It has been estimated by the pet food industry that 46 % of EU households (88 million) have at least one pet animal representing 104 million dogs and 127 million cats. This means that the demand for dogs across the EU amounts to about 8 million per year. In turn, this enormous demand for pets is met by both regulated and unregulated actors: from licensed or unlicensed hobby and occasional responsible breeders to back-yard ones and dealers of puppy farms. The illegal pet trade often sees imports of puppies from non-EU countries. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for puppies skyrocketed and legitimate breeders have been struggling to meet it, so illegal breeders and sellers have stepped in.
The illegal pet trade is a cruel business. Countless puppies are bred in deplorable conditions, torn from their mothers far too young, and transported long distances to be advertised online to families across Europe.
The dogs used for breeding are usually kept in unhygienic, often cruel conditions; kept in cellars, sheds or small crates, forced to sleep and give birth in their own excrement. They receive only enough food and care to keep them alive long enough to stay ‘productive’. When they are unable to continue producing puppies, they are disposed of, either through killing or abandonment. While several illegal traders have links to unscrupulous vets who routinely provide falsified documents that are misleading as per the health status and origin of the animals, veterinary treatment is rarely provided.
But the risks of the illegal trade extend well beyond animal welfare and go into the realm of public health. Online sales speed up the transboundary movement of animals, often with weakened immune systems, including those from zones where rabies is endemic. As 75% of infectious diseases emerge from zoonotic pathogens, and rabies is responsible for 59,000 deaths annually worldwide, the public health threat for Europe is real.
A booming trade
The pandemic’s implications offered more opportunities for these illegal breeders to cash in: within 2020 demand doubled and saw spikes of up to 115% in searches for puppies online, while shortage in supply pushed prices up by five times the usual ones, with animals often sold for €2,500 - €3,000. Considering this, and the fact that around 2.4 million dogs are traded each year across just three of the major European advertising sites, with an estimated worth of almost €1.5 billion, the size of this market is not to be underestimated. But due to a lack of regulation and traceability of the trade, the profit made by illegal traders could be much higher – especially considering their cost-cutting methods, and scale of undeclared profit and tax evasion.
What has allowed for the illegal pet trade to thrive in this way is online anonymity. Anyone, anywhere in the world, can create an account on a classified ad site and sell a puppy, then disappear without a trace. More often than not, consumers are left with a sick or dying animal. high veterinary costs and no means to pursue their rights. Due to the lack of traceability in the online trade, there is no way of knowing for sure the exact origins of puppies in Europe.
As such, it is clear that the illegal pet trade is a profitable business that will not fade unless there is better legislation that regulates it.
At EU level, the most effective way to end the illegal puppy trade is by including EU-wide mandatory identification and registration (I&R) in the upcoming Animal Welfare legislative proposals for all cats and dogs. Since they may all be part of an economic activity sooner or later I&R is necessary to ensure individual animal and disease traceability. To this end, the FOUR PAWS Model Solution for full traceability across the EU online puppy trade has been advocated. The solution includes:
- Mandatory, harmonised, identification and registration (I&R) across the EU with verified, reliable data
- Database interconnectivity
- Allowing only registered pets to be advertised online by their registered, and verified, keeper
To support the work towards a safer pet trade, FOUR PAWS, along with Europetnet, has developed a software called VeriPet to help end anonymity in the online trade. VeriPet connects online platforms to databases by conducting automated checks of dog-related data for classified ad sites, before an ad is posted. The verification system aims to ensure that only registered puppies/dogs can be advertised for sale by traceable sellers.
In this way, as the preferred channel to market for illegal dealers, online platforms can also drive the solution to ending the trade.
With the changes in EU legislation, the online pet trade could be transformed into a transparent and accountable one, by making the breeders and sellers who sell online traceable, and therefore accountable for their businesses. This would then facilitate the improvement and enforcement of animal welfare standards across Europe.