Publication - Research and analysis

Sourcing of pet dogs from illegal importation and puppy farms 2016-2017: scoping research

Published: 9 Nov 2017
Agriculture and Rural Economy Directorate
Part of:
Farming and rural, Research

The report describes research into the scale of the trade in imported and illegally bred puppies.

Sourcing of pet dogs from illegal importation and puppy farms 2016-2017: scoping research
Understanding Consumer Behaviour

Understanding Consumer Behaviour

As indicated in the aims of the research, one of our main goals was to gain a better understanding of how people go about buying their puppy. Through the expert interviews, stakeholder survey and focus groups, we were able to gather information about people's pre-purchasing and purchasing behaviours and what influenced their purchase.

Purchasing Behaviour

Suspecting that responding to online advertising was the dominant way consumers purchased puppies, surveyed stakeholders were asked how their clients located their puppy (Question 24). Social media was identified as the main way to locate a puppy for purchase (48 respondents). Small ads were next (45 respondents) followed by websites (42 respondents), word of mouth (16 respondents) and personal contacts (14 respondents). This is generally consistent with the focus groups. These participants found their puppies from websites, such as Gumtree, Pets for Homes and Discover dogs. They also used the KC, breed club websites ( i.e. The Cockapoo Club) and Champdogs websites to identify breeders to then contact. Our participants also sought their vets' and trainers' advice, though this seemed rare. Several of our participants visited dog shows, such as Crufts, to meet breeders and used the internet to search for more information about these breeders. Those participants who reported a very positive purchasing experience were more likely to have used a recommended breeder, identified through word of mouth and/or longstanding relationships [ FG7; FG27]. Facebook was used as a way to both seek advice on breeds and breeders and to locate a puppy to buy. However, getting a recommendation is not possible for all consumers, as one participant explained:

I couldn't find anyone to recommend a breeder to me. I literally asked all my friends, I went on Facebook. No one I knew could recommend breeders to me. So, that was really hard because I know that would have been the best thing to do, but if I waited I probably would never get a puppy [ FG11] .

The importance of the internet in facilitating the trade was supported by the experts, suggesting the internet is the key location for consumers because it is more ' accessible', ' convenient' and ' a trusted trading place'. The belief among consumers that the internet was a trusted place to find a puppy resulted in many focusing on their breed and type preference rather than the breeder/sellers reputation:

Found it off Preloved Pets, on the website on the internet, and obviously we just focused on the dog that we were buying, the type of breed, rather than where we were buying from [ FG9] .

Although many focus group participants' experience of purchasing puppies did not indicate rapid purchase was a priority for them, the experts suggested the origin of the puppy is less important to many consumers than their expectation to be able to purchase it immediately:

'I want it, I want it now', so if you're to go to a registered breeder you know, they do all the appropriate health checks, but they're saying, "Well actually I'm not having a litter for 18 months", for a lot of people that's not good enough and particularly if they can go on to the internet and get one almost the following day, they're not going to wait and that's the problem, well one of the problems [ EI2] .

Thereby, rather than consumers using the internet primarily for cheap and conveniently located puppies, the key motivation seems to be the opportunity to make a rapid purchase. This was evidenced by the fact that many focus group participants who purchased online did not pay low prices and were willing to drive hundreds of miles to collect their puppy. As with other consumer products, online advertisements of dogs appear to increase in December. We estimate that 44 percent of advertisements were placed in a time period that was 25 percent of the overall period in which data was collected and one-twelfth of the whole year. This supports the theory that consumption is driven by the purchase of a puppy as a Christmas gift - and that this purchase is facilitated by the internet:

Some ongoing research in schools about what children want for Christmas and the number one answer was a puppy [ EI12] .

Many participants reported planning and researching their puppy prior to purchase - which involved consulting the KC and other specialist breed websites multiple times [for example, FG10; FG1; FG9]. This links to many of the focus group participants desire to purchase a specific breed. One consumer used the:

Kennel Club website. Checking for registered breeders of the breed that we'd specifically chosen and Champdogs as well…because then you can see all breed history and more info about litters and sire [ FG1] .

