Investigator(s): Dr Rowena Packer
What was the aim of the project?
To explore the impacts of the COVID-19 lockdown upon puppy-buying in the UK.
Why was undertaking this project important?
Media reports during the COVID-19 Pandemic indicated unusually high numbers of the public had sought or purchased a puppy. This suspected ‘Pandemic Puppy’ phenomenon raised concerns for canine welfare, including unscrupulous breeders ‘cashing in’ on demand, impulse buying, and a lack of socialisation/habituation opportunities for newly acquired puppies. Differences in puppy-buying behaviour and motivations between pre-Pandemic and Pandemic times were unknown, hampering evidence-based efforts to support this vulnerable population and their owners.
How was it done?
An online survey was designed to explore the behaviour and motivations surrounding the acquisition of ‘Pandemic Puppies’. This included questions exploring pre to post purchase motivators, behaviours, intentions, and COVID influences upon 2020 puppy buyers. The survey, open from 10th
December 2020, was distributed via social media, the veterinary, canine, and general press, and key stakeholders. UK-based owners were eligible to participate if they purchased a puppy of any breed/crossbreed aged <16 weeks from a private seller (i.e. did not breed or obtain from a formal rescue organisation) during 2019 or 2020. Responses were compared between owners who acquired their puppy between 23rd
December 2019 (“2019 Puppies”, representing ‘normal’ UK puppy-buying) and 23rd
December 2020 (“Pandemic Puppies”).
What did they find?
Valid data were collected for 5517 puppies (1148 ‘2019 Puppies’ and 4369 ‘Pandemic Puppies’). A number of key differences which may threaten canine welfare were identified between 2019 and Pandemic Puppy owners throughout the puppy purchasing process.
- Had owners with less prior ownership or professional experience with dogs.
- Were more likely to live in households with children, particularly of primary school age.
- Were more likely to be sourced from a breeder via an animal-selling website, with owners being more likely to put down a deposit before seeing their puppy, less likely to visit their puppy in person prior to bringing them home, and less likely to ask breeders to see parental health test results.
- Were more likely to be sold with a pet passport, cost significantly more, were less likely to be seen inside the breeder’s property on the day of purchase, or with their mother or littermates.
- Were less likely to have attended in-person puppy classes or had visitors to their home under the age of 16 weeks.
Two fifths of Pandemic Puppy owners felt the Pandemic influenced their decision to purchase a puppy, most commonly due to “having more time to care for a dog” (87%).
What implications/impact could these findings have?
Relaxation of COVID-restrictions may increase relinquishment in households that return to workplaces and have less time to care for their dog, particularly where problem behaviours develop. Reduced adherence to recommended puppy-buying practices (potentially exacerbated by COVID restrictions) increases the likelihood that Pandemic Puppies came from poor-welfare sources. This may predispose them to future welfare problems, including inherited disorders. Reduced opportunities for socialisation/habituation during a critical period for behavioural development may also predispose them to behavioural problems. These data enable an evidence-based approach to supporting this vulnerable population of puppies, their owners and the professionals and rescue organisations who may be involved in their care in the future.
What are the next steps (if any)?
Two manuscripts based on these results will be submitted to open-access journals in May-June 2021.
Grants for two follow-up studies have been submitted to increase the value of this project:
- UFAW Student Scholarship: “Characterising the acquisition of designer crossbreed puppies in the UK” – using the Pandemic Puppy dataset to compare acquisition practices between “designer crosses” and pedigree dogs in 19-20 (£2400, submitted February 21).
- Battersea Research Programme Grant: “A longitudinal investigation of the behaviour, welfare and relinquishment-risk of ‘Pandemic Puppies’ purchased during the COVID-19 Pandemic” following the cohort of 2020 puppies from the cross-sectional study over the first 2 years of their lives (£40,000, submitted April 21).