It’s been over two years since the COVID-19 pandemic began and we are still not out of the woods. Experts warn that the psychological toll of social isolation will impact millions of people worldwide for the foreseeable future, causing a global mental health crisis.
It is understandable, under these difficult circumstances, that many people decided to acquire a puppy or another companion animal. We are all craving company, meaningful interactions, someone to love and who loves us, and a reason to go out for some fresh air. A puppy brings along all this and so much more.
At the same time, the EU-wide surge in demand for puppies fuelled by the pandemic has exacerbated problems that we have known for a long time (report: The Illegal Pet Trade: Game over). In many European countries, puppies can be lawfully sold online. Your future best friend, irresistibly cute and fluffy, is only a few clicks away. Nothing easier: just pay a few thousand euros and the puppy of your choice is yours, at least in theory. Because here’s when, too often, the problems begin.
Currently anyone can put online an advertisement for a puppy. It is estimated that 8 million puppies, worth 1 billion euro, are required annually in the EU, of which the large majority is found via online advertising.
Identity checks are practically non-existent. This means that, in the worst-case scenario, consumers can fall victim to scams, and end up paying for a puppy that was never there in the first place. If the puppy exists, chances are they were sourced from unscrupulous traffickers located in Eastern European countries, where puppy farms are rife as the profits have traditionally been very high, and even more so since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Health issues in on-line trade
Without doubt, this is an attractive market for organised crime. Puppies coming from these traffickers are typically taken from their mothers too early, when their immune system is not yet fully developed. Their vaccinations are incomplete and their pet passports are tampered with. Too often, after travelling for thousands of kilometres in the boot of a car, crammed with puppies from other litters, they arrive at their final destination with compromised health, dying after a few days or weeks.
Even if they survive, these puppies often suffer from long-term health and behavioural problems due to their breeding conditions and lack of socialisation. For the new owners, this will mean high veterinary and behaviourists’ costs and a heavy emotional toll. For the breeders or traffickers, this is just business, and mostly tax-free. For the tax authorities, this is equal to lost money.
The online pet trade cannot continue unregulated, and this is clear also from a public health perspective. There have been worrying reports of an increase in zoonotic diseases, such as deadly rabies or Echinococcus multilocularis, due to illegal or poorly monitored imports of pets for the online trade. We urgently need stricter and enforceable rules to curb the illegal side of the trade and to improve the legal one.
It is doubtful that the online sale of pets can be made fully accountable for the wellbeing of all animals concerned. After all, selling sentient beings online raises profound ethical issues. However, we believe that this trade can and should urgently be improved, also in the light of the public health threat it poses.
Digital Services Act offers better protection
The Digital Services Act, which is going to be voted on by the European Parliament next week, offers an opportunity to do so. The Act proposes some key points that would substantially contribute to better protecting pets sold online as well as consumers, for instance by requiring online platforms to obtain specific information from sellers or by finally acknowledging the illegal trade of animals as a European wide concern.
The online platforms would also have to remove advertisements that do not comply with the rules. We count on the European Parliament to bound all online marketplaces to trade only those domesticated animals that are microchipped, registered and originating from a registered source.
The ball will then be in the park of Member States and online platforms which could impose further scrutiny over the advertisements and closed groups on social media by requiring verification of the provided data and banning any content depicting animal cruelty. We are hopeful that the right decision will be taken to better protect the welfare of animals sold online, consumers’ rights, and, last but not least, public health.
Going forward, we will continue to advocate for healthy and happy animals, confident consumers and responsible and liable online marketplace with European and national laws as a base.