Exposing The U.K. Online Puppy Trade
Puppy breeding is not a new activity, but in recent years it’s undergone a major shift to the online marketplace. Classified online advertisements now represent the vast majority of puppy sales in the United Kingdom. Amid growing public awareness about the unsanitary conditions and exploitation that occur in “puppy mills,” breeders and buyers can use online transactions to avoid judgment with almost total anonymity and little government oversight.
According to the authors of this paper, the online puppy trade also makes it easier for illegal puppy mill operations to smuggle unvaccinated puppies across borders in abysmal conditions, increasing the risk of zoonotic disease transmission. Puppy smuggling has been linked to organized crime in the U.K., as puppies are high-profit and easily transportable commodities, and smugglers face a low risk of being caught or punished.
Dog breeders tend to focus on “trendy” purebred or designer breeds, which often require inbreeding and positive selection to acquire certain unnatural physical traits. Many of the standards used to create popular breeds are associated with conformational disorders (CD), including orthopedic and joint disorders, skin disease, respiratory problems, and more. For example, the French Bulldog is bred to have a shortened face with a pushed-in snout and large underbite. This commonly causes the dog lifelong and debilitating Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS).
Researchers wanted to determine the current scope and characteristics of the puppy market in the United Kingdom. They analyzed data from 27,081 online puppy sale advertisements over a two-year period from June 2018 to May 2020, focusing on factors such as the location of the advertisement and breed characteristics.
They collected over 27,000 advertisements during the two-year study period. They found that Wales had the greatest per-capita density of advertisements. In fact, Wales had as many advertisements per million people as England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland combined. They argue that Wales has become the “puppy farm capital,” where breeders can operate in rural areas without scrutiny and export puppies to other parts of the United Kingdom.
While 559 breeds were advertised, 66% of advertisements were for just 20 popular breeds, and 48% were for only 10 breeds. This indicates that the puppy industry is subject to trends in breed desirability and fashionability. The most commonly-advertised breeds were French Bulldogs, Chihuahuas, Cockapoos, Labrador Retrievers, Cocker Spaniels, Pugs, Dachshunds, Bulldogs, German Shepherds, and Shih Tzus.
Astoundingly, nearly 47% of all advertisements focused on breeds that are linked to CD, despite those breeds comprising only 3% of the 559 advertised breeds. Furthermore, among the breeds making up more than 0.5% of all advertisements, those linked to CD were advertised significantly more often than those without CD. This highlights that CD breeds, or the breeds that are most likely to have debilitating medical conditions, are also the most in demand.
Despite increased attention to the inhumane practices of the breeding industry, people continue to buy puppies from online vendors at high prices, with between 0.8 and 1.3 million puppies sold per year in the United Kingdom. The ability to purchase online can make it easier for people to “impulse buy” puppies without ever seeing the operations behind their purchases. This is also supported by the fact that, according to the study, 20% of purchased dogs are abandoned within two years.
The researchers note that knowingly breeding dogs that are susceptible to diseases and disorders likely violates the U.K.’s Animal Welfare Act (2006), which declares that animals deserve freedom from pain and disease and the freedom to enjoy natural behaviors. It also violates other regulations restricting dog breeding that compromises an animal’s health.
The results of this study suggest that the online puppy market has far outpaced regulation and poses dangers to animal welfare. Animal advocates in the U.K. can help by making the public aware of the extent of this trade, calling for legislative action to ban online puppy sales, and supporting stronger enforcement of laws and regulations.