Pandemic Puppies Were Real — Now For The Hard Part
During the early, unsettling months of the first COVID-induced U.K. lockdown in 2020, media and other reports suggested that people were buying puppies at unusually high rates. Puppy breeding in the U.K. is largely a cottage industry, so the reports were mostly anecdotal, and without a national dog licensing system, no reliable data source for actual puppy purchases existed. However, data on puppy finding websites and Google search activity strongly suggested an above-normal interest in buying a puppy. At the same time, concerns arose about unscrupulous breeders, puppy farms, and puppy importers.
To learn more about this phenomenon, researchers conducted a non-randomized online survey during November and December 2020, and there is one important caveat: the research looked specifically at purchases rather than adoptions. Questions covered guardian and puppy demographics, pre-purchase motivations and activities, and actual purchase behavior. Responses included a total of 5,517 puppies. Of these, 1,148 were purchased in 2019, and 4,439 in 2020. The puppies were aged 16 weeks or less, and almost three-quarters (72%) were purebred. Yet just 46.8% of these puppies were registered with the Kennel Club versus 58.2% of the 2019 puppies.
More than one in ten (11%) guardians had not considered getting a puppy prior to the pandemic. 40% admitted that the pandemic had influenced their purchase decision, with 86.7% saying that pandemic restrictions gave them more time to care for a dog. Pandemic puppy guardians cited exercise encouragement, better mental health, and companionship for children as reasons for getting a puppy more often than did 2019 puppy guardians. Companionability and size guided breed choice in 2020 more often than in the prior year.
Respondents who acquired pandemic puppies were more likely to be first-time dog guardians and to have children at home. These children tended to be younger, with half aged five to 10 years. Pandemic puppy guardians reported that they looked for a breeder who communicated well and seemed caring. However, these same guardians were less likely to seek out a breeder who performed health testing on the breeding dog(s) or to see their puppy in person before taking it home. They were also less likely to see their new puppy with its littermates. Puppy pickup was more often outside the breeder’s property, on a doorstep or in a garden.
Pandemic puppy guardians were more likely to find their puppy through puppy selling websites or through breeder recommendations from friends or family. Inexperienced guardians were more likely to put down a deposit without first seeing their puppy and to end up with a younger puppy. Pandemic puppies also cost more, with almost one-quarter reporting prices in excess of 2,000 pounds (over $2,700 USD). In 2019, only 1.8% of puppies cost this much.
Puppy buying behavior was already less than ideal prior to the pandemic. However, COVID-19 seems to have worsened the problem. These changes during the pandemic raise welfare concerns. Now grown, these dogs may be relinquished at higher rates as people resume their normal lives. They may also display more behavioral issues as a result of being raised by less experienced guardians. Finally, they may suffer from more health problems if breeders failed to follow protocols that typically ensure that the dam and sire were appropriate for breeding.
Based on these results, companion animal advocates can focus on education and interventions that will allow these dogs to remain in their new homes. Teaching the dogs to be alone for longer periods, and expanded services such as daycare and dog walkers could offer needed support for both dogs and their guardians. Finally, many animal advocates will and should continue to promote adoption rather than purchase for people wanting to live with dogs.