Although the internet is a 'trusted' place, most consumers indicated they were also alarmed by the way many puppies were advertised:

…someone says, 'Female, 7 weeks, for sale' and, I don't know, 'and also a Vauxhall for sale' because they couldn't be bothered to, I don't know, post another advert ... there are just so many dodgy adverts out there and I know that it's impossible but somehow [we need to] regulate it, regulate selling puppies [ FG13] .

Focus group participants also commented on the choices and demands consumers make and how this behaviour negatively impacts the trade:

There's this big push about designer breeds, we're a bit guilty of it too; French Bulldogs, you might have seen in the news, are the dog to have now. They're breeding them to be blue and lilac and they're selling for £5000 a puppy. It's huge money [ FG23] .

It's a demand issue. So, there are various fashion breeds out there currently, so Pugs, French Bulldogs, Dachshunds and a few more. They are really fashionable right now, because they are toy kind of sizes, and the demand in the UK is so huge for them because of social media and the internet, and cute videos on YouTube. The demand side is so huge that people…don't really care where they get it from [ FG11] .

Professional Advice

As mentioned above, some of our focus group participants did ask the guidance of the vet or trainer before buying a puppy. As the online survey was aimed at professionals in the puppy 'industry', we also asked respondents if their clients asked them for advice before purchasing a puppy. Sixteen (32.7%) people were asked quarterly, 15 (30.6%) less than once a year and 12 (24.5%) at least monthly. An expert veterinarian identified that "v ery few of them [clients] come to us the first time" and when they do it is often as a result of a prior negative experience with the puppy trade. However, even if consumers did seek advice from experts or professionals, the problems within the legal and illegal trade, discussed above, makes it difficult, as one expert put it, to give ' very clear guidance':

We also know that there are issues with people breeding, perhaps we might call reputably, in this country. That might not be quite as high up welfare as we might wish, and there are various issues there too. So it's very difficult to give people very, very clear guidance of where they should go…[ EI1].

Only one focus group participant reported going to a vet for advice: " because we only had one vet in the area, we actually went to them first and said, "We're looking at getting a dog and they gave us a puppy pack" [ FG22]. Consumers may not seek expert or official advice, as repeatedly evidenced in the focus groups, as most consumers are unclear as to who is responsible for the puppy trade. As consumers are largely not seeking advice from practitioners and experts, it is important to understand what is influencing their purchasing decisions; this is discussed below.

Purchasing Influences

In an effort to better understand consumer behaviour, we asked stakeholders how important the reasons listed below (Table 10) are in explaining why people buy illegal bred/traded puppies?

Table 10: Why survey respondents believe consumers buy from the illegal puppy trade

Question 27 - How important are the reasons listed below in explaining why people buy illegal bred/traded puppies? Very important Important Neither important nor unimportant Unimportant Very unimportant
First time buyer 25 18 6 0 0
Households with less disposable income 15 20 10 3 0
Buyers are looking for cheaper/affordable status breed or crossbreeds 23 20 5 1 0
Prospective buyers are not checked/vetted by sellers 23 14 10 0 1
Impulsive purchase, rather than a considered decision 28 15 4 2 0
Purchase of a puppy for an occasion 19 15 13 1 1
Buyers do not realise they are purchasing an illegally bred or trafficked puppy 40 8 0 1 0
Buyers feel that they are rescuing the puppy 30 13 5 1 0
Ease of purchase compared to buying from a legal breeder/seller 25 20 3 1 0

*49 respondents

Stakeholders identified a lack of education or understanding of the illegal puppy trade (40) as the central reason for consumers' engagement, followed by the decision being an emotional (30) and impulsive one (28), as most influential. Focus groups participants and expert interviewees identified a similar wide range of factors - each of which will be discussed in turn below.

