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.