In the last few decades, the development of e-commerce has led to a general increase in pet trade, and particularly to the illegal one. Buying pets online is easily accessible, and offers a vast supply with no waiting time and no questions asked.
The online trade of animals is largely unregulated and constitutes multiple serious risks: it facilitates the possibility of false documentation, which increases the risks for the animals welfare and health, as well as undermining consumers’ rights, making it impossible to report any issues. The problem is exacerbated by online platforms and social media allowing unverified ads.
A recent EU Coordinated Control Plan on online sales of dogs and cats by the European Commission revealed that, in a sample of online transactions, many of the animals were too young, unhealthy or not vaccinated. Transported for long journeys, newborn puppies and kittens suffer from heat or cold, thirst and stress, and are at high risk of transmissible diseases. Those that survive often become poorly socialised and unmanageable, leading to abandonment.
A website created by our member organisation Four Paws documents the various ways in which animals are mistreated throughout the value chain. In a majority of cases there are administrative deficiencies including fake IDs, and inappropriate means of transporting the animals. A 2015 study commissioned by the EU also revealed that pet owners buying from online vendors or pet shops receive less information on the welfare of their pets, compared to those who adopt their pets or buy them directly from a legitimate breeder. Insufficient information can lead to animals being sold to a buyer who may very well have expected something different, increasing the chances that they will not be willing or able to care for the pet.
Curbing the online trade of cats and dogs and holding traders to account is difficult, given the lack of a regulatory framework. Online traders are uncontrolled third parties and are mostly not legally required to certify their identity or any further details.
In addition to animal welfare standards not being maintained and the suffering of animals, there is also an institutional argument for increased control of the illegal online trade, as it deprives public institutions from potential income through levies and registration fees. If these transactions were monitored and taxed, the resources could be invested to further improve monitoring and control mechanisms.
WHAT DOES THE PUBLIC THINK?
The online puppy trade is booming, fuelled by a consumer demand for certain breeds, an increase in online classified advertisement, and a pet passport system which currently does not work and can be easily abused. It is estimated that 8 million puppies are annually needed to supply the demand, making the online trade worth over more than 1 billion euros.
More and more online platforms, such as eBay, Gumtree, or Facebook, are emerging and their administrators don’t take responsibility for what happens concerning the transactions. This makes it more difficult to control the trade and, most importantly, to ensure that transactions are legal, animals are treated humanely, and that consumers are not exposed to fraud.
Most online platforms are not willing to change on a voluntary basis. In 2019 the Barcelona City Council demanded the withdrawal of advertisements selling animals on the popular web portals Milanuncios and Vibbo. The Council said that such adverts “do not respect the rules in force for selling animals” and put animal welfare at risk. However, such outcomes are in the minority.
According to our report and workshop Illegal Pet Trade: Game Over, 93% of the public, including a majority of the Ministries, believes that online platforms like OLX, eBay or Gumtree should be responsible for verifying the sellers’ information (e.g. their identity, pet information) and that it should be made mandatory to advertise only registered dogs and cats (90%).
POLICY - CURRENT STATE OF PLAY
The scale and global nature of the internet makes it very difficult to define jurisdiction and enforce existing legislation, both for Member States and for the EU as a whole.
The illegal online cat and dog trade is disguised as the non-commercial movement of pets, in other words, pets travelling with their owner without transactions involved. This is covered by Regulation (EU) 576/2013, which establishes various health requirements, but most, if not all, traded animals do not comply.
As animals are still classified as commodities, the legislation regulating their trade must comply with the rules of the free movements of goods. This means that the existing EU legal framework for the protection of consumers also applies to the commerce of pets.
The Consumer Rights Directive and the Directive on contracts for the online and other distance sales of goods could apply to the trade of pets, but the former does not include specific provisions for the pet trade, and the latter explicitly excludes the sales of live animals. The aspect of online platforms responsibility is one of the main subjects of the upcoming Digital Services Act.
The EU Coordinated Control Plan on online sales of dogs and cats has already recognised the problem and identified the following areas of concern: lack of identification of animals and traders, and technical difficulties to control the online market.
There are three pieces of EU legislation that, if efficiently applied to the selling of pets, would guarantee an improved protection of pets and their owners’ rights as consumers, especially when the information provided on the animals are misleading:
Animal Health Law, Delegated Act on Identification & Registration that is still pending and is to be addressed by the European Commission
Directive Modernising Consumer Law as a part of the New Deal for Consumers
Directive on Electronic Commerce that, if revised under the Digital Services Act, would allow to address the issue of responsibility and information duties of online intermediaries