Education and Awareness

The survey stakeholders thought people who buy illegally bred/traded puppies were most likely to live in urban areas (39 respondents) and suburban areas (39 respondents) rather than in rural (20 respondents) or farming (17 respondents) communities (Question 26). There was also indication that anyone who is uninformed can buy an illegally traded puppy and that people may not realise this has happened to them until too late. As one focus group participant shared: "I think it's probably a bit of a minefield if you've never had a dog, and you are trying for the very first time because it is a bit overwhelming" [ FG9]. Another suggested there is significantly more support when purchasing other products:

If they're sort of adrift in a sea of information…I think it's about helping people to access information. I mean, if you want to go and buy something like a laptop, there's all this information out there; there's proper reviews and you know where to go…a dog's, you know, much more important to get the right one and it's much harder [ FG13].

Our survey respondents thought that not knowing about the illegality of the puppy was the main reason why people bought an illegally bred or traded puppy. One respondent said that buyers are from "lower socioeconomic backgrounds, perhaps not educated about the illegal puppy trade?" Other important factors were that people believe they are rescuing the puppy, that people buy dogs impulsively, if the purchase was the first puppy that people had bought and that buying from illegal breeders was easier than legitimate sources. These results are supported and elaborated on by the experts. Significantly, experts found the purchasing behaviour of consumers particularly difficult to explain, due to the lengths consumers were willing to go to purchase a puppy, which would not be repeated in any other purchases:

And maybe I'm just pessimistic and gloomy, but I also can't believe… that people are willing to buy dogs basically the way they do. They're live animals, they need to be looked after and cared for and they just buy them as though they're toys… but you wouldn't buy a toy the way you go and buy you know, you wouldn't just go and stand in the middle of the street and meet somebody and hand over hundreds of pounds for this thing [ EI3] .

Both stakeholders and experts indicated that many consumers are not aware or informed enough prior to their purchase. This can be due to the purchasers not understanding the requirements of owning a dog or the issues in the puppy trade, not doing enough research prior to their purchase or purchasing on impulse. Again, as indicated this was largely supported by the focus groups participants. In particular, experts suggested that many consumers do not understand the responsibilities, costs or implications of ownership:

We ask people who already own this animal to estimate the lifetime cost of that animal, and around about 92% get it wrong - significantly wrong… there's quite a high percentage that think it will only cost £500 over their lifetime … a dog's closer to between £25-30,000. You know, we've got some serious problems between people's expectations when they get that cute puppy and actually what the reality is [ EI3] .

But a lot of people do not, until we get them the evidence, do not think they've put anything into puppy farming [ EI4] .

while we have huge numbers of people saying how wonderful having pets is, there are a significant number who come up with comments like, 'It's much more hassle than it's worth', 'She's much more expensive', 'I shouldn't have chosen that breed', 'I hate not being able to go on holiday' and some quite negative things [ EI1] .

This also accounts for the large number of puppies who are later discarded. The experts unanimously agreed that there is a lot of information and advice available to purchasers; the problem is " getting the right people to get that advice in the first place".

We've got the biggest education outreach programme in Britain, a little programme for Scottish schoolchildren, we spoke to 315,000 of them last year and getting over the message, we're continually educating people all the time … and yet people are still going out in their droves and buying them [ EI4].

You can give buyers as much information as possible, but as you say, if they're happy to buy one off the back of a lorry no matter how much info you spit at them, it's not going to change their behaviour [ FG1].

Experts reported that many consumers genuinely felt they had followed expert advice and guidance and done all the correct checks, and still became victim to the illegal trade. This was confirmed in the focus groups. For instance:

They [clients of a veterinary practice] wouldn't realise that they'd bought at a farm until they started telling us the conditions the puppies were in and we said, "Do you think it could have been a puppy farm?" and then the realisation kicked in and they were like, 'Oh, no' [ FG22].

As enforcement agencies and NGOs provide advice on an issue, the perpetrators change their behaviour to thwart that public messaging. Furthermore, as the trade becomes more organised, consumers are less able to distinguish the legal and illegal trade using this advice. For example, the experts explained:

I think the traders are becoming very savvy with how they approach it - the language they use, the photographs they use, and it's becoming harder and harder to give really clear messages [ EI1].

