Life

Inside the UK's Lockdown Puppy Boom

Puppy ownership has reached peak popularity during the coronavirus lockdown, but it comes with definite risks.
02 July 2020, 8:00am
Why Is Everyone Getting a Puppy in Lockdown?
Image by Bob Foster

Maeve is seven years old and lives with her family in Birmingham. She likes playing with her older brothers and eating cake, but her biggest interest of all is animals. What she has always longed for most is a dog.

At first her mum Karen wondered whether this was a phase. But with Maeve’s birthday coming up in lockdown, she decided to seriously look into getting Maeve her own puppy. What Karen didn’t expect, however, was to come across an industry that had become so inflated over the coronavirus lockdown period that prices for dogs – especially puppies – had skyrocketed.

“We’ve been talking about it for a couple of years, and I’d been looking at the prices before the lockdown,” Karen explains over the phone. Earlier in the year, the puppies she was interested in were around £700. Now breeders were requesting four-figure sums. “We were looking online and the puppies were about £2,000,” she says. “Every single breed had tripled in price.”

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Britain is experiencing a puppy boom in lockdown. Dog breeders and rehoming centres alike say that the demand is like nothing they’ve ever seen. “Between 17th April to 20th May, we recorded 212 calls enquiring about puppies compared to 43 last year, which is an increase of 393 percent,” David McNaught of the adoption charity Dogs Trust tells me. “Just before lockdown began, our contact centre also recorded the busiest weekend on record since it was formed in 2014, with rehoming enquiries from the public.”

Jenny Campbell, a Kennel Club-assured breeder of flatcoated retrievers in Suffolk, tells a similar story. “There has been a huge surge in demand both in my breed and across all breeds,” she says. “One flatcoat breeder advertised a litter online and got 300 enquiries.” They aren't the only one. During my background research for this article, another who has raised English cocker spaniels for over 40 years told me that she’s been getting so many phone calls from people wanting to buy puppies that she’s had to disconnect her landline.

It’s a well-known fact that we are a nation of dog lovers, though this seemed to go from love to bare-faced obsession as lockdown took effect, with people on furlough or working from home realising this could be a prime time to introduce a puppy into their lives.

“Given the current crisis, people might be tempted to get a dog or puppy during lockdown if they are spending more time at home; or may even feel like they need more companionship if they are likely to be spending that time alone.” McNaught says. “We have also found that people often choose to get a dog ahead of the summer holidays, knowing they have a concentrated time at home to get to know and train their dog. Life in lockdown may have prompted a similar response.”

Of course, there are practical reasons for wanting a dog when you’ll be at home a lot, but there are also emotional explanations as to why the lockdown might have felt like an especially good opportunity to get a dog. "Pets are an important source of emotional support and companionship," explains Dr Helen Brooks, a senior lecturer in health services research at the University of Liverpool. “Dogs, in particular, encourage exercise and connect us to nature and our local communities which are good for both our mental and physical health."

In a time so racked with upheaval, loneliness, uncertainty, and stress, dog ownership sounds very attractive indeed – but that comes with some very real consequences for owners and puppies alike.

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On the 3rd of June, former Love Island contestant and influencer Molly Mae-Hague announced that Chai, the puppy she’d been given days earlier for her 21st birthday, had died as the result of being born with a number of severe health conditions. In a YouTube video, she said that the Pomeranian had been shipped to the UK from Russia by a breeder.

The death of Hague’s puppy is a sad high-profile example of a much wider problem suspected to have been exacerbated by the current interest in puppies in the UK. When dogs are bred without proper care, health problems may follow. According to the Blue Cross animal charity, breeders might fail to test for inherited diseases and repeatedly breed the same animals in a phenomenon called “backyard breeding,” wherein “unscrupulous home breeders allow their pets to have a litter just so they can bring in an extra income”.

With demand for puppies so high – and prices to match – dog organisations are concerned that we'll see an increase in get-rich-quick dog breeding.

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The Kennel Club, which runs Crufts and keeps the UK’s national register of pedigree dogs, requires breeders to meet a number of stipulations. It told VICE in a statement: “We are concerned that many rogue breeders could simply be cashing in on the surging demand for popular puppies at this time – hiking up prices, selling puppies too young and breeding dogs and poorly pups without any concern for health or welfare."

