Warning: you may find some of the images and the video accompanying this post upsetting.
Dog ownership has increased significantly in the UK over the past 12 months and looks set to increase further, with the price of puppies having more than doubled during this period as a result.
The average cost of a puppy is now £1900, with several popular breeds or crossbreeds such as cocker spaniels, Jack Russells and cockerpoos costing as much as £3000.
This huge increase in the price of dogs is largely due to demand having risen so quickly that it's outpaced availability, with breeders feeling able to adjust their prices to reflect that.
The downsides of increased pet ownership
Sadly there are a few downsides to this surge in pet ownership (and prices), not least that pet theft is on the rise, with dog and cat owners being urged by the police to take measures to protect their furry companions.
Another issue that's become more prevalent the past few months is the impact that the increase in the number of pets has had on wildlife and livestock.
Given that domestic cats can kill two to 10 times more wildlife than similar-sized wild predators, and tend to do so within just a 100m radius surrounding their home, it stands to reason that fauna in suburban areas will be under pressure as a result of the increase in cat ownership.
There's also been a notable increase in reports of attacks by dogs on livestock, and a corresponding increase in the number of dogs shot by farmers.
But perhaps the most worrying downside is the huge increase in the number of dogs being sold by puppy farms, with a recent study suggesting that one in four puppies purchased during the pandemic may have been sourced from a puppy 'farm', 'factory' or 'mill'.
Puppy farms are bad - here's why
The term "puppy farm" evokes images of rural idyll, but the idea that puppies and their mothers are running free in acres of green space is a misconception that couldn't be further from the truth.
There are countless reasons that puppy farms should be avoided at all costs, and here are just a few:
- Puppy 'farmers' are more interested in profit than animal welfare.
- Dogs are bred in confined spaces with many never allowed to leave their cages.
- Farmed puppies often exhibit behavioural issues due to the lack of socialisation.
- Living conditions are often unhygienic and unhealthy, resulting in serious long-term health conditions.
- Puppies may be bred from parents with poor hip scores or who haven't been scored at all.
- Veterinary care is often inadequate or even non-existent.
- Health checks and vaccinations for viruses such as Parvo may not be carried out, with documentation often forged.
- Puppies are commonly removed from their mother and littermates too early, and therefore haven't had the chance to develop 'dog manners'.
- Dogs may suffer life-long anxiety as a result of their formative experiences, resulting in further behavioural issues.
- Puppies are transported long distances in unsanitary and unsafe conditions.
- We could go on.
It's extremely unlikely that a farmed puppy can be the well-adjusted, healthy dog that you and your family deserve.
Puppy farming should be illegal. Lucy's Law is a welcome step in the right direction, but despite the introduction of legislation in 2020 there are still many thousands of dealers trading unwell, badly adjusted and traumatised puppies sourced from puppy farms in the UK, Ireland and further afield.
How to spot a puppy farm
Many people who have had a difficult experience with a farmed puppy may have been completely unaware that their new pet was bred in such awful circumstances.
So now that it's clear that puppy farms are very bad indeed and the absolute worst way to buy a puppy, here are some of the warning signs you should be on the lookout for whilst trying to find a reputable dealer.
You're not allowed to see the puppy's parents
Any reputable breeder will allow you to see both parents and it's also important that you're able to see your new furry friend hanging out with its mother and littermates.
These formative few weeks of a dog's life are perhaps the most important of its life and contribute significantly to the health and behavioural adjustment of a puppy as it develops into an adult dog.
For that reason a puppy should in no circumstances be offered for delivery at less than eight weeks old. Twelve weeks is preferable.
If you're not allowed to see a puppy's parents and littermates, or are offered a puppy that's too young to leave its mother, walk away.
You're not allowed to visit the facilities
If you're not offered the opportunity to visit the breeders' facilities (or they refuse your request to visit), walk away. They're likely trying to hide unsanitary, cramped conditions and various other issues that would reveal to you the type of operation that they're running.
No reputable dealer would be reluctant to accommodate your request to visit their facilities.
Unsanitary, unhealthy living conditions
A puppy born in unhealthy living conditions will be an unhealthy dog. Not only has it been forced to endure these conditions whilst at its most vulnerable, but it's mother is also unlikely to be unhealthy.
This could result in chronic, long-term health conditions and huge vet bills.
Breeder wants to meet you in a 'neutral' venue
If you're being asked to meet at an out-of-town retail park or somewhere similar, warning bells should be ringing. No reputable dealer would suggest this and you can be fairly sure that your new puppy is a farmed puppy.
