The danger of ‘Petfishing’ - and how to stop it happening this Christmas

·5 min read
Defra are warning about the dangers of 'petfishing' this Christmas. (Getty Images)
Defra are warning about the dangers of 'petfishing' this Christmas. (Getty Images)

Wannabe pet owners hoping to bring a new puppy or kitten home this Christmas are being urged to research the seller behind the pet to avoid being 'petfished'. 

A recent survey of UK cat and dog owners by the' British Veterinary Association (BVA) and British Veterinary Nursing Association (BVNA), found over a quarter (27%) had come across a seller or advert that made them feel suspicious of the welfare of the pet, while purchasing their last cat or dog.

It seems soon-to-be pet owners aren't taking appropriate care in checking out the person selling a prospective pet, with less than half (43%) of UK dog or cat owners saying they visited the seller in-person in the animal’s home when researching their recent pet purchase.

Meanwhile more than one in 10 (12%) of pet buyers didn't do any research at all before visiting their puppy or kitten for the first time.

Read more: Why normal noises could be stressing your dog

(Getty Images)
Prospective pet parents are being warned about the risk posed by deceitful low-welfare sellers who breed and keep animals in poor conditions. (Getty Images)

But it seems many prospective pet parents are oblivious to the consequences of not adequately researching a pet seller, with nearly two thirds (68%) unaware that the clinical and behavioural problems of their pet may be linked to low welfare breeding practices.

The figures come as Defra launches its new Petfished campaign urging the public to spot red flags in pet sellers before buying a puppy or kitten.

The campaign introduces the phrase 'petfished' - much like 'catfished', when someone is lured into a relationship by a fictional online persona - and refers to deceitful pet sellers who use a similar tactic to trick buyers, mistreating animals and selling them at high volume to line their pockets.

Chief veterinary officer, Christine Middlemiss is raising concerns about the risk posed by deceitful low-welfare sellers who breed and keep animals in poor conditions, who take advantage of increased demand for pets ahead of Christmas.

“Christmas can be a difficult time to settle a pet into a new home and it’s vitally important that people not only research the breed of animal they want, but also the person selling it to them," Middlemiss explains. 

“Puppies and kittens bred in low-welfare conditions can often be separated from their mother too soon which can lead to severe health and behavioural problems, heartache and high vet bills for their new family. We urge people to remain vigilant and to always thoroughly research pet sellers before getting in touch.”

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In a bid to disrupt the demand for these animals and further suffocate the trade, the campaign urges the public to follow simple steps in spotting warning signs that a puppy or a kitten has been raised in low welfare conditions.

“Buying a puppy is a huge decision and all prospective owners should do the proper research and have all the facts available so that they can make an informed decision," explains Bill Lambert, health and welfare expert at The Kennel Club.

“We know there has been a surge in demand for puppies during the pandemic. The current mismatch between supply and demand can lead to more people being duped by rogue breeders and scammers, and inadvertently fuelling low-welfare breeders.”

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To avoid being Petfished, the public are being encouraged to spot vital warning signs when researching sellers, with the help of the acronym S.P.O.T.:

  • Seller - Put the seller’s name and details including phone number into a search engine – avoid those with multiple adverts.

  • Parent - Make sure you see puppies and kittens in their home with their mother.

  • Old enough - Check puppies and kittens are at least 8 weeks old before you take them home.

  • Treatment - Ask to see the animal’s health records and avoid sellers who can’t provide them.

Someone who has seen first hand the impact of petfishing is Dr Julian Hoad, clinical director at Crossways Veterinary Group, who recalls four separate occasions in the past year where a puppy or kitten brought into his vet practice had been linked to low welfare breeding practices and had not survived. 

On two recent occasions, puppies has been brought in suffering from the deadly parvovirus, with the dishonest seller having lied about the puppies’ vaccination statuses, and they had to be euthanised.

“Particularly around Christmas, people are desperate to go on the Kennel Club website to purchase a puppy," Hoad explains.

"As the demand for puppies has outstripped the supply however, they can find themselves searching small online adverts that sell pets instead, often bred in low welfare conditions." 

Read more: The most common dog dilemmas faced by new owners (and how to sort them)

(Getty Images)
Pet owners are being urged to research the seller behind the pet to avoid being petfished. (Getty Images)

Hoad says the buyer purchases the puppy without doing much research, with many brought into veterinary practices because they are unwell. 

"Often that puppy or kitten has to be put down. It’s tragic," he continues. 

“People don’t realise when purchasing or researching pets that vets are often available to provide practical advice ahead of buying an animal, and also advise whether they will be able to take the animal on to look after its long-term welfare. So the public can check in with a vet and also educate themselves ahead of purchasing an animal using the online resources available.”

To help raise awareness about the problem Defra have launched a film warning the public of the dangers of purchasing puppies or kittens from low welfare breeding practices during the Christmas period. 

Earlier this year a ban on commercial third party puppy and kitten sales, known as Lucy's Law, came into force in England. 

It seeks to crack down on puppy farms by disrupting the supply chain of low-welfare breeders which relies on third party sales.

The law means anyone looking to buy or adopt a puppy or kitten must deal directly with the breeder or with one of the nation’s reputable rehoming centres.

For more information on what to do before contacting a seller and what to ask when you do get in touch visit getyourpetsafely.gov.uk or search ‘Get your pet safely’.

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