It depends who's in it but if it's an organisation, you know, that have come together and put together a real business, I mean, the likes of

LC, I mean, they even had, you know, fake registration, pedigrees and all the rest of it, you know, all kennel registration and people were taken in and she was the glamour girl. She was seen as, you know, the person who met somebody at a rented property that she turned up to an hour beforehand with the puppy, 'Oh, yes, this is my house and this is my puppy. Here you are, goodbye, thank you. £600. Cheerio' [ EI6].

Official Organisations

Many focus group participants thought all trade was legislated and regulated. For example, they did not realise LA registration was only required after breeding a specific number of litters or that up to five puppies could legitimately enter the country as pets, that not all advertisements online were from registered breeders and that there was a further distinction between KC and LA registration. Registration with the KC, although not a requirement for LA licensing, can further confuse consumers regarding the guarantees that are being made. KC papers do not guarantee the breeder is LA-registered or compliant with welfare regulations, rather it indicates the lineage, age and pedigree of the puppy and permits the owners to engage in KC activities. The purpose of KC papers is not understood by consumers:

… the Kennel Club [Assured Breeder Scheme] one, which is you pay a premium price for the listing. Now to me, that defeats the whole purpose, because I thought Kennel Club papers was trusted trading that you can believe that these people have got Kennel Club stamp approval [ FG14].

KC papers differs from the stringent health and welfare requirements of the regulated KC system of 'Assured Breeder' (detailed below), which is more likely to be what consumers expect from a KC registered breeder. Focus group participants commonly raised their confusion, misunderstanding and mistrust of the regulations and requirements of the trade.

I don't think I'd have a lot of faith in that and that sounds awful, but a council one… it wouldn't make me want to say, "That's a good breeder", I'd just go, "Yeah, so what, you're registered with the council". I would want something that says, "This person is checked on a regular basis", and not just, "I'd better tidy up, I'm about to be inspected", you know [ FG1].

People at the breed place said a lot of the time they say, "No papers" because they [ KC registered breeders] can't register them because the bitch has already had a litter or three litters or whatever the set is [ FG27].

In most cases, consumers assumed that if the puppy was being advertised (especially with KC papers) then it must be legitimate: " I just presumed if something was Kennel Club approved it would be okay, but I don't know" [ FG9]. Few consumers understood that aspects of the legitimate trade were completely unregulated (that is, do not require registration or checks).

The KC proved to be a contentious issue in the focus groups [ FG4; FG7; FG22]. Being a registered breeder with the KC meant to some FG participants that the breeder must be legitimate (as indicated above), but for others the KC is contributing to irresponsible and illegal breeding.

They look after their own and it is very difficult to put forward a complaint [ FG4].

That's what puts me off because when they're breeding specifically for money, even though they've got a licence and are doing it legally, they're still doing it to make money, most of them, and they've kind of got a set up [ FG7].

[the problem with KC accreditation] You have to health test but your health test results don't have to be good. So, you could hip score and get a horrendous hip score but you could still breed with it, that would be okay because you had it hip scored. There's not any stipulation that you have to health test and the results have to be decent ones [ FG4].

In one focus group [ FG23], for instance, a participant detailed how the KC refused to investigate a Cavalier breeder even though an entire Facebook group with more than 80 people sharing experiences of sick and abused puppies documents the conditions. The RSPCA were also criticised for not responding to this case. Another detailed her experience of using KC registered breeders to locate her puppy:

I even had people that were Kennel Club registered that asked me if I wanted them to ship me the dog…the Kennel Club said you had to go and see the dog, but I had a couple of them that said they would send it to me…I didn't like it because would you want to go and buy a car without looking at it first, unless it came from the dealership [ FG11].

Experts commented on the fact that post-purchase, consumers who have received an ill or illegitimate puppy will seldom make complaints or alert the authorities:

…because actually when you think the number of people that maybe do contact us and actually for the number of people it's actually happening to, they don't bother contacting us and say, "Well we'll just try and… we'll just live with it, we've got the dog now we'll just go with it [ EI3].

