearing from vets about an increase in requests for new puppy registrations and primary vaccinations since the beginning of the lockdown.
“The spike in demand for ‘pandemic puppies’ and ‘quarantine kittens’ has been a huge concern for vets.”
She added there was “a very real concern” that pets “bought on impulse” during lockdown may end up being abandoned once restrictions are eased.
A study by Cats Protection estimated as many as 84,000 extra kittens could be born this summer, raising concerns that unwanted kittens will be abandoned or “dumped” on charities such as theirs.
“Our fear is that many kittens born this summer will be left on the streets,” said Sarah Reid, the charity’s acting head of neutering.
“This is because Cats Protection is full up with cats and, owing to Covid-19, is unable to admit many more except in emergency cases.”
Rob Young, head of centre operations at Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, said the animal rescue service has seen a huge increase in demand for rescue pets.
“Last week alone we received over 5,000 applications,” he told HuffPost UK. “Which is far more than we would normally see.
“While it’s been really encouraging to see people wanting a rescue pet during this time, we hope that these people remember the animals in need of a second chance in future, too.”
Charities have warned people beware of being “dogfished” and scammed into buying an animal that has been smuggled into the country.
Potential dog and cat buyers are urged to carry out thorough research before committing to an animal, including paying multiple visits to the mother and litter, and demand to see all vital paperwork. Cats Protection has a “kitten checklist” which provides advice for cat lovers.
“We’re asking potential owners to be patient to avoid fuelling irresponsible breeders or unscrupulous sellers,” dos Santos said.
“A healthy and happy pet is worth waiting for.”