Flatcoated retriever breeder Jenny Campbell agrees. “While many breeders are responsible, breeding carefully and not too frequently, ensuring the parents are health-tested and that the puppies are properly reared and socialised, there will always be an element of commercial breeding and profiteering, as we have seen,” she says. “Some of these breeders are taking advantage of the shortage of supply and just profiteering, charging exorbitant prices, and mass producing puppies purely to meet demand.

"I am concerned that the rescue centres and re-homing societies will take the brunt of this situation later in the year, and of course feel sorry for any puppy in this situation.”

David McNaught of Dogs Trust – one of the UK's major dog charities – says that they haven’t “seen an increase in the number of puppies and younger dogs” coming into their care yet, but adds this is probably “because the long-term impact of this emergency is yet to be felt”. Ultimately, he tells me, “it’s likely that animal rehoming centres will come under increased strain due to coronavirus in the coming months, at a time when charities are facing greater financial hardship.”

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This isn’t to say, however, that the story of lockdown puppy love is entirely a sad one. There are many well-prepared new owners currently experiencing the grounding benefits of a furry friend. West Midlands owner Julie bought her Cavachon (a King Charles cavalier spaniel and bichon frise mix) from a breeder she’d been in contact with before lockdown. When I ask how she’s been finding her time with 21-week-old puppy Milo, she tells me enthusiastically: “He has brought so much joy to our lives in the short time we have had him.”

London-based dog owner Loren tells me over the phone that it has been “incredible” to have so much time with her new puppy, a 14-week-old Cockerchon (cocker spaniel and bichon frise mix) named Dio, whom she also got from a reputable breeder. She and her boyfriend had been looking to get a dog for a long time before the coronavirus regulations set in, so lockdown felt like “a really good time for us to be completely available for a little puppy”.

Loren recognises that though she’s pleased to have been at home as Dio has settled in, it has undeniably been a bit of a weird time to get a dog. “The cons would definitely be that we weren’t able to get him walking as early, or socialise him with as many people. But on the flipside, his training has been amazing, and we had time to deal with all the sleepless nights."

Neither Loren or Julie is worried about the changes that the easing or end of the lockdown might bring, as they’re both able to either work from home or bring their dogs to work. They might be the exception – we won’t see the real effects of the recent uptick in dog ownership until lockdown lifts and new owners go back to their workplaces. Evangelos Diamantakos, an animal behaviourist and trustee of the Society for Companion Animal Studies, believes there is "imminent need, from a dog behaviour point of view, the owners train their dog for this end of lockdown period".

“During these unprecedented times, most dog owners are spending more time with their beloved dogs," he explains. "However, this amazing opportunity may come with a possible cost. This 'extended' time of interaction owners have with their dogs is strengthening the bond between them and consequently the dogs’ 'dependence' on the owners’ presence and company.”

It's this type of long-term commitment that professionals worry has been forgotten by those getting dogs impulsively in lockdown. Like toilet roll, hand sanitiser, and flour, puppies could be perceived as the latest items to run short during the pandemic. The difference, obviously, is that they are living, breathing animals that can’t simply be chucked into the supermarket trolley on a whim, and need to be seriously cared for.

The popularity of dogs during the pandemic speaks to our obvious human impulse to bestow care during times of difficulty and stress. But would-be puppy owners should pause to consider the extent to which satisfying that need might actually be a result of our own selfishness. Animals aren't commodities, but the lockdown puppy boom means that they've started to get treated more like products in a shop, instead of new family members.

This was the problem that eventually became apparent for Karen, who decided to put her search for a puppy for Maeve on hold. She’s not opposed to the idea of getting a dog in future, but she’s wary about the welfare of the animals, and was ultimately put off by one breeder who told her offhandedly that her daughter had started breeding dogs for the first time in order to sell them for £2,500 each, “because she wants a deposit for a house”.

For now, she and Maeve have settled on a compromise: a pair of rabbits that cost a much more reasonable £40 a head. Maeve’s pleased. After all, when explaining to her mum exactly why she wants a pet so much, she expressed a sentiment that lots of us can get behind, especially right now. In the matter-of-fact way that only children are capable of, Maeve very simply told Karen: “I just want something furry to love."

@hiyalauren