What is petfishing?

New law to crack down on sale of cats and dogs by illegal breeders

Petfishing, cat, kitten
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Buying pets online can cost new owners “an extra £5,000 in vet bills over just 12 months” - and result in untold suffering for the animals, a new government report warns.

Illnesses and health complications caused by mistreatment at illegal puppy or kitten farms “may even result in the pet being euthanised”, says the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which is launched an awareness campaign ahead of a law change to ban commercial third-party pet sales.

Campaigners have long been calling for a crackdown on so-called “petfishing” - when an online breeder advertises “healthy puppies and kittens from a happy home, when in fact they are sick animals from an intensive farm”, The Telegraph reports. The term is a play on “catfishing”, where a stranger creates a fictional online persona to lure someone into a relationship.

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How widespread is the problem?

Defra says that petfishing is largely driven by online advertising by “unscrupulous breeders and dealers”, with at least 190,000 ads for puppies and kittens published in 2019 alone. This steady bombardment of commercials makes it “easy for the public to unknowingly make poor decisions that continue to drive low-welfare breeding”, says The Telegraph.

According to Defra, a survey of vets shows that more than half had found that the extremely poor conditions suffered by animals at puppy and kitten farms “can lead to illnesses and complications which would incur treatment costs of over £1,500 in the first year of the animal’s life”, rising to more than three times that total in extreme cases.

RSPCA inspector Callum Issit, who appears in a short video for the new “Petfished” awareness campaign, says: “Sadly, there are people out there who try and meet this demand by prioritising quick cash profits at the expense of animal welfare.

“Puppy farming in particular is a disturbing industrial-scale attempt to meet this demand and the low-welfare conditions and animal illnesses this leads to are distressing.”

What should buyers watch out for?

In a bid to crush demand for the trade, the Government is urging prospective buyers to look out for “red flags” when choosing a new pet.

Perhaps the most important advice to buyers is to research the seller by looking at their online profile and searching their name online. “If they are advertising many litters from different breeds then this is a red flag,” says Defra.

Buyers are also advised to check the seller’s contact details by copying and pasting their phone number into a search engine. “If the number is being used on lots of different adverts, sites and dates then this is likely a deceitful seller,” the department adds.

Another must is to check the animal’s age. Under existing laws, puppies and kittens should not be sold until they are at least eight weeks old - so anyone attempting to sell an animal younger than that is likely to be a low-welfare breeder.

Finally, check the animal’s health records. The seller should share all records of vaccinations, flea and worm treatment and microchipping before sale.

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What else is the Government doing to tackle petfishing?

New legislation dubbed Lucy’s Law that bans commercial third-party puppy and kitten sales will come into effect on 6 April 2020.

The law is named after “a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who died in 2016 after being poorly treated on a puppy farm”, according to the BBC.

“The ban will help to crack down on puppy farms by disrupting the supply-chain of low-welfare breeders which relies on third-party sales,” says Defra.

“This new legislation, married with the ‘Petfished’ campaign which seeks [to] crack down on the public’s demand for this trade, is further evidence of the Government’s commitment to improving the welfare of the nation’s much-loved pets.”

Lucy’s Law is being backed by Boris Johnson’s partner Carrie Symonds, who is promoting the awareness campaign “by adopting Dilyn, her Jack Russell puppy, after he was dumped by a puppy farmer”, says The Telegraph.

But despite the crackdown, Defra admits that illegal farmers are likely to continue offering puppies and kittens illegally online, and is calling on prospective owners to be vigilant.

Animal Welfare Minister Zac Goldsmith said: “I am delighted that a ban on third-party sales of puppies and kittens is coming into force – it is a crucial piece of legislation that will help us tackle the abhorrent and heart-breaking trade of pets.

“Our campaign will help raise awareness of the dangers associated with buying pets online and deceitful sellers. The animals reared on puppy farms are often in awful conditions which can lead to chronic health problems, behavioural issues, and, in the most tragic cases, death. This simply has to stop and the public can do its bit to help.

“We urge anyone thinking about getting a pet to do the right thing. Do thorough research and ensure you go to a reputable breeder in the UK – don’t get ‘Petfished’.”

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