Consequences of pandemic restrictions on puppies revealed - Veterinary Practice
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Consequences of pandemic restrictions on puppies revealed

Puppy imports, designer crossbreeds and the closure of puppy classes have been identified as the key differences in the early lives of puppies purchased in 2020 during the pandemic restrictions

A study by the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) has revealed that puppies purchased during the pandemic in 2020, in comparison to pre-pandemic puppies bought in 2019, were more likely to have been “designer crossbreeds”, for example a Cockapoo or Cavapoo, instead of Kennel Club registered purebred dogs. The 2020 cohort of pandemic puppies were also more likely to already hold a pet passport at purchase, indicating they may have been imported from Europe – perhaps in some cases illegally – to meet the greatly increased demand and prices for puppies during the pandemic.

These findings are important to improve advice to the public on responsible purchasing that prioritises puppy welfare, as well as how best to manage puppy behavioural issues that may have arisen because of lockdown restrictions.

The pandemic puppies study, funded by the British Veterinary Association (BVA) Animal Welfare Foundation, is the largest of its kind – compiling data from more than 5,500 UK owners using an online survey. It explored the early socialisation, health and behaviour of “pandemic puppies” purchased in 2020 compared to 2019 puppies.

Among the positive findings was the fact that many of the health and socialisation experiences examined did not vary significantly between puppies purchased in 2019 and 2020. This is testament to the commitment of the 2020 owners to raise their dog well despite the challenges posed by the pandemic. However, because of lockdown restrictions, there were still some concerns such as 2020 “pandemic puppies” being less likely than 2019 puppies to attend puppy training classes or to have experienced visitors to their homes (under the age of 16 weeks in both circumstances).

The RVC’s researchers believe these differences between 2019 and 2020 puppies could potentially lead to the development of future behavioural problems in some pandemic puppies. For example, pandemic puppies may experience stranger-related fear and anxiety (due to the limited prior exposure to visitors to their home) and other behavioural problems related to insufficient socialisation, from being unable to attend puppy classes under 16 weeks of age; a critical period for the development of puppies. As a result, enhanced support is likely needed from the veterinary profession, particularly those specialising in animal behaviour, to help owners of “pandemic puppies”.

Dr Claire Brand, researcher in canine welfare at the RVC said: “For many of us, life over the past two years changed in countless ways due to the pandemic. During periods of the tightest restrictions, our social experiences with others outside of the home environment were greatly impacted, including those with puppies bought during this period.

“Despite many owners’ concerted efforts to raise their puppies as well as possible, some puppies missed out on key experiences of puppyhood, such as going to puppy classes, or experiencing visitors in their homes. This has potential consequences for the future behaviour of ‘pandemic puppies’ and so we encourage owners to seek out training and behaviour advice from accredited professionals so that these now adult dogs can learn to live happily in our post-lockdown world.”

The increase in “pandemic puppies” having a pet passport prior to purchase also suggests that many of these puppies were imported for sale into the UK and were possibly sourced from lower welfare sources such as illegal puppy smugglers. It is important for prospective owners to be aware of this surreptitious but growing supply of puppies to the UK. As well as checking for a passport, prospective owner should be alert to other “red flags” for irresponsible and illegal breeding. These may include being offered to collect your puppy from anywhere other than inside the breeders’ property or puppies being sold without their mother present. 

Dr Rowena Packer, lecturer in companion animal behaviour and welfare science at the RVC said: “The demand for puppies during the pandemic outstripped supply from legitimate, welfare-conscious sources. Our finding that “pandemic puppies” were more likely to be sold with a passport leads us to fear that some owners may have unknowingly supported the growing puppy import trade, lining the pockets of importers who care little for the welfare of puppies and their mothers.

“Attracted by this booming demand, unscrupulous breeders and puppy importers have cashed in by intensively breeding large numbers of puppies in poor conditions. These puppies are often then transported over long distances at a young age and without their mothers to meet the UK’s demand. This has particularly been the case for popular breeds including designer crossbreeds like the Cockapoo and Cavapoo, Dachshunds and flat-faced breeds like the French Bulldog.

“These stressful early life experiences could have long-term impacts on the future well-being of these dogs and we urge owners to seek help from veterinary professionals if they have any concerns over their dog’s behaviour or health.”

As lifestyles transition away from the acute pandemic-induced changes and restrictions, it is advised that owners should aim to attend training classes with their puppies and dogs. Owners should make sure that these classes use positive reinforcement methods to avoid compromising their dog’s welfare. Owners concerned about any aspect of their dog’s behaviour should see their veterinary surgeon in the first instance, who may then refer them onto an appropriately qualified behaviourist. Use of services such as dog walkers and day-care facilities may also help owners who need to return to their place of work, thus limiting the amount of time their dogs are left alone.

Dr Dan O’Neill, associate professor in companion animal epidemiology at the RVC said: “’Pandemic puppies’ are such a special cohort of dogs in so many ways. Like human cohorts such as the baby boomers or the millennials, these puppies of the pandemic will carry the ghosts of their unique puppyhoods during the COVID-19 lockdowns with them into their adulthoods. This is likely to shape the dogs that they become. The Pandemic Puppies study tells a gripping story about the lives of these puppies that helped humanity get through our darkest days of the pandemic.”

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