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Regulating the sale of pets online

Online purchases are naturally approached with caution and any avid online shopper knows to be wary of individual sellers and their authenticity. Buyers become much more vigilant when it comes to high ticket items to lessen the risk of losing out monetarily, but the general public may not hold sentient beings to the same value – the online animal trade is famously hard to monitor and often operates above the law.

It’s not only rogue sellers who are a problem to the online market – when it comes to living beings, buyers can be just as troublesome. Often are stories reported where pets bought online are rehomed or taken to rescue centres in as little as days or hours after being purchased by new owners.

A lack of education and general preparedness are frequently the major factors behind these rapid rehomings. It is safe to assume that owners would not intentionally part with hundreds of pounds only to give the pet up for adoption or rehome it within a short space of time, but behind the shocking headlines are actual pets being given up and moved around without time to settle.

The internet marketplace is seen as an unregulated playground and even when procedures and systems are put in place, there is less trust than in-person equivalents. But just how bad is the selling of pets online? With the decision to implement Lucy’s Law set to have an definitive effect on the bricks-and-mortar segment of the trade, what is the online world doing to catch up?

Gumtree, the online classifieds company which recently hit deadlines after a six-week-old Jack Russell Terrier named Buddy was purchased on the platform and rehomed just hours later, has introduced a paywall on its pet section to help it filter those with underhand practices as well as bring trust back to its company and the overall online sale of pets. Although all of its operations are conducted online and it is very much an internet company, Gumtree admits that the internet has made the trading of pets “far too easy”. A spokesperson says: “Animals can be traded at the click of a button and, whilst legal, it has become too casual.”

Despite the negative press, the company insists that it has always advocated for the welfare of pets above all, and has always aimed to educate prospective owners with its Pet Advice Hub, which includes a Rehoming Guide, Buyer’s Guide and Buyer Checklist, found in the same part of the site where buying and selling takes place. Our spokesperson insists: “Our goal is that all animals advertised for sale online are advertised legally and ethically.” Considering that many potential owners grossly underestimate the cost and dedication required for pet keeping which then leads to the subsequent rehoming, this is just one of the steps the company is taking to reduce the frequency of such cases.

While it can be hard to place blame when it seems both parties acted legally, the quick adoption of a pet also brings into question the ethics of the person doing the selling. Just how much information and advice is given before money changes hands and what happens if the seller is someone who has little to no regard for animals at all?

Gumtree has apparently taken the “deliberate and purposeful” step away from its ‘free for all’ model in the pets category. Gumtree is a member of regulatory organisation Pet Advertising Advisory Group (PAAG), along with Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, Cats Protection and PDSA, but said even with its membership and compliance, the illegal pet trade “continued to circumvent systems across the industry” leading to the introduction of the paywall in an effort to discourage the “casual” trading of animals online. “The paywall is a measure we introduced in August and have imposed on ourselves not because we are required to do so by government or our colleagues in the animal welfare industry, but because we believe it is the right thing to do.”

In the month or so since it’s had the paywall, Gumtree says it has seen an “anticipated” drop in inventory in its pets category, particularly in “certain animal species”. This was fine, the company says, and it expected the compulsory paywall in the pets category to create “an obstacle that will naturally discourage users from casually posting pet ads” making it easier for Gumtree and law enforcement officers to identify illegal operators.

The paywall requires anyone wishing to place an ad in the pets category to pay a fee of £2.99 – small enough to encourage continued use from legitimate and safe traders but significant enough to deter repeat offenders and rulebreakers. Furthermore, users are not allowed to request pets in the website’s ‘wanted’ section as, “There are plenty of pets to choose from on the site and in sanctuaries across the country,” the company says. The site’s moderators also work to remove any ads which they consider suspicious, and to complete the policy structure, Gumtree has a Pets Code of Practice – with which all sellers must comply when placing an ad.

Referencing Buddy’s case and the lack of education among buyers, Gumtree’s spokesperson describes the event as “disheartening”, but insists the majority of pets sold on the platform are rehomed by responsible owners. “Sadly, these sorts of cases do happen occasionally,” they said, but the firm hope’s its paywall will “encourage people to take their decision to home a pet more seriously”.

Gumtree also uses advice from the Kennel Club in light of the charity’s research on the challenges new owners face when buying online to assist in the safety and wellbeing of pets. The company also urges potential owners to “first seek accredited local shelters or rehoming centres” ahead of its platform, which it insists falls in line with the incoming Lucy’s Law. Speaking about other upcoming legislative changes including the Animals Activities Licensing, Gumtree’s spokesperson says while the changes are “limited” when it comes to online regulation, it is in “full support” of the updates to the law and the effect it’ll have on the whole sector.

Additionally, the site warns buyers to watch out for people selling popular breeds for cheap prices, urges them to visit any advertisers giving away animals for free or adoption to discern their legitimacy and tells them to not buy the pet if they cannot view it. It also advises buyers to report sellers where the conditions seem “suspicious” or there are concerns that the pet’s environment is being “deliberately hidden”.

The spokesperson says: “We continue to focus on educating our users on how to buy pets safely and responsibly.” In an attempt to cover all bases, the company also says that when it comes to looking for the right buyer for a pet: “There is no obligation to sell pets to the first person who is interested, or the tenth for that matter, as the welfare of the pet should be top priority.”

Possibly being one of the best-known online platforms for pet sales, Gumtree hopes that through its membership and adherence to PAAG’s standards, the advice offered on the site and its emphasis on going to a shelter before going to its platform, it will set itself apart from other internet marketplaces and restore trust with animal lovers and the professional pet sector.

Going forward, Gumtree’s spokesperson says the company “will be continuing [its] work with the relevant authorities and stakeholders – from PAAG and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to law enforcement” as well as closely monitoring for any new legislation relating to the sale of pets to ensure its platform is up to standard. “We remain committed to abiding by industry standards to ensure the welfare of animals and safety of our users.”

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