In Focus: Inside the shady world of online animal selling

‘Are you looking for male or female puppy?’

‘Of course, puppy should go with natural uncutted ears, because you know, breed is not legal in UK.’

Puppy will have another breed – not Dogo Argentino – in veterinarian papers…’ These are the messages Metro.co.uk recently received from a woman in Russia offering to sell and send us a banned breed of dog . We’d contacted her via an email address found on a closed group on Facebook.

While the social media site’s rules are very clear that such sales are completely prohibited, the reality is sellers of banned or dangerous dogs can often be found lurking within the comments sections of images of adorable puppy litters in closed groups.

Via messenger, one Facebook dealer offered Metro.co.uk a Pit Bull from a litter due in the summer for £800. Another offered a Pit Bull Staffie cross for £500. A third sent a stream of cute pictures and videos of Pit Bull puppies that were nine weeks old and ‘ready to go’ for £1,000 each. It was through a group devoted to another banned breed, Dogo Argentinos, that we found a link to the email address of our Russian breeder. Animal sales have gone through the roof since the pandemic began. By March this year, an estimated 3.2 million households had acquired a new pet, according to the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association.

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But with many purchases being made online, pet-owners are discovering such transactions are fraught with issues – and not just to do with banned dogs.

It can promote poor animal welfare, as unscrupulous sellers fail to follow basic standards, while buyers are ending up with sick and badly-behaved animals as a result, with many needing to be re-homed or put down.

A screen shot with messages between sellers and metro.co.uk offering Pitbull dogs
One dealer offered Metro.co.uk a Pit Bull from a litter due in the summer for £800. Another offered a Pit Bull Staffie cross for £500 (Picture: supplied)
One user on a closed group offered to sell metro.co.uk an American Bully (part of the Pit Bull family), while another offered a French Bulldog (a dog that can suffer serious life long health issues due to it’s breeding). Both had a price tag of £2,500. Neither seller was licensed. However, it’s not just about animal welfare. In worst case scenarios, pets obtained online can go on to maim or kill, as in the tragic case of 10-year-old Jack Lis , who was mauled to death in Caerphilly by a seven-stone American Bulldog.

While it is not a banned breed , the animal had been re-homed through an advert on Facebook that said the dog was ‘grate [sic] with people’, but did ‘not like other dogs at all’.

Buying a puppy online is a ‘minefield’ due to inadequate and out-of-date laws that don’t sufficiently protect animal welfare or consumers, according to barrister Saleema Mahmood, of No5 Barristers’ Chambers. She says: ‘Anyone breeding three or more litters in a 12-month period and selling one or more of the puppies, must be licensed by the local council in England. Licences are not necessary for so called “hobby breeders”, but licensed breeders must meet a series of minimum welfare standards.’ In England and Wales, it’s illegal to sell a puppy under the age of eight weeks and in April 2020 the government introduced legislation to ban sales of puppies by anyone other than the puppy’s breeder. It’s also against the law to sell dogs in the street, in pet shops, at markets or in public places.

INTERESTING FACT ABOUT YOUR PET: One survey found that 81 percent of cat owners let their felines sleep on the bed, compared to 73 percent of dog owners.

However, there is no specific legislation governing the sale of pets online.

The Ackers family paid a huge emotional price when they got Reggie, anadorablefox-red Labrador puppy, through an online seller last Christmas. Just 12 weeks old, the pup was bought by Richard for his son Ethan, knowing that in an instant he would become a treasured member of their family.
Richard Ackers with his son Ethan, both are wearing rugby kits and standing on a pitch
The Ackers family paid a huge emotional price when they got Reggie, anadorablefox-red Labrador puppy (Picture: Supplied)
However, just three days after they welcomed Reggie into their home, Richard found himself standing in a vet’s examination room being told that the kindest thing they could do for their puppy was to end his life. Having bought him via an advert on the Pets4Homes website, the family had assumed the seller was legit. But Reggie had actually been transported illegally from Irelant to the UK and was suffering from parvovirus – a dangerous and deadly illness caused by poor care from birth. ‘I told the vet I wanted Reggie to have a blood transfusion, but he pleaded with me,’ remembers owner Richard Ackers. ‘He told me I would only put him through more pain for a 3-10 per cent chance of him living. We decided to put him to sleep. It was awful.’ Richard, a 32-year-old pilot, recalls how the online advert stated that the Labrador had been bred for the owner’s grandfather, who couldn’t keep the whole litter. He travelled from his home in Wigan to an address in St Helens to meet the seller, where he intended to meet the dog’s mum and ask all the responsible questions. ‘The house was really bare – there wasn’t much furniture,’ he remembers. ‘ I was told that he’d moved from Stoke and that’s why he didn’t have the dog’s mum with him. Everything I asked, he had an answer for. I got totally wrapped up in the seller’s lies’, Richard admits.