If a puppy is for life, you need to give it the best start and therefore even travelling a fair distance to see your new pooch in the environment it was raised alongside its mother isn't too much to ask.
Ignore the suggestion that they're meeting you halfway for your convenience - they're probably just trying to hide the fact that the puppy has either been imported or that their facilities would reveal the true nature of their operation to you.
Some dealers rent properties specifically to trade farmed puppies, posing as reputable, small-scale breeders. Look for signs that the home might not be regularly lived in.
Various breeds being offered
Most licensed dealers will focus on a specific breed, or perhaps two at most. This allows them to develop specialised knowledge focused on their preferred breed, which should in turn allow them to breed healthier dogs. Reputable dealers tend to only have a single litter available at any one time, but larger operations may have more.
Puppy farms will commonly offer a variety of the most popular or 'trending' breeds, as their priority is to generate profit at the expense of animal welfare. They will often have multiple litters available at any one time.
Mother doesn't seem interested in her litter
Puppy farmers sometimes switch out unhealthy mothers with a healthier looking dog to reassure you about the health of the litter.
If the 'mother' doesn't seem interested in or protective of her litter then it's possible she's not the real mother. If she's been nursing, her teats should be somewhat more visible than normal, so that's something to look for.
If mother and puppies seem anxious or scared by your presence this is also a warning sign, irrespective of whether the mother has been swapped out or not. Puppies are inquisitive and tend to be interested in new people. If they're reluctant to approach you or seem scared of you, it's time to question the environment they've been raised in. They may not have been socialised properly - with humans and even other dogs - or may have been mistreated by the breeder.
The breeder has little knowledge of the breed
Each breed of dog has particular characteristics and hereditary illnesses specific to the breed, so it's important that breeding dogs are screened for such issues to reduce the chance that they'll be passed down to their offspring.
Ask the breeder if they've carried out such tests and even quiz them on their knowledge of breed-specific hereditary illnesses. Any reputable dealer should have a wealth of experience and a solid understanding of the characteristics of the breed they're selling.
If their responses appear to betray a lack of knowledge or care, walk away.
The breeder doesn't want to answer questions or doesn't ask any
If a breeder is reluctant to answer your questions it may be that they don't have sufficient knowledge to answer, or perhaps they have something to hide.
A reputable breeder will be accustomed to talking about the breed and about their approach to breeding animals.
They should also question you about your own circumstances, to ensure that the puppy is going to an appropriate home. A breeder not interested in where the puppy will spend the rest of its life clearly isn't interested in the wellbeing of the animals that they're selling.
Some other warning signs:
- Breeder will only accept cash payment.
- You feel rushed into making an agreement or exchange.
- You're expected to pay a deposit for a puppy you haven't met.
- Puppy has existing health issues but the breeder claims this is typical for the breed.
- No documentation provided for vaccinations or health checks.
- Puppy hasn't been microchipped (it's a legal requirement that dogs are microchipped at the point of sale).
There are many reputable, licensed dealers operating throughout the UK who breed dogs responsibly, prioritising the wellbeing of their animals and who have genuine enthusiasm for improving their chosen breed. They often run small-scale operations, sometimes from home, where living conditions allow the puppies in their care to thrive and develop into healthy, well adjusted adult dogs. You should be able to visit their premises and feel reassured by what you find there.
Whilst you may pay a little more than you'd like to, that's a price worth paying if the dog you're going to learn to love and cherish has been provided with the best possible start to its life.
If you have any doubt about the legitimacy of such an operation you should walk away and consider reporting your concerns.
With a pandemic still raging, it's not clear what the future holds for people currently working from home. Whilst we may be able to look forward to a cultural shift that accommodates or even encourages remote working, there's also a chance that many employers will expect staff to return to offices full-time. If that's the case - and bearing in mind the huge increase in pet ownership - dog rehoming and rescue centres may well be inundated. While rescue dogs can sometimes be more difficult due to their past experiences (not to mention the criteria for rehoming often being quite restrictive), owning a rescue can also be more rewarding than buying a puppy. But don't be tempted to turn to Gumtree or similar platforms as this could lead to many of the same pitfalls as buying from an unlicensed puppy dealer. A reputable rescue centre will carry out all the necessary health checks and vaccinations prior to rehoming a dog.
Remember: you can't save a puppy from a puppy farm. If you knowingly support a puppy farm you will just make the problem worse and subject more dogs to years of trauma and poor health.