04/09/2013 08:58 BST | Updated 04/11/2013 05:12 GMT

Cats and Dogs at the Click of the Mouse - the Public Has a Role to Play in Regulating Online Pet Sales

No matter what we want to buy, the first port of call for most of us these days is the internet. We can buy everything we want at the click of a mouse and our pets are no exception.

Even though rehoming charities like Blue Cross continue to take in increasing numbers of abandoned and unwanted pets every year, the online pet trade continues to grow unchecked. The ease of advertising and buying pets online has created an enormous unregulated market, with up to 120,000 pets for sale on classified websites at any one time.

That is why the new Minimum Standards for online pet advertising, launched today by the Pet Advertising Advisory Group (PAAG), of which Blue Cross is a member, are essential. A pet is not just another commodity to be quickly bought without consideration and just as easily disposed of. These guidelines are the first step toward improving the welfare of pets being bought and sold in the UK, the second step is changing the behaviour of consumers.

A puppy swapped for a smart phone?

If you spend a few minutes browsing the pets for sale section of any classified website, the chances are it won't be too long until you come across inappropriate or even shocking pet advertisements. Blue Cross has discovered thousands of inappropriate pets advertisements, including offers to swap pets for goods (puppies and parrots for iPhones or a tortoise for a watch), illegal ads offering pit bull puppies for sale (a breed-type that it is illegal in the UK) and adverts offering kittens and puppies before they are old enough to safely be separated from their mums.

The internet also makes it far too easy for sellers and buyers alike to jump on the latest craze or trend. People snap up unusual or exotic pets such as micro-pigs or sugar gliders, only to realise that often they don't have the time, money or expertise needed to care for their unusual new pets.

Picking up the pieces

At Blue Cross hospitals, we regularly treat pets that have been advertised online - such as sickly puppies with terrible skin conditions and underage kittens with cat flu or dying from flea anaemia.

Tiny puppy Millie was sold with an apparently clean bill of health, but just a week later her owner discovered that she had a life-threatening heart condition. Luckily Blue Cross was able to help out with the surgery Millie needed, but when her owner contacted the breeder about the problem, they didn't want to know.

Our rehoming centres also have to deal with the fallout of the online pet trade. We frequently take in pets that have been bought on a whim and are quickly given up when they don't fit in with their new owner's lifestyle or are more demanding than expected.

People power

The new Minimum Standards for online pet advertising do seek to address many of these issues. The standards include a mandatory photo and a minimum age requirement. Websites advertising pets for sale will also be required to include prominent links to PAAG advice on buying and caring for a pet.

However, even the support of the government and the commitment of several of the biggest UK classified websites to apply the new standards, will not be enough to ensure success. We need the help of the public. We need everyone using these websites to help make sure that the Minimum Standards are being met and to ensure they let the websites know when they are not.

The user-generated content typical of classified websites and the sheer size of the online pet market makes this an incredibly difficult area to regulate. It is only with the engagement of the pet loving public that we can start to make a real impact on the quality of online pet advertising.

We need your help to make a difference to the welfare of pets:

- If you are going to look for a a pet online, only use websites that are adhering to the Minimum Standards

- If you spot any advertisements that don't meet the standards or that give you any cause for concern, use the facility provided by the website to report them immediately.

- The best possible thing you can do is to choose a rescue pet. Charities like Blue Cross take in thousands of unwanted and abandoned pets every year. They're all health-checked, neutered and microchipped and our expert rehoming teams work hard to make sure they match you up with just the right pet for you and your family.

Find out more at: