Image above: Golden Retriever puppies
Hounslow’s Animal Welfare Team urge residents to look out for the warning signs of a animals on sale from puppy farms
No matter how often animal charities tell us not to buy pets for Christmas, we do, and sadly many would-be pet owners are scammed – either they hand over their cash to find there is no puppy, or they buy one which is ill and end up paying huge vet bills before the animal dies.
Matt Smith has been talking to LB Hounslow’s Animal Welfare officer Andy Newnham, who recently won the 2022 RSPCA Special Recognition award for work carried out to disrupt puppy farming during the Covid pandemic periods of lockdown, to find out how you avoid the scammers when buying a pet.
Image above: LB Hounslow Animal Welfare Officer Andy Newnham with his German Shepherd dog, Star
First banish the image you have in your mind of what a puppy farm might look like
They are clever, these scammers. In the financial year 2020 – 21 prospective pet owners were scammed out of two and a half million pounds.
The pandemic provided the perfect cover, Andy told me. As people were spending more time at home, demand for pets increased, just as reputable adoption centres such as Battersea Cats & Dogs Home were closing.
As the prices rose and more unscrupulous sellers entered the market it was easy for them to sell animals without any proper access to their premises because social distancing had to be maintained.
But puppy farms are not quite how most people imagine them, Andy told me. Fraudsters often sell from what appears to be a respectable family home. He went to one recently where on the surface everything seemed fine:
“It was a house, it wasn’t a dirty cage or anything like that. It was a three bedroom house, there was a woman and a child and a mum dog was present” only as it turned out, “mum dog wasn’t mum.
“It was a borrowed dog or something along those lines – a dog that was friendly that they could pass off as mum. The house wasn’t theirs, it wasn’t their child [and the ‘mum’] wasn’t the mum of the child. So it’s just a front… a shop front.”
The problem Hounslow animal welfare officers encounter is replicated all over London, said Andy.
Image above: A room with farmed dogs inside, with faeces on the wall and floor; photograph RSPCA
Unscrupulous traders sell dogs knowing they are ill
The dogs are bred somewhere else, which probably does look like how you would imagine, with animals often left alone for hours on end in their own filth in poorly lit rooms, sharing drinking bowls, in unhygienic conditions where disease easily spreads.
Canine parvovirus is highly contagious and is spread from dog to dog by direct or indirect contact with their faeces. Vaccines can prevent this infection, but mortality can reach 91% in untreated cases.
“That is, I think, the most heart-breaking thing about it” said Andy, “because some of the people selling these, they know. They know this is a possibility, some of them even know that they’re ill.”
The Animal Welfare officers are often only able to identify an illegal trade after it is already too late for the particular puppies concerned.
“If you’re getting reports ‘I’ve bought a sick dog, I’ve had it in the vet’s for a week, the dog’s passed way, I’ve got this massive vets bill and these are all the details for the person, that’s great, because you can try and follow that up and try to bring that person to prosecution”.
Without giving too much away about how they operate, they have become more proactive in the way they work, spotting trends which enable them to disrupt illegal operations more quickly.
In one instance where the Animal Welfare Team intercepted an active operation, they rescued up to £50,000 worth of dogs from one group of people, saving about 20 dogs across four litters.
Image above: Three dogs in a small kennel; photograph RSPCA
How to avoid being scammed
If you sell animals as pets you need a licence, whether you sell from a shop, another premises or even your home.
When you look for sellers on the internet, be aware it is hard for websites such as Pets4Homes, Gumtree and Freeads to screen out all the scammers no matter how hard they try.
Some sites have made a concerted effort to stamp out unverified accounts posting ads for puppies, requiring sellers to upload a valid photo ID or asking sellers for a fee to post a pet advert, but this is not always successful, so you have to be your own detective.
“The way they operate if you were talking to them on WhatsApp or talking to somebody who is selling a litter of cockapoos at £2,500 each… they were so good at what they were doing… it was very difficult to navigate who is a trusted seller and who was not” Andy told me.
Image above: A caged puppy; photograph RSPCA
Here is Andy’s checklist for how to avoid being sold a sick or even a non-existent puppy
Ask for ID
Ask for ID from the seller. Walk away and report the sale if they cannot provide it.
Check photo ID
Check the photo ID of the seller matches the address the puppies are being sold from, and that they can prove residence at the address.
Never, ever, buy from any third party address
however plausible the reason given.
Beware of sellers of high value dogs who are unlicenced
The license should be displayed on the property and licence number placed in all advertisements. Any seller of litters sold over the HMRC £1000 business test, sellers of dogs with a view to making a profit, or using a trading style or name, require a licence.
Beware puppies microchipped and vaccinated in a very short timeframe prior to sale
In cases where a puppy has come from poor welfare conditions, vaccinating them right before sale (up to three days before) allows time to sell a puppy potentially suffering with early stages of Parvovirus. Do not be conned by the idea the puppy is a bit lethargic in response to the vaccine, pups should be bright and alert.
Check telephone numbers on online adverts
Check the number listed in the advert in a search engine to see if any other adverts appear, but crucially, note the number called and walk away from the sale if a different number is used to call or message you back. You may be given a plausible reason for this, but it is not worth the risk. Be particularly vigilant if the seller has recently joined the sales site, so check in their profile how long they have been a member.
Report your concerns
Report your concerns to the Local Authority Animal Welfare, Animal Warden, or Licensing teams, as well as any welfare charities, so they can follow up. Be aware that due to GDPR some information given to charities may not be passed on immediately, so if you are notifying the RSPCA, ensure the local authority is informed as well, as they are the licensing authority for animal breeders.
To report concerns with puppy sellers to the Hounslow Animal Welfare Team directly, or for advice on buying a puppy safely in the borough, please email email@example.com.
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