Dogs of woe: the pull of a pooch in Covid times

A high demand for puppies has meant a rise in prices, black-market breeding, unhealthy animals and disappointed owners

He was an ex-racing greyhound called Laddie, with an illustrious track record, white socks and a white tail. It was love at first sight. “Are you sure we can keep a greyhound in a flat?” I asked the manager of the dog shelter nervously, as my boyfriend Charlie stared at Laddie with emoji love hearts in his eyes. “Plenty of greyhounds live in apartments,” she reassured us. Charlie and I posed for a photo with Laddie – we look so happy in it, we might explode – and then went home to await our home check, in a few weeks.

As we waited, I browsed dog beds online, considered the merits and demerits of harnesses versus leads, dry food versus wet. I ringed the photo of Laddie with a love heart and texted it to my family and friends. “He looks like such a good boy,” one friend responded. “Would you like to be godparents?” I offered benevolently.

The day of the home visit came – a formality, I’d been assured. “We charmed them, didn’t we?” I asked Charlie, after the assessor left. We decided we had. And then the phone call the next day: it was a no, the shelter said. Too many stairs, apparently. (We live on the first floor.) Embarrassed, I rescinded the godparent offer and removed the dog bed I’d carefully selected from my online basket. Laddie would never be ours.

Jack Russell Terrier puppy close up on white background
‘What will happen with the end of home working when owners have to leave the dogs alone?’ Photograph: Georgiy Datsenko/Alamy Stock Photo

Like many other young, childfree, city-dwelling couples during the coronavirus lockdown, our thoughts had turned to dog ownership. How could they not? A dog seemed like a shining pathway out of the gloom.

We weren’t alone. “What we’ve seen right from the start of the pandemic,” says Dr Samantha Gaines of the RSPCA, “is a huge increase in demand and interest in dogs.” Between 1 March and 19 April, the RSPCA’s “Find a pet” search tool had 1,070,925 unique views, compared to 834,456 in the same period for 2019. Insurance provider PetPlan saw searches for dog insurance increase 15% between March and June. Searches for French bulldog puppies – an Instagram-friendly breed – on the Kennel Club’s website increased by 225% in April and May 2020, compared to the same time in 2019.

But many were unprepared for the just how involved the process of buying a dog can be: “I was a little bit surprised by how hard it was,” says first-time dog owner Jess Austin, a 31-year-old filmmaker from Brighton, of the experience of puppy-rearing. Austin bought her puppy, a cavapoo called Otis, in May. Jess was meant to be getting married in June, to boyfriend George, but had to cancel the wedding due to coronavirus. “I wanted something positive to come out of lockdown… you spend so much time thinking about your wedding, and it being cancelled was quite a shock,” she explains. Otis filled the wedding-shaped gap in 2020 adorably, if with a few more little accidents.

On social media during the coronavirus lockdown, a drooling parade of paws and tongues was posted by first-time owners, as proud and solicitous as the parents of a newborn, and only fractionally less exhausted. But animal-welfare charities are alarmed by this trend. “What’s concerning for us,” Gaines explains, “is whether these people have thought carefully about what bringing a puppy into their lives means in reality. When their lifestyle goes back to normal, is that compatible with the responsibility of dog ownership?”

Josh Seymour thinks so. The 31-year-old theatre director from London bought Barney, a cavapoo puppy, from a breeder in June. Watching his career go into freefall during lockdown was crushing and a puppy seemed like a reason to get out of bed, dress and leave the house. “The whole period before I got Barney was kind of shapeless,” he says. “I was staying up late and sleeping in.” Now, Seymour has to “get up in the morning,” he explains. “Barney’s really good for my mental health.”

But as the UK grapples with the worst economic downturn in living memory, what will happen if people are made redundant? “They may be in a situation where they have no choice but to give their dogs up,” Gaines says. And for those fortunate enough to keep their jobs, what will happen with the end of home working when they have to go back into the office and leaves the dogs home alone?

“Most dogs find it difficult to be on their own,” says Gaines, adding that separation anxiety can lead to behavioural issues, as well as general anxiety and depression in dogs.

English bulldog puppy in front of white background
‘A Kennel Club survey of 2,622 dog owners found 15% of the people who bought puppies during lockdown admitted that they weren’t ready.’ Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The RSPCA is bracing itself for a surge of abandoned dogs – according to a June Kennel Club survey of 2,622 dog owners, 15% of the people who bought puppies during lockdown admitted that they weren’t ready.

Britain has always been a nation of dog lovers, explains John Bradshaw, author of In Defence of Dogs: Why Dogs Need Our Understanding. “The people who have inhabited Britain over the millennia have always them,” he says.

But the idea of dogs as companions is more recent. Noblewomen in the 15th and 16th centuries kept small ones as pets – Anne Boleyn famously had a lapdog called Purkoy – whilst greyhounds were favoured by aristocratic men, for hunting. “Keeping a dog as a friend, rather than as an animal to be worked, was something that was confined only to the rich,” explains Bradshaw.

This changed in the 19th century with the rise of the middle classes. “They copied the habits of the nobility,” he says, “by acquiring companion dogs.”

With the advent of social media came the third wave of dog ownership: the rise of Instagram-friendly breeds that are displayed to accrue cachet online, rather than to be worked or for companionship. “Dogs have become two dimensional ciphers,” says Bradshaw.

Lockdown poured accelerant on this third wave of dog ownership. It’s a trend that started among reality TV stars and influencers, metastasized on social media and spread around the country. Celebrities including Towie’s Mark Wright and Gemma Collins, and Made in Chelsea’s Ollie Locke and Millie Mackintosh posed online with their pedigree pups. (Mackintosh later rehomed her dogs.)

