Researchers at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) have conducted the largest ever study into the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on puppy purchasing in the UK. Some of the findings revealed that some ‘pandemic puppy’ owners were less likely to have sought credible breeders, less likely to have viewed their puppy in-person prior to collection and more likely to have paid in excess of £2,000. This was in comparison to owners of puppies purchased during the same period of the previous year.

The survey unveils how high demand over the past 16 months has increased the risk to puppy health and welfare. While many ‘pandemic puppy’ owners were likely making well-intentioned purchases, unbeknownst to many, these buying behaviours unfortunately heighten the threats to puppies from being sourced from poor welfare environments, bred or raised on puppy farms, and illegally imported. Therefore, enhanced support mechanisms for owners and greater welfare efforts for this vulnerable puppy population are needed now more than ever.

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 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.

When compared with 2019 owners, ‘pandemic puppy’ owners were found to be:

  • less likely to seek out a breeder that performed health testing on their breeding dog(s) or was a member of the Kennel Club ‘Assured Breeders Scheme’
  • more likely to be motivated to purchase a dog to improve their own/their family’s mental wellbeing
  • 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
  • more likely to be first-time dog owners
  • more likely to have children in their household
  • less likely to view their puppy in-person prior to purchase and more likely to see their puppy without their littermates
  • more likely to have collected their puppy from outside a breeder’s property or have it delivered
  • more likely to buy a younger puppy, in comparison to the recommended guidance of over eight weeks

Owners of ‘pandemic puppies’ also answered a set of questions exploring COVID-19 specific impacts. More than 10 per cent of ‘pandemic puppy’ owners had not considered purchasing a puppy before the pandemic. More than 86 per cent felt their decision to purchase a puppy had been influenced by the pandemic, most commonly by having more time to care for a dog.

With 40 per cent of ‘pandemic puppy’ owners also having no previous dog ownership experience compared with 33 per cent of the 2019 owners, greater levels of support and education may be needed to maintain the welfare of the puppies. 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. 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.

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).

Dr Rowena Packer, Lecturer in Companion Animal Behaviour and Welfare Science at the RVC and 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. 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”.

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.”
The study, funded by the Animal Welfare Foundation, was initiated following concerns that a huge puppy welfare crisis was unfolding during the pandemic. The RVC team, including Drs Rowena Packer, Claire Brand, Camilla Pegram and Dan O’Neill worked in collaboration with Dr Zoe Belshaw, an independent consultant, to capture data in order to offer solutions that would mitigate the harms.

A second paper is planned for later this summer, documenting the characteristics and early life experiences of ‘pandemic puppies’.

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