INTERESTING FACT ABOUT YOUR PET: More than half of all U.S presidents have owned dogs.

‘One of the two dogs looked lethargic. I was told he was just missing his mum. I thought it all made sense and we took Reggie home.’

Puppy Reggie - a fox-red Labrador
Over the weekend, Reggie’s condition deteriorated and he underwent costly anti-viral treatment (Picture: Supplied)
Ethan, who was seven at the time, was overjoyed with the puppy he’d longed for. Reggie would have an energetic ten minutes, playing and jumping up, and then he would slump, unable to move.

After just a few hours, the puppy fell seriously ill with diarrhoea and bloody vomit, so the family took him straight to the vet where he tested positive for deadly parvovirus.

Over the weekend, Reggie’s condition deteriorated and he underwent costly anti-viral treatment. When this didn’t work, the Ackers’ decided to do the only humane thing. ‘He was in a quarantine room, in a cage. I have never seen anything like it,’ says Richard. ‘Blood was coming from his mouth, he was panting, he couldn’t get air. My lad was with me. It was heartbreaking. Absolutely awful.’

Richard spent £3,000 on vet bills, which weren’t covered on insurance. But the cost was nothing compared to the family’s anguish, he says.

A black and white picture of puppy Reggie
Reggie was only with the family for three days before he had to be put down (Picture: Supplied)

‘You’ve given a kid something he’d always wanted, and the next day, it’s taken away. It’s just not fair. The end of Reggie’s very short life was painful and horrific.’

Richard contacted the seller to tell him he needed to warn the litter’s other buyers about the deadly and highly contagious virus, but he was met with denial and aggression. When he went back to St Helens, the seller was gone and the house was empty.

After further investigation, Richard believes that Reggie was born in a puppy farm – and he now gets reports every week of exactly the same thing happening all over the country. He adds: ‘People are profiting from misery. It’s harrowing.’

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Cookie the kitten was sold on Gumtree at just four weeks old by an unscrupulous breeder.

He was handed over in the dark to his unsuspecting owner who didn’t realise the terrible condition he was in until she got him home.

As well as being emaciated, Cookie’s eyes were puffy and scabbed over and his fur was matted with pus. He was at death’s door by the time the seller could get him to a vet. Although he was nursed back to health, sadly his sight couldn’t be saved.
A picture of black and white kitten Cookie, next to another picture of the kitten with red sores on her eyes
Cookie the kitten was sold on Gumtree at just four weeks old by an unscrupulous breeder (Picture: Supplied)
According to the charity Cats Protection, there has been rise in buying online with 340,000 cats and kittens on the internet out of a total 500,000 purchased this year. Catherine Cottrell, of Cats Protection, says: ‘Some devious sellers are separating kittens from their mothers before the recommended age of eight weeks, which denies these kittens the vital nutrients and social development that they require to develop into healthy, adult cats.’ The problems don’t end here. Chris Newman, of the National Centre for Reptile Welfare, says those that buy lizards on the internet, as opposed to from reputable breeders, are the most likely to experience problems.

‘A couple of years ago, a lady who kept bearded dragons wanted something a little larger and brought a green iguana off Gumtree,’ he explains. ‘She met a man in a car park for the lizard to be handed over.

