The explosion of online shopping means digital screens have become just another shop window for people to buy and sell domestic animals, writes Tracey Porter.
Earlier this year, tough new legislation came into effect in Victoria requiring pet-store owners to keep detailed records on every individual dog and cat offered for sale, including where they were sourced from. Premier Daniel Andrews says under the Labor Government, restrictions will be increased even further, with pet shops limited to only selling dogs or cats supplied by registered animal shelters or pounds.
Plans are also afoot to introduce mandatory pre-mating vet checks in the State and to limit breeding dogs to five litters, as well as to amend legislation to restrict the number of breeding dogs in business to 10 by 2020. The move has been hailed by animal rights groups as a significant step towards cutting down over-breeding, the indiscriminate trade of domestic animals and discouraging impulse buying.
Laws governing the sale of domestic pets vary from State to State. In Victoria, for instance, all pets are required to be micro-chipped prior to being put up for sale. In Tasmania, it is illegal to sell freshwater ornamental fish as pets without a licence, while advertising reptiles such as turtles, snakes, crocodiles and lizards, and amphibians, such as toads and frogs, is prohibited by law in New South Wales.
But without geographical borders, where does this leave the thriving industry of online trade where both buyer and animal are potentially exposed?
Take, for example, popular online trading site Gumtree. A 30-second search on the Australian site returns more than 1000 search results for dogs, cats, birds, horses, rabbits, fish and livestock for sale. Of these, private sellers dominate with around two-thirds of all animal sales, with registered breeders and shelters rounding out the remainder.
At the time of press, the Australian arm of Petlink.com, which also sells animals across its Facebook site, has 600 birds, 100 cats, 350 dogs and 35 ponies listed for sale or swap. The volume is larger on the Trading Post website, however, where on the day Vet Practice searches, more than 2400 dogs, 500 cats, 270 birds and 60 horses are offered for sale.
Dr Susan Hazel, a senior lecturer in animal behaviour, welfare and ethics at the University of Adelaide, says the number of animals sold online in Australia “seems to have increased very rapidly” over the past decade. “A recent survey we did suggests up to 30 per cent of people buy their new puppy online and up to 60 per cent will find their new puppy online.”
Dr Hazel says while her department has been doing some work counting the numbers of puppies being sold online, the fact there is no formal oversight of trade in animals online means it is difficult to collate accurate information.
“The problem is that online sales are totally unregulated … Not a single person in Australia can tell you how many puppy factories are in existence.”—Jodie Jankevics, Animals Australia
Animals Australia relationship manager Jodie Jankevics says commercially motivated backyard breeders use websites such as Gumtree, Trading Post and others to sell pets to people who are often unaware of the conditions the animals were bred in and the parents of the animals usually remain in.
Jankevics says the lack of appropriate regulation of this industry has created an environment where unscrupulous breeders can “thrive and hide”.
“The problem is that online sales are totally unregulated,” says Jankevics. “Add to this the fact that not a single person in Australia can tell you how many puppy factories are in existence, let alone the number of dogs being confined for breeding purposes, and you’ll get a clearer picture of the lack of monitoring.”
To help counter concerns, Gumtree has introduced its own code of practice and responsible pet ownership policies requiring all pet owners to have their animals checked by a vet and vaccinated prior to being listed for sale on its site.
In addition, the policy has strict rules governing the age of animals and unregistered breeders or private sellers face a pricing limit of $500 per pet advertised for adoption or sale. Gumtree says flouting of this policy will result in the post being removed from the site and possible access restrictions.
Concerns are also being raised internationally, too, with animal rights campaigners in the UK criticising Instagram for allowing users to sell unwanted pets online. Campaigners have called on the social media site, owned by Facebook, to ban the trading of animals, claiming that “the easier you make it to buy and sell animals online, the more casual and callous an approach people will take”.
Humanitarian issues aside, others argue purchasing pets online has just as much, or just as little, risk for the purchaser as purchasing an animal via more traditional methods, such as pet shops.
Farmer Donna Barrett says she has had nothing but positive experiences when buying animals from online trading sites. Barrett, who has bought both goats and chickens via Gumtree, says she enjoys the flexibility that comes with purchasing online and the convenience of picking a location near where she lives to allow her to inspect the animal’s environment prior to its re-homing.
No stranger to the practice of purchasing animals, Barrett has under her care two Berkshire pigs hand-picked from a breeder from Forbes in NSW, two great Dane dogs—one ordered overseas by a frozen semen selection from a champion bloodline in Texas, and the second being a rescue great Dane which she later adopted in her role as foster carer with Great Dane Rescue NSW.
In addition, she has two guinea pigs purchased from a local pet shop, two budgies purchased form a backyard breeder and a rescue turtle found in her own backyard.
Barrett says she conducted significant research prior to making her purchases, part of which included meeting and greeting the animal and investigating its current living conditions. “Without a doubt, I would purchase online again. It seems that online shopping is the way to shop.”
Despite concerns from animal advocate groups that some pets purchased online have had to be surrendered because of medical issues not declared at the time of purchase, Barrett believes most online buyers would make no distinction between these pets and those purchased through other means. “My duty of care to the goats [and chickens] is exactly the same as to all my other animals.”
Jankevics says despite what happens at a federal or state level in terms of law making, those at the front line of animal care—such as vets—are in a unique position to increase awareness about the risks of purchasing pets online and encouraging their clients to adopt.
“Dogs and cats who are adopted via reputable shelters and rescue groups have been temperament- and vet-checked prior to sale, giving families an added layer of protection,” says Jankevics. “If their clients choose to purchase from a breeder, then vets can help ensure they’re asking all the right questions, and importantly encourage them to visit the breeding establishment so they can see for themselves the conditions the [animals] are living in.”