Published: 13 Jul 2023 | Last Updated: 13 Jul 2023 09:27:00

Researchers from the Royal Veterinary College are calling for greater protection of puppy welfare as Lucy's Law is not adhered to and increasing numbers of underage puppies are being illegally imported

A study exploring changes to UK puppy buying habits both before and after the COVID-19 pandemic, has revealed concerning ongoing trends. Findings showed that several worrying changes seen during the ‘peak’ 2020 phase of the pandemic persisted into 2021, with 2021 purchased puppies still less likely to be viewed in-person before purchase or collected from inside the breeders’ property, compared to 2019 puppies. The study by the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) also revealed year-on-year increases in the number of puppies being sold with a passport between 2019-2021, indicating importation to the UK, often under the minimum legal age for import (15 weeks). This information is key in helping prospective owners know what to look out for when buying a puppy to ensure the protection of canine welfare in the future.

The COVID-19 pandemic gave rise to an international shift in the volume of adult dogs and puppies that were acquired by domestic households, the latter dubbed the “Pandemic Puppy” phenomenon. Despite what was often reported as a positive phenomenon in the media, with benefits to human mental wellbeing, pandemic-related dog purchasing also had some unintended negative impacts on the welfare of the dog population, due to changes in how pets were acquired during this period.

The study aimed to explore whether the changes to puppy purchasing in the UK documented during the 2020 phase of the COVID-19 pandemic had persisted into 2021 or had returned to pre-pandemic 2019 levels. The research team – led by Dr Rowena Packer – conducted a large-scale investigation which compared puppies purchased aged under 16 weeks from private sellers between 23 March–31 December 2021 with those purchased during the same date-ranges in 2019 and 2020. Valid responses were analysed from the owners of 1,148 “2019 puppies”, 4,369 “2020 Pandemic Puppies”, and 2,080 “2021 puppies”.

Key findings included buyers in 2021 remaining less likely to view their puppy in person prior to purchase; more likely to view their puppy via live video calls, video recordings and/or photographs; and less likely to collect their puppy from inside their breeders’ property. This is despite Lucy’s Law being passed into English legislation in 2019, making it illegal for to sell a puppy away from the place the puppy was born*.

Another key concern was the significant increase in puppies sold with a passport in 2020 compared to 2019. Findings showed this did not normalise to pre-pandemic levels in 2021, but instead, significantly increased beyond peak-pandemic 2020 levels; more than doubling since 2019. More than 1 in 10 puppies purchased in 2021 were sold with a passport, with 2021 puppies at a 2.62 increased odds of being sold with a passport than 2019 puppies. An increasing number of these puppies were sold with a passport under the age of 13 weeks in 2021 compared to 2019 and 2020. Given that the minimum age at import is 15 weeks, this indicates an increase in illegal importations of puppies to the UK – or making use of loopholes – over this three-year period. 

A concerning new trend was also identified, with buyers in 2021 less likely to seek out a breed or crossbreed based on them being perceived to have good health compared to 2019 or 2020 buyers. Purchase prices, elevated by the pandemic, had not normalised to pre-pandemic levels in 2021, with over 1 in 4 owners in 2021 still paying between £2,000-2,999 for their puppy, compared to fewer than 1 in 50 in 2019.

These sub-optimal purchasing behaviours leave owners vulnerable to purchases from unscrupulous breeders and dealers, including puppies sourced by illegal importation and/or reared on puppy farms.

Dr Rowena Packer, Lecturer in Companion Animal Behaviour and Welfare Science at the RVC, said:

“Although our study reports many pre-purchase and purchase behaviours returning to their pre-pandemic levels, many buyers in 2021 did not adhere to best practice when purchasing their puppy, with many hangover effects of the pandemic. This continues to leave buyers vulnerable to purchasing puppies from poor-welfare sources. Given the critical importance of both breeding and early life experiences upon the future health and behaviour of puppies, this shows there are significant efforts required to improve buyer behaviours and safeguard the welfare of future generations of UK dogs.

“The continued rise in puppies being sold with passports, even beyond the peak phase of demand for puppies during the pandemic, indicates a concerning shift in the supply of puppies to the UK market from domestic sources to a reliance on importations, often of puppies under the legal minimum age for import. This is deeply worrying and requires urgent measures to avoid associated welfare harms upon the puppies themselves, but also their mothers’ outside of the UK and to public health, given infectious disease risks posed by importation to owners and other dogs in the UK.

“Measures to improve puppy buying include continuing efforts to raise awareness and change the behaviour of prospective puppy buyers, but also legislative change, including raising the minimum age of dogs at importation, to prevent the greatest harms.”

Notes to Editors

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About the RVC

  • The Royal Veterinary College (RVC) is the UK's largest and longest established independent veterinary school and is a Member Institution of the University of London.
  • It is one of the few veterinary schools in the world that hold accreditations from the RCVS in the UK (with reciprocal recognition from the AVBC for Australasia, the VCI for Ireland and the SAVC for South Africa), the EAEVE in the EU, and the AVMA in the USA and Canada.
  • The RVC is ranked as the top veterinary school in the world in the QS World University Rankings by subject, 2023.
  • The RVC offers undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in veterinary medicine, veterinary nursing and biological sciences.  
  • The RVC is a research led institution with 88% of its research rated as internationally excellent or world class in the Research Excellence Framework 2021.
  • The RVC provides animal owners and the veterinary profession with access to expert veterinary care and advice through its teaching hospitals and first opinion practices in London and Hertfordshire.

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