‘When she got it home it was very aggressive. She had it for two days and they realised that it was the biggest mistake she had ever made.’ Happily Chris was able to re-home the animal.
An axolotl
RSPCA Senior Scientific Manager Dr Ros Clubb warns parents to resist their children’s pleas for pet axolotls, which appear in the online game Minecraft (Picture: Getty Images)
Demand for exotic animals soars following advertising campaigns and popular movies, according to the RSPCA. Google metrics showed a spike in worldwide searches relating to buying an axolotl from June 2021 onwards, after the animals were introduced into the Minecraft game.

Source: Psychology Today

RSPCA Senior Scientific Manager Dr Ros Clubb warns parents to resist their children’s pleas for pet axolotls – or any other exotic pets – as Christmas approaches: ‘The RSPCA is particularly concerned when new pet trends such as axolotls emerge, as exotic pets often end up in our care later down the line when people realise they’re not easy to look after, or once the novelty wears off.’ The Zoological Society of London’s Counter Trafficking Advisor Grant Miller warns dabbling in online shopping for reptiles can also be very dangerous. ‘We’ve seen one case where a puff adder and a Gaboon viper were shipped through the post from Tanzania. These are dangerous, venomous snakes that were posted to an address in Essex. A young teen, who had no experience of keeping snakes, had got hold of his father’s credit card and ordered them online. ‘Fortunately it was intercepted by Border Force. Otherwise he would have died. The snakes had been in the postal system, they would have been angry the moment the package was opened. They needed an experienced handler to move these things. What could have happened would have been catastrophic.’
Gaboon Viper with Open Mouth
A Gaboon viper was shipped from Tanzania to an address in Essex (Picture: Getty Images)
Despite this, Grant argues that there is a place for wild and exotic animals in the UK, as long as they are well-looked after and reputably-sourced: ‘If children are not keeping animals, learning about them and respecting them, where do our conservationists of the future come from?’

Meanwhile, Richard Ackers continues his fights to raise awareness of the dangers ouf buying pets online after Reggie’s tragic death.

He is now working with Pets4Homes, Gumtree and other websites to discuss changes to their platforms, under a charity he set up called Justice for Reggie, which is putting pressure on the Government to enforce tighter policies and laws to end this ‘tragic and abusive’ industry.

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This month he is walking 200 miles from his home in Wigan to Number 10 Downing Street to present a petition to the Government calling for regulation of all websites where animals are sold. ‘We want to advance the cause of animal rights and educate and inform the British public about the urgent need to address the horrendous aspects of the illegal puppy trade so that thousands of dogs like Reggie can be spared a short, hellish life, having been used simply for nothing more than quick financial gain,’ he explains.

‘I don’t want any other families to go through the same heartbreak.’

What the websites say:

As both Pets4Homes and Gumtree allow selling on their site, they provide expert advice, work with animal welfare bodies and have reporting tools on their websites.

A spokesman for Pets4Homes adds: ‘The circumstances of Reggie’s story were highly unusual, but even if the event was a rarity, in the year that has passed since then we have further enhanced our safeguarding processes, and made it harder than ever for unscrupulous individuals to attempt to exploit the goodwill of Pets4Homes users.’

‘At present, only 0.4% of pet re-homings require a subsequent discussion with our Trust & Safety team, and only a proportion of these are concerns which warrant further action. However, one rogue seller attempting to exploit our platform – and the good intentions of our users – is one too many.’ A spokesperson for Gumtree said: ‘We take the welfare of animals extremely seriously. We work closely with leading animal welfare organisations including Dogs Trust, Battersea Dogs & Cats, RSPCA and DEFRA to comply with all industry-endorsed standards to improve animal welfare in an ecommerce environment.

‘If you have any doubts or suspicions about a seller, or concerns about an animal’s welfare, you should report it to us immediately by using the “Report” button listed next to all ads. Our dedicated safety team will then investigate and take necessary actions such as removing the ad, blocking the offender from the site and, where necessary, assisting law enforcement investigations.’

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A spokersperson for Meta (Facebook) said: We have removed the violating content brought to our attention. We do not allow the sale of animals on Facebook, and we will remove posts, pages or groups that violate our guidelines. We continue to invest in technologies and new methods to remove this kind of content, and we encourage people to report illegal activity to the police.’

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing Claie[email protected]

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