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The day Richard Ackers brought a Labrador Retriever puppy home to his family in Wigan was one of the best of his life. The tiny dog, named Reggie, arrived on December 17 and delighted in following his new owners around room to room, begging for cuddles and playing with Ackers’ seven-year-old son for hours on end.
But that same evening, Reggie fell gravely ill. First he had a bad bout of diarrhoea, and then the next morning, he became lethargic and started vomiting. “He was dragging himself around the house. Then in the afternoon, he just slumped down on the couch and wasn’t moving,” Ackers says.
Ackers’ family is one of many up and down the country driving demand for new puppies during the pandemic. As registered breeders ran out of dogs to sell, unscrupulous sellers and scammers turned to sites like Gumtree and Facebook Marketplace to sell puppies with dubious origins to desperate buyers.
Unfortunately, Reggie was one such dog. He was diagnosed with parvovirus, an infectious gastrointestinal illness that is rife in puppy farms where dogs are churned out and bred in poor conditions. Despite their best efforts, Reggie died three days later. “I would’ve done anything to have kept him alive,” Ackers says.
Ackers bought Reggie for £1,800 from the UK’s largest pet classifieds website Pets4Homes, where you can find everything from dogs and cats to snakes, tropical fish and ferrets. Around 2,500 pets find new homes each day on the website.
The demand for puppies soared when the UK went into a third lockdown after Christmas. From January 4 there were over 1,000 adverts for dogs on three of the largest classified websites, according to data from dogs rescue and rehoming charity Dogs Trust. This was a 59 per cent increase compared to the same day in January last year.
But the demand far outstrips the number of dogs on offer. Dog health and welfare organisation The Kennel Club reports that there was a 168 per cent increase in people searching for puppies for sale on its website from March 2020 until the end of May, and revealed that one in four people who have bought a puppy during the pandemic think that it may have come from a puppy farm.
Puppy selling is a lucrative business. Figures from Pets4Homes show that the average price being asked for a puppy from March to September last year was £1,883, more than double the same period in 2019 when the average price was £888.
And Pets4Homes supplies a big chunk of that demand. The company told the BBC that visits to its website reached 20 million in the months of April, May and June, double the number of visits in 2019.
Ackers says that the person who posted the Pets4Homes advert selling Reggie’s litter had produced a vaccination card saying that all of the puppies had been vaccinated and treated for fleas and worms. The vet said that, while they couldn’t be certain for sure, they could find no evidence of this. When his microchip was scanned, it didn’t correspond to the St Helens address he had bought Reggie from, but an address somewhere in Dublin.
When Ackers rang the seller to tell him that Reggie was sick, he was told such a diagnosis was impossible. “I said come down to the vet and gave him the address and he just didn’t turn up. When I called him back, he had blocked my number.”
Since Reggie died, Ackers has been back to the seller’s house several times to try and get some answers, but the place has been cleared out. “I keep going back even though the council’s advised me not to,” he says, and when he spoke to the neighbours, they told him that the people staying in the house kept changing.
On Christmas Eve, the family set up a Facebook page titled “Justice for Reggie” to try and raise awareness about what happened. The page contains pictures of Reggie, news stories of puppy farming and dog thefts and shares of Facebook posts featuring similar puppies’ stories.
In a statement, Pets4Homes said it is in discussions with lawyers about the content of the Facebook page, claiming that it features “not only demonstrably false statements, but sock puppet accounts which appear to be associated with it are driving a campaign of harassment”. Pets4Homes did not provide evidence to back up these claims. The spokesperson says that the site “cannot comment on its legal discussions” or on “live investigations”.
The spokesperson also criticised Reggie’s owners for disregarding the guidelines below its pet adverts, which recommend buyers walk away if a seller fails to supply appropriate documentation or does not provide contact details for the vet who performed the health check.
Pets4Homes also claims that Reggie was intended as a Christmas present, which it claims is “deeply unethical”. Reggie’s owners deny that he was bought as a gift.
When Ackers’ partner Alicia Sherman reported the seller to Pets4Homes, she was told that the site would contact the advertiser asking for clarifying details, and was advised to report the seller to the authorities. WIRED has seen emails confirming that both Trading Standards and the Animal Protection Services are investigating Reggie’s case. The seller’s profile has been taken down. Pets4Homes says it has not heard from the authorities regarding this case.In an email, Ackers admits that he should have walked away. “But do they not feel they have a responsibility too in all of this?” he says. “We have heard so many stories on this, all of the same nature, exactly the same as ours.”He says his aim isn’t to go to war with Pets4Homes but to help animals and point out that the website’s practices need to change. “We are here to aim for more checks to be done on their site,” he says. “We have some great ideas and would love them to work with us and just listen for 15 minutes. They have so much power and it’s infuriating to see them not use this to more effect.”
