Pandemic puppies: why lockdown wasn’t the best time to get a dog

By Olivia Jones

The sale of puppies has sky-rocketed during the COVID-19 lockdown period, with a 168% increase in searches on the Kennel Club’s ‘Find a puppy’ tool. Whilst it is heart-warming to see thousands of dogs being taken into loving homes, now that we are returning to work, we must consider the impacts on the animals. 

Dogs (and all pets in fact) can have a great impact on our physical and mental health. Multiple scientific studies suggest they help us with stress, anxiety and depression. They bring out the nurturing nature embedded in us, whilst showering us with unconditional love in return. There really is no other bond like it. And with just under half of the employed population having worked from home mid-lockdown, it may have seemed like the best time to get a dog. 

Being stuck at home means there is time to bond with your new puppy, time to train them and time to have some much-needed company. It’s perfect timing, surely? 

Daniella Dos Santos, the youngest ever President of the British Veterinary Association (BVA), isn’t so sure. I spoke to her about why the BVA thinks there has been such a significant increase in puppy sales during lockdown and why it is raising concerns. 

Puppies should never be an impulse buy

“We think when lockdown initially happened, people thought ‘I’m home all the time now, wouldn’t it be great to get a puppy to keep me company?’. There was a huge demand because people were short-sighted, and they didn’t think whether they could meet the long-term needs of these puppies. We’re worried about behavioural issues, physical health issues, abandonment as a consequence, but also we are worried about the financial impact”.

One of the concerns Daniella has is that now people are returning to work, owners will have less time for their dogs. “We’re worried that this could lead to abandonment, because people appreciate that they aren’t meeting the needs of the dog, or we’re going to end up with a massive upswing of behavioural problems”. 

All dogs can potentially develop a behavioural problem

The first months of a puppy’s life are crucial for many reasons, but this is a particularly vital time for behavioural development. This is the period in a dog’s life where they are highly influential and most susceptible to their surroundings. The BVA has concerns that due to the lockdown period, puppies have lacked the opportunity to experience everyday normalities and this could lead to future behavioural problems. 

“In their formative weeks and months, puppies have not met other people, they’ve not met other dogs and they’ve not gone out and learnt that the noise of a lorry is nothing to be worried about. They’ve had people around 24/7. Then all of a sudden everybody disappears, so we’re really worried that we’ll see an upswing in separation anxiety issues.” 

One way that Daniella is advising people to try overcoming separation anxiety is by creating a routine. “Consistency is key; routine matters. If you can set up some form of a routine, even if you’re working from home, it is really important to try and give these dogs a secure home environment. Also giving them access to a safe space, having a corner of the house just for them, a den or something like that is really important and it’s important that owner’s respect that. It’s also worth considering taking breaks from each other. If you do have a super affectionate dog who really likes company, we need to think ahead. Plan times of the day just to have some time away from each other, even if you’re just in a separate room.”

Another key to understanding your pets’ behaviour is to learn to read their body language. “Watch out for body language, as that could tell you if an animal is uncomfortable. Learn the signs such as lip smacking, ear position and eye position. Vets can help you with that and the BVA website has some good resources to try and learn how to read your pets body language. You might think that giving your dog a cuddle is great, but the dog might hate that,” said Daniella.

It’s not just puppies that have been affected by the lockdown; adult dogs are also adapting to having their owners’ home more. Dogs Trust has reported that over a quarter of owners have noticed a new behavioural problem in their dog during the lockdown period

“We’re in this situation where we think that all dogs will have loved having people around all of the time and actually for many that is the case, but for some dogs, who perhaps before this were used to owners being at work, we suddenly have owners working from home and children not in school and that can be stressful.”

“Some dogs will change their behaviour because they’re in pain or they have a medical condition, so do make sure you reach out to your vet so they can make sure there’s nothing medical going on”. 

The puppy shortage

Apart from behaviour, another major concern for the BVA is the increasing demand for puppies. There are apprehensions that this could lead to an increase in unethical breeding and the importing of dogs from abroad. 

“We’re worried that the consequence of the increased demand is unscrupulous breeders breeding more puppies, with no regard for their health and welfare and in poor and unhygienic conditions. They’re breeding poorly bred puppies that are unhealthy and have all sorts of problems. We’re concerned that as time goes, there will be an increase of illegal imports to try and meet this demand, which is purely for financial gain for these breeders.”

With the increased breeding of puppies, there are also concerns for physical health issues, including genetic problems and infectious diseases such as parvovirus. Parvovirus is a disease that infects the intestines of young dogs, causing severe diarrhoea, vomiting and dehydration, which can be fatal. 

“We know that infectious diseases like parvovirus spread rapidly where there’s no vaccination, where there’s lots of dogs in a small environment or where there’s no hygiene. So, we’re seeing diseases like parvo due to unscrupulous breeders. We may also see genetic problems – for example larger breed dogs bred without hip scoring on the parents.”  

In addition to physical and behavioural health, finances are an important aspect to consider when deciding to purchase a dog.  Daniella says “We have to bear in mind that we’re heading into a recession, we have people that may have less disposable income and may be in a position that they can’t afford veterinary care, so we’re worried that we’re going to see a massive upturn in demand for charity or low cost veterinary care. And that’s at a point when we know charities are really struggling – they haven’t been able to fundraise, so there is also that concern, but this could also lead to abandonment.”

Do your research 

“We are advising prospective owners to only seek out responsible breeders, because the only way we are going to stop unscrupulous breeders making money out of poorly bred puppies is to encourage everyone to do their research. I would strongly encourage anyone who is reading this and wants to get a puppy should look at the ‘Puppy Contract’, which goes through the questions you should ask before you buy a dog to make sure you’re getting one from a good breeder. If you have any doubts, walk away. I know how difficult that is when you walk and see a horrible environment, but if we don’t walk away and we don’t stop putting money into the pockets of unscrupulous breeders, this will continue. Dogs will continue to suffer and we as their owners will continue to suffer heartache.” 

Daniella also encourages anyone looking to get an adult dog to look at UK rescue centres, as there are many dogs in rescues in need of a home, and the ‘Puppy Contract’ can also be applied when looking for an adult dog. 

“If you have any concerns [about your dog] speak to your vet first of all – whether that is concerns about physical health, mental health, or finances. We would urge you to always seek help from a vet or from charities if you are really in dire straits, rather than abandoning an animal. So please, if you are in real difficult situations in terms of finances and so on, please contact a rescue rather than abandoning. I would urge people to think when they are ever considering getting a dog or cat or any pet, just to think – can you look after their needs in the long term?”

For more information on the resources mentioned above, please visit these websites:

https://www.bva.co.uk

https://puppycontract.org.uk

With special thanks to Daniella Dos Santos and the BVA.

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