I was the kind of child that hankered after a fluffy four-legged friend – the hopeful child that exasperated parents would try to fob off with animal plushies and Hamsterz Life DS games. I suppose my younger self would have agreed if someone said it’d take something like a global pandemic for us to get a dog.
Yet it has happened: there is a yapping furball in our family kitchen. She is funny and sweet and cheerfully instructing us how the outside world is largely a choking hazard.
But the process of getting her home also showed that there were more pitfalls for puppies than a few chewable-looking pebbles. Juno is a pandemic puppy – our decision in May inadvertently echoed and reinforced the spike in demand for pets during lockdown.
Adoption centres announced soaring rehoming figures. Waiting lists for pets grew ever longer. In the month after we began searching for a dog, the Kennel Club issued a press release reporting a 168% rise in people looking for puppies using its ‘Find a Puppy’ tool between 23rd March and 29th May, compared to the same period last year. Bill Lambert, its Head of Health and Welfare, warned of ‘this rather terrifying picture of a nation of people who are careless and impulsive when it comes to choosing where and how to buy a dog.’
Such trends raise questions about our relationship with domesticated animals – their uncertain paradoxical identity as both objects and lives, animals and surrogate children. This latter role, pets as family members, is further constructed by consumer goods designed to reinforce this dynamic, not only by providing harnesses in myriad shades, but also offering novelty items – a unicorn rucksack for instance, or dog-friendly popcorn, dog-friendly ice cream, even doggy ‘alcohol’. From this capitalising upon affections, who profits most?
It’s an important concern in our tense pandemic period, where pets’ role as consumer goods has been dramatically foregrounded. Rapid sales of dogs in particular exemplify how far they are seen as answers to human emotional needs, at times with scant consideration for their welfare. Dogs are, after all, a far cry from mere plushies and games.
The speed at which advertisements came and went when we first went online certainly seemed to support fears of ‘careless and impulsive’ buyers, if not also sellers. Both Pets4homes and Gumtree saw advertisements being answered so rapidly that sales were made within minutes. Several of the breeders we contacted, generally on the day the advertisement was put up, apologised that every puppy had been sold. Many noted the ‘huge amount of interest’ and how the response for puppies had been ‘a bit crazy’.
Speaking to a breeder selling cockapoo puppies in London, they observed how cockapoos went from highest £1,500 pre-lockdown, to £3,000 during the pandemic (as I write, the most expensive puppies on Pets4homes are miniature dachshunds, each priced at £25,000).
‘I have mixed feelings,’ they said. ‘Some people definitely see it as a money-making option and especially now the demand for puppies has increased, breeders can charge more especially as people are willing to pay. But then on the other hand, a lot of people have been made redundant, so need the extra money for cash.’
Since they breed cockapoos for a hobby, they can afford to keep the price the same – although potential buyers must now social-distance. ‘We already emphasise hand washing and antibacterial spray a lot even before the pandemic, but I think other breeders should consider anti bac when the customers get in the house, before they hold the puppies, and when they leave.’ Surprisingly, few of the breeders we met were similarly cautious, other than conforming to social distancing requirements.
Fears over puppy farms were another reason against carelessness. Although Lucy’s Law – a regulation banning puppies from being sold by a third-party seller in an attempt to end puppy farming – came into effect this April, by August the Kennel Club was warning that one in four dogs bought during lockdown may be from puppy farms.
While many of us buy our pets for love, in doing so we appropriate their lives for our own purposes, project upon them our own emotions. And like commodities, we make them easily discardable. An article published by The Guardian in August headlined ‘Love you to death: how we hurt the animals we cherish’, offers compelling evidence of how our well-intentioned attitudes to pets have caused problems from environmental damage to poor health amongst popular pedigrees. The very British obsession with pedigrees is one factor encouraging get-rich-quick breeders to be careless with animal welfare in their haste to meet demand.
For all the emotive language around puppy farms, spotting them is not always so straightforward. One breeder we met was licensed by the council but sold various different pedigree dog breeds, as well as shorthair silver tabby kittens (all reserved). The kittens, with their mother, rested in a three-tier indoor cat cage, beside some puppy pens. We could hear noisy barking from another room, while the lady showed us a little Pomeranian, adding we could pick her up whenever. After the visit, we agreed that another breed would better suit our home – before we texted however, we were told she had decided to keep the puppy.
Whether or not the breeder was connected to a puppy farm was difficult to ascertain. The RSPCA website notes how ‘normal-looking homes’ can be ‘a shop-front for unscrupulous puppy dealing rings.’ Much more troubling was another breeder who responded to our interest – Douglas Hall Kennels, in Lancashire, which offered to send us more photos by email.
As it was situated far away, we researched the breeders beforehand. What we found were posts accusing them of animal abuse, several articles outlining an independent review of their licence, as well as a Change.org petition imploring for people to ‘Shut down Douglas hall kennels and rescue the puppies!’, signed by just over 10,000 people. Describing the puppies as ‘kept in wooden areas with bits of shredded paper to keep them warm’, the creator of the petition went on to report breeder to an animal welfare organisation and trading standards.
This petition was made two years ago. The breeders are listed by the Welsh dog charity Cariad as among those which they believed would be affected as a result of Lucy’s Law, but are still operating despite continuing concerns from past buyers and local activists.