Puppy owners say the lack of regulation on classified sites like Pets4Homes means that unscrupulous sellers have been able to flourish. On December 12, London-based Julie* saw an advertisement for a vet-checked, microchipped Kennel Club-registered Yorkshire terrier puppy on Pets4Homes being sold in Essex.
“My partner drove the 1.5 hours journey to collect the puppy with my nine-year-old daughter. When he arrived a young girl aged around 18 answered and said her mum wasn’t in but that she has the puppy,” Julie says. “He checked the puppies eyes and ears and also asked to see the dog’s mum. The girl brought out an older Yorkshire terrier who we believe was the mum. My daughter was so excited.”
But when Julie’s partner brought the puppy home, she noticed that his testicles were swollen. Julie quickly booked a visit to the vet and ended up spending over £1,000 on bills. “They said it was a genetic condition which the whole litter would have so the seller would have been aware,” she says. “The puppy had an ingrown hernia and needed an operation immediately.”
Like Ackers, when Julie called the seller to tell them what had happened the phone was turned off. After a genetic test, Julie found out that the puppy was actually a mix-breed and not a full Yorkshire Terrier.
Since April 2020, the third-party sale of puppies has been banned in England and only breeders and rescue centres are allowed to sell them to buyers directly. By law, puppy breeders need a license if they breed more than three litters a year, and this license comes with a list of conditions that the breeder has to meet, such as animal welfare and a responsible breeding environment.
That, however, hasn’t stopped people from selling puppies illegally. “What it has done is push large commercial breeders underground, so they’ve become puppy farms,” says Bill Lambert, head of health and welfare at the Kennel Club. “They sell to certain third party sellers. The person who sells the dog is not the person who has raised it and they can often sell them from what looks apparently like good conditions from a family home.”
With dogs in such high demand, criminals have even resorted to dognapping so that they can make a lucrative buck. There were 465 dog thefts reported to canine charity DogLost in 2020, up from 172 dogs in 2019. Last November, Lincolnshire-based Margaret Whitehead had four Welsh terriers, which are on the vulnerable breed list, stolen from a secure kennel block next to her house. “We don’t know if they’re alive, and that’s the worst part,” she says.
Pets4Homes says that it blocked 40,000 suspicious adverts during the first lockdown, and that it reviews every listing on its site. It claims that around 40 per cent of all adverts are blocked during the pre-publication approval process.
A Pets4Homes spokesperson claims that it has a number of automatic fraud detection tools in place, with users not being able to post an advert online without having to verify their phone number via a one-time-pin code. “If an advertiser is blocked, they are unable to reinstate their account,” the spokesperson says. “With Pets4Homes, it is not possible to use the same phone number, IP or postcode again, and our system automatically detects duplicate accounts.”
But fraudsters could still get around some of these measures. Chris Bridgwater, a Kennel Club-assured cocker spaniel breeder, says that sellers simply switch SIM cards to evade buyers and security measures on listings sites. At the height of the first lockdown, Bridgwater was receiving 50 calls a day from people interested in purchasing a puppy. “Puppies must be microchipped as they leave the place where they were bred, and the first owner must be the breeder, but nobody physically stands in my backyard and watches me microchip them,” she says.
Even as the prices for puppies have soared, Bridgwater says she hasn’t increased the price to compete, continuing to charge £1,500 which she thinks is “still a lot” of money. “I tell people on my website not to pay three or four grand unless you actually want that puppy with a 22 karat gold collar on it,” she says.
Charities and organisations are calling on more to be done to stop puppy fraud. The legal minimum age for puppies to be imported into the UK is 15 weeks, but Dogs Trust has seen puppies as young as eight weeks smuggled into the country – an age when they should still be with their mothers. “What we’d ideally like to see is anybody producing more than one litter a year to be licenced, and anybody selling less than one litter a year should be registered so that you’ve got that traceability, which would certainly help with online advertising,” says Paula Boyden, veterinary and campaigns director at Dogs Trust.
If things don’t change, Boyden says that “we’re going to see a continuation of this illegal activity where sadly, individuals are making a lot of money and equally, the people that are purchasing the puppies are paying a very high price – financially and emotionally.”
She advises that buyers be vigilant when buying a puppy online so they don’t get caught out by unscrupulous sellers or breeders. “Make sure you do your homework. Go and see the puppy interacting with its mum. Go and see it more than once.”
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