Tricolour Border Collie puppy on a white background.
‘If you aren’t allowed to see the mum, then there absolutely is something dodgy going on.’ Photograph: Nature Picture Library/Alamy Stock Photo

In June, Love Island finalists Molly-Mae Hague and Tommy Fury announced that their Pomeranian puppy, Mr Chai, had died of a seizure after just a week. Mr Chai’s autopsy revealed that he had multiple health defects, including a deformed skull and no white blood cell count.

It subsequently emerged that Mr Chai had been imported from Russia, where third-party breeders often acquire their puppies – which is not illegal.

During lockdown, Brits stuck at home trawled the web for puppies, often unaware of their origin, and then outbid and gazumped each other in a desperate frenzy. Puppy breeders hoiked up their prices and an illegal network of puppy farmers began impregnating breeding bitches to service this increased demand.

And what many first-time dog owners didn’t realise was that under Lucy’s Law, which was introduced in April this year, it is illegal to sell puppies through a third-party – all animals must come directly from a breeder, or rescue centre. Licensed breeders are required to show puppies interacting with their mothers in their place of birth.

The legislation is aimed at stamping out the practice of puppy farming, where animals are born off-site, often in unsanitary and unethical conditions, and then sent to domestic properties to be sold. Lucy’s Law only applies in England, but commercial breeders in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are required to have a licence.

With such frenzied activity, it was inevitable that scammers got in on the action. There were 2,925 reports of dog-related fraud to Action Fraud between March and July this year, compared to 508 reports for the same period in 2019. Victims reported total cumulative losses of £1.2m, up from £380,807 for the same time a year previously.

Saint Bernard puppy rolling on its back on white background
‘Make sure you see the puppy multiple times.’ Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

For those who weren’t scammed, prices skyrocketed: the Dogs Trust reports that the average price of Dachshunds increased from £973 to £1,838 between March and June, while Chow Chows increased from £1,119 to £1,872.

Stephanie Porter, from Liverpool, bought her Bichon Frise puppy from a Kennel Club breeder for £1,800. Originally, the breeder had advertised the puppy at £1,000, but a few weeks before Porter was due to collect, she increased the price. Porter felt hamstrung: she’d already told her daughter about the puppy, and didn’t want to let her down, so she reluctantly agreed to pay the excess.

Nadia, a 31-year-old admin worker also from Liverpool, finds it hard to accept she may have bought her dog Joolie from a puppy farm. She found the dog for sale at £1,000 in June – desperate to get her before another buyer outbid her, she agreed to pick the puppy up from a residential house that afternoon.

“The woman told me she bought the puppy from someone else and didn’t have the papers, but she would get them to me,” Nadia remembers. The papers never arrived. When Nadia took Joolie to the vet, they told her that she wasn’t a pug at all, but some sort of crossbreed. Nadia was possibly the victim of a common scam in which puppy farmers rent out nice houses to pose as legitimate breeders.

“If you aren’t allowed to see the mum and they won’t give you the paperwork, then there absolutely is something dodgy going on,” says Gaines at the RSPCA.

Nadia’s scammers were not sophisticated. But not all unscrupulous breeders are as easy to spot. Claire, a 36-year-old teacher from Staffordshire, thought she was buying from a respectable breeder when she bought Buddy, a cavapoochon, for £1,395. Claire was reassured by the breeder’s website, which promised rigorous standards.

French Bulldog puppy (3 months old) against white background
‘Puppy breeders hoiked up their prices to meet the demand.’ Photograph: Alamy

But arriving to collect Buddy, Claire felt uneasy. Two puppies were brought out for her to choose from: she did not meet their mother. “They looked quite dirty,” remembers Claire of the pups. “One had funny eyes. They were bulging in different directions.” In the 20 minutes Claire spent outside the house, three other buyers arrived to purchase puppies.

When Buddy got home, it became evident he wasn’t well. She took him to a vet, who told her that Buddy had giardia, a parasitic infection, infected anal glands and an ear infection. When she contacted the seller, they insisted Buddy must have caught his illnesses from her garden once she got home.

The RSPCA urges buyers to do their research. “Make sure you see the puppy multiple times,” Gaines says, “so you know the house you’re going to is where the puppy has been bred. Check vaccination records. A commercial breeder should also be licensed by their local authority, and you should watch the mum and puppies interacting together carefully.”

To avoid falling victim to unscrupulous breeders, Gaines urges first-time dog owners to fill out a puppy contract with their breeder, which provides a checklist to ensure the dog has been bred humanely, and also makes them aware of their legal obligations as dog owners. (In the UK, you must be over 16 to buy an animal, and you must ensure your dog is microchipped.)

The pandemic has turbo-charged our infatuation with dogs, but it has also put the health, wellbeing and best interests of our four-legged friends at risk. For now, parks are full of first-time dog owners walking their premium pooches. “The number of dogs I see in my local park…” laughs Porter. “Honestly, there are dogs everywhere!” Whether they will prove to be for life, not just for lockdown, remains to be seen.

And as for me, I can’t bring myself to delete the picture of Laddie from my phone – it feels too final. But I got my happy ending. As I write this, my cat Larry sits beside me. I rehomed him from a woman in my neighbourhood, who had to give him up. Occasionally he rubs his face on the edge of my laptop – he loves to do this – or nuzzles my forehead. I love him unutterably and tell him every day. It turns out I was more of a cat person after all.


Sirin Kale

The GuardianTramp

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