Whilst several consumers considered making a complaint, they found it difficult for a variety of reasons: it was difficult to find the right person to report it to, felt agencies had more pressing priorities and so would not have helped; did not think to contact the LA or trading standards; and/or did not think there was enough information to make a complaint. For example:

My mother-in-law turned around and said, 'I wish we had reported them because something didn't seem to be quite right in that situation'. Yeah, didn't know who we would have reported it to …I've had dogs, and you know straight away that something wasn't quite right. I still wouldn't quite know who to report it to [ FG9].

This may help to explain the few (118) complaints received by Trading Standards between November 2015 and 2016. Again it was recognised by the experts that this is not just an issue for consumers, but for the professionals also.

One expert suggested that consumers were concerned that their dog would be removed or placed in quarantine. Another indicated that many consumers in the aftermath feel embarrassment and shame for not avoiding the illegal trade. Furthermore, two experts identified that consumers reported being threatened by the seller and were frightened to pursue a response: " You know, 'My husband's phoned, he's threatened to come round and do my husband in with an axe' - that was one". This also prevented consumers from helping enforcement agencies investigate cases, as they did not want to provide their details:

…and if we do go after who sold it or try to get more information about that they don't want to be involved in the investigation further down the line basically [ EI3].

People are very often frightened because perhaps they've got the puppy home, the puppy's spewed up worms or been sick or whatever. They've gone back, they've phoned the person back and they've had all sorts of abuse [ EI6].

Several participants had wanted to adopt a rescue dog from an official rescue organisation/charity, but were either fearful of possible behavioural problems or it was too difficult to adopt. In regards to the latter, it was mentioned several times that charities set specific requirements for the adoption of rescue dogs ( i.e. no children, no flats, size of yard, no others pets, age of the adopter, etc.), which make it too difficult to adopt. For some people, they want the experience of raising a dog from a puppy. This was often the case for first time dog owners, who did not feel skilled enough to train an older dog, never having done so before.

Emotional and Impulsive Decision

Our focus group participants also indicated that impulse and emotion played a part in influencing their or others' purchases. For example, most consumers were deemed by participants to be impulsive buyers who wanted instant results: "I feel that if they want a pup, they want a pup now [ FG4]. Regarding emotion:

Well really, we really shouldn't have got it from her, but we felt really sorry for the dog and weren't going to leave him behind [ FG8].

They do pull on your heartstrings when you get there though. When you see the conditions you don't want to leave them there, do you? [ FG22].

The emotion involved in purchasing a puppy was highlighted by all experts and many FG participants and used to explain why even educated consumers were willing to engage with the illegal puppy trade:

…it's still the most emotional decision that a client will make. No matter what we do and no matter what we say, when they go to these places and they see the pup, it could have one leg and they'll still buy it and I have been there… there is a disconnect between this and the idea that 'if only the public were aware of where these are produced'… it's replicated in what they buy. Like, they buy the worst breed, like pugs [ EI5].

That lady with the £6,000 she, when we spoke to her after buying a dog and £4,000 in vet fees she admitted, 'I knew there would be a risk but it was just so gorgeous and he seemed so nice I didn't think it would be a problem' [ EI4].

The emotional impact of this decision is so significant that consumers will buy a puppy even when they are aware that the transaction is problematic ( e.g. the puppy is ill, suspicions about the person selling the pup or the conditions are very poor), as indicated above. Experts refer to consumers going into "rescue mode", where experts suggest no amount of logic or information will prevent the interaction from happening.

We obviously have quite clear processes in our hospitals and things to support owners who might have problems like this, but I think in general, we know that owners are given the advice if you are worried about the transaction or if the puppy looks ill, walk away, but owners come to us saying, "Well, I couldn't walk away, the puppy was sick, so I rescued her'… So even if you do have rational advice - walk away and call this number, take a photo and send it here - or whatever it might be - a process that people try to communicate out. You've got an emotional issue there, with, 'Oh no, I just paid for her and took her. I couldn't leave her' which you wouldn't get with a car, to use our previous analogy [ EI1].

But clearly, when you're buying a puppy it's an emotional purchase because you're bringing in another member to your family and therefore even if you know, for most people even if they seem to think something is wrong they're probably going to come away with a puppy because they want to save or rescue it from a situation. And whilst that's absolutely understandable, sadly the flip of that is clearly that it just continues to fuel this trade [ EI2].