We would not have known this had we simply trusted Pets4homes as a website advertising dogs from reputable breeders. Periodically we saw news articles and posts warning about this or that ‘breeder’ actually being a scammer using a false address. People could take advantage of the pandemic to encourage buyers not to visit, instead employing stock photos or using the situation to sell unhealthy dogs advertised unclearly. Further improvements to the marketplace, such as adding a feature to allow reviews of breeders, could act as preventative measures against scammers, enabling users to gauge the reliability of each advertisement.
Eventually, we settled on a breeder in Wales who worked as a nurse. She was lovely and helpful during the videocall, answering our questions and questioning us in turn, showing us the puppy and its mother. The breeder sent regular photos and videos updating us on the puppy until we could collect her at 10 weeks old. Somewhat unadvisedly, we paid the deposit without seeing the puppy in person – a risk we felt had to be taken knowing how quickly puppies were being secured by buyers. All of Juno’s litter of seven were reserved within 24 hours.
It is a pressure that no doubt increases the number of ‘impulsive’ purchases during the pandemic. On Pets4homes alone, more than 225,000 were rehomed during June and August. Consider other online marketplaces, and how such patterns have been mirrored in Canada, America, Australia, and you conceive the immense circulation and distribution of pets, taking place at an unprecedented rate of time, and striving to operate ever more rapidly.
Since September, Pets4homes has launched a Safety Deposit service that allows sellers to set the required deposit value, which buyers then pay through Pets4Homes. The deposit is only transferred once both parties confirm they are happy. This, according to Pets4homes, means that ‘deposits for the first time can be placed with greater security and peace of mind’. A significant proportion of sellers have opted into the scheme and, as a response to the pandemic, the speed with which the service has been implemented is impressive.
Nevertheless, despite a notice on the website asking buyers to ‘ALWAYS use Pets4homes safe deposit feature when placing a deposit’, many sellers have not. One breeder I contacted in the West Midlands emphasised that they ‘only do deposits as stated on the information provided, PayPal or bank transfer’. Although the service is free to sellers, the processing fee for buyers may be a disincentive. But another breeder in Manchester, advertising a litter of Yorkiepoos without the ‘safety deposit’ being activated, was still open to the idea, ‘if I can figure out how to send them my information’.
For many buyers, the Safe Deposit scheme still came too late – one questions why it took a pandemic for the service to be created. Action Fraud observed how, in the first two months of lockdown, 669 people lost about £280,000 from deposits paid to scammers. Reports to Action Fraud in April were more than treble the number of reports in March. But even pre-lockdown the number of online scams were rising.
This does not merely mean people losing money, but also – to meet buyers’ demands, exploited by unscrupulous profiteers – thousands of ill-looked after puppies falling sick and dying, their lives worth only as much as their cute face or pure blood.
We could not quite relax until Juno finally arrived home.
In the warm safety of our house, we now ask questions like ‘Can dogs be vegetarian?’ and, more ridiculously, ‘Will she need a raincoat?’
There’s something terribly farcical in worrying over these questions against the backdrop of a global pandemic, from which nearly a million people have lost their lives. But, while incongruous, the soaring demand for pets is nonetheless unexpectedly symptomatic, and not only of people’s needs for affection and companionship. Rather, it has exacerbated existing issues in the ways we treat animals.
The pandemic puppy-buying boom does not end with the sound of paws scampering around new homes. As people return to work, animal welfare charities have warned of pets being abandoned – Dogs Trust has predicted that up to 40,000 dogs may end up on the streets. Others observe newly alone-at-home dogs suffering from depression; some have already been unsettled by disrupted routines, and puppies may have missed out on socialisation during lockdown. Meanwhile the momentum built up for buying pets during lockdown continues, with prices remaining high and breeders’ waiting lists increasing.
Safeguards are needed as these trends will continue with a second wave or another national lockdown. Pets4homes’s Safe Deposit service is a promising start; more can be learned from the pandemic’s consequences to address its complex effects.
Few, if any, examples of literature on pandemics anticipate humans turning to their pets unless, in the case of more cynical dystopias, to destroy. The striking first sentence of J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel High Rise begins: ‘Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.’
While a pandemic does not feature, the novel’s claustrophobic focus on tensions among the building’s inhabitants echo themes of lockdown. It is heartening to remember how we hugged our dogs rather than devoured them; even so, animals have often been victims of human fear. Cats and dogs were commonly killed during the Great Plague of 1665-66 as they were believed to carry disease; World War II, so often invoked for the Blitz spirit today, also saw the culling of as many as 750,000 British pets by largely well-meaning owners.
We love our pets, and this has been proved this year in economic terms, with people panic-buying pet food and pampering them with other treats. The pet industry has significantly benefited, with Pets at Home shares surging by 17% (as designated ‘essential retailers’, the major pet supplier’s stores remained open), with higher annual profits expected this year even as Britain faces the uncertainty of a second wave. And the role of dogs in the coronavirus pandemic is still evolving, with scientists researching the possibility of training them to detect COVID-19 in humans, potentially speeding-up screening processes.
Yet there is the need to go further to protect these animals which we have bred, over the centuries, to be reliant on our care. We talk knowingly of a ‘dog eat dog’ world, but such a metaphor has always spoken more eloquently of human societal flaws than dogs themselves. How so many shall suffer, for our competition.
Back home, Juno – here safe, with luck on both her side and ours – scampers out all agog and awake for the world to smile on her. As children from the local primary school spill through the gates, their faces light up behind their face masks as she passes, curious as ever, trusting every one.
Artwork by Emma Hewlett