FG participants expressed similar sentiments:

…if you go and look at the puppies it's fatal [ FG8]

Somebody that I know wanted a Boston Terrier and they had seen an advert and decided to go. They went and it was horrendous. The house was horrendous, there were two pups and they were both scrawny. But they bought the one they went for and then the person said, there was a wee runty one left, 'We'll give you that for £100'. But, again, it was their heart strings, they took it [ FG27].

Consequently, it could be argued that many consumers cannot be 'trusted' to make a rational decision when confronted with a litter of puppies and that any changes to their behaviour need to be made prior to this. However, it is important to note that both the experts and stakeholders, agreeing with the FG participants, identified the difficulty of distinguishing the legal from the illegal trade and must base their understanding at times on anecdotal information. Thereby, it is easier to understand why consumers are often unaware or 'tricked' by those in the illegal trade. According to one expert, there are " a number of the different issues around how people are getting access to these animals in a way that they trust that perhaps shouldn't be trusted" [ EI1].

In discussing what influenced the purchasing decision of consumers, all experts commented on the significant impact of social trends and celebrity culture. This was most apparent in the drive for toy breeds:

I surmise that the city life style where people might be watching the Kardashians or what have you are fuelling the designer dog demand. Where you can have your little Chihuahua under your arm and even what your Chihuahua is wearing [ EI12].

The other challenge we have is clearly peer pressure as well. For example, David Beckham is your icon, you probably can't have the car he's got or the house he's got but you can have the dog he's got. And we know that particularly with these smaller breeds they're being popularised by celebs you know, being shown as effectively fashion accessories and people are following that trend [ EI2].

Altering consumer behaviour is arguably the biggest challenge when generating strategies to decrease the illegal and irresponsible puppy trade. Whereas there is information about how to choose a puppy and what to look for, this information does not necessarily reach the people who need to hear it. Often this is because puppy consumers buy impulsively, so do not look for more information. It may also be because puppy consumers do not want to know about the dark side of the trade. Even when people do have the information, they may 'rescue' the puppy and unintentionally contribute to the illegal and irresponsible trade.

Summary of Respondent Suggestions regards Consumer Behaviour

1. Consumers rely on the internet to make and inform their purchases; they believe the internet is safe and reliable as they are unaware of the limted regulation and protections in place. Furthermore, consumers are confused by the scale of the trade and variety of advice available. A central online location or website application which all consumers are advised to use prior to making their purchase could be used to advise and inform consumers. Companies which allow the advertisement of pets online should be required to place a pop up which consumers must go to prior to their purchase (for example, to the above website). This may pause an impulsive purchaser and help them recognise the consequence of their purchase and provide them with consisent advice and guidance. Significantly, responses relating to consumer impulse buying need to intervene prior to people seeing the puppy online or prior to meeting the puppy, as most consumers will not walk away once a connection has been made.

2. PAAG Minimum Standards for advertising pets online should become a requirement - with sites that consistently implement these being identified as trusted sites for consumers.

3. Help develop a community of official advisers who can guide consumers through their purchases (that is, service providers and professionals such as veterinarians, dog trainers, dog handlers, NGOs). The fee for the service could be set or decided by the professional.

4. Consumers are not clear how best to respond when they have a negative puppy purchasing experience. Consumers must be supported better in terms of reporting the problem promptly and appropriately. Further, those who have purchased a puppy may need further support to retain ownership of their puppy (on the condition they can provide a suitable home for the puppy), which could be provided by a formal and informal multi-agency group.

5. Consumers need a 'quality assured' option - which is more than a licence. This should be for those breeders and traders which demonstrate excellence/best practice.

6. Clarfiy and educate consumers on the different types of registration (that is KC) and licensing requirements (for example, LA, in terms of the guarantees they bring to consumers and the welfare standards required. Linked to this, voluntary schemes, such as KC papers or their assured breeders should be more clearly explained to enable consumers to make an informed purchasing decision.