“Best of Health”: July 2016 – The Great British Puppy Survey

Best of HealthI’ve recently finished reading The Great British Puppy Survey 2016 which was organised by a group of independent dog and animal welfare campaigners. They are Canine Action UK, CARIAD, Hidden-in-sight, The Karlton Index, Naturewatch Foundation and Pup Aid.

This group wanted to examine the behaviours and attitudes of UK puppy buyers to provide data that might inform future campaigns and policy-making, with the overall aim of improving welfare outcomes for dogs.

The online survey ran for a year (January 2015 – January 2016) and received 4303 responses, of which 3670 were described as “complete”. The responses comprise both quantitative and qualitative data, from a mixture of multiple choice/ranking questions and free text questions.

The first question you have to ask is to what extent that sample size is statistically significant. If it’s not, then any conclusions and, more importantly, any recommendations may be flawed.

Virtually all the puppies (97%) were purchased by survey respondents between 2010 and 2015 (6 years), a period when a reasonable estimate of total UK puppies bought would be 750,000 per year. Given that population, a quick test shows that a sample of 4000 responses would lead to a Confidence Interval of +/- 1.55 at the 95% Confidence Level. In other words, we can consider this to be a big enough sample upon which to draw statistically significant conclusions. We do, however, also have to consider the potential biases in the sample and their responses.

70% of people had bought a pedigree dog and many of those who had bought a crossbred had chosen a so-called Designer Breed, such as a Cockapoo or Cavachon. Interestingly, 80% of people had previous experience of owning a dog, so this does introduce a particular bias to the results. You would assume that the buying attitudes and behaviours of people with previous dog-owning experience would be somewhat different to those who had never owned a dog.

Unfortunately, the data presented in the report has not been analysed in this way, but it would be very easy to do this. I would be really interested to see if new owners were less rigorous in their research and decision-making process than experienced owners, or if they ended up with puppies that had more health and welfare problems. This could be important to help determine whether communications to the two groups should be different. There has been some interesting evidence published, based on Government (HMRC) “nudge” communications. Using language that is tailored to the audience has improved compliance rates in letters about tax returns. For example, “9 out of 10 small business owners like you have already submitted their Tax Return” gets a better response than “your Tax Return is overdue”. A similar approach could perhaps be used with puppy buyers to help them in their decision-making.

Pre-purchase Research

Half the respondents researched both “responsible dog ownership” and ”different breeds” via books, magazines and the Internet before buying their dog and 1 in 8 consulted the KC for advice. 15% asked their vet for advice, which I suspect is a reflection of the number of existing/previous owners in the sample. I’d be surprised if a first-time buyer would consult a vet. Perhaps surprisingly, 15% also visited dog shows to find out about their preferred breed. This is obviously encouraging and a good reason to make shows welcoming to visitors. Only 2% of these respondents did no research, which again suggests to me that many of the responses are slightly skewed by the 80% who had previously owned dogs.

Online classified websites were the main source of adverts, with Pets4Homes being used by about a third of buyers. Having found a breeder (or seller), nearly one-third did an online search for that person’s name. That, I think is interesting and positive as it is more likely to throw up articles on puppy farmers and welfare issues that have made it into the public domain.

Puppy sellers

There appears to be significant confusion among the puppy-buying public about licensing, KC Registration and accreditation (e.g. ABS membership). Half the respondents did not know the difference between people who were selling KC Registered puppies and those who were ABS members. In another question, buyers ranked “the seller was licensed” at number 7 in importance to their buying decision, compared with “able to see mum” and “right breed, sex, temperament” which were ranked first and second. It would appear that “licensing” or accreditation are not high in the priorities of buyers and, given the numerous puppy farm TV programmes where premises are licensed, there is probably still a big credibility gap to bridge. I wonder if the tarnished reputation of Local Authority licensing is carried over into scepticism over the value of the ABS. Surely, UKAS accreditation is the factor that differentiates the two.

In this survey, 80% of buyers saw the puppy’s mother when they bought their puppy. That leaves a shocking one-fifth who didn’t and suggests the “See Mum” message has much more work to do. Add to that the evidence that dealers and other less reputable sellers are setting up “fake Mum” situations to hoodwink buyers and it’s clear that “see Mum” might be overly simplistic as a single message to buyers.

Post-purchase experiences

One in five buyers reported problems with their puppy that required veterinary treatment. Of those, just over a third developed symptoms within the first week of ownership, with 1 in 20 facing vet bills of over £3000.

It’s probably not surprising that so many issues emerged in the first week of ownership as it can be a stressful transition for any puppy, however well-reared, as it moves to its new home. However, there is plenty of research evidence that the temperaments of poorly-reared puppies are worse than those from a good welfare background and you would assume that well-reared puppies will have a less traumatic transition. This also raises a strong argument for puppies to have only one transition; that is from their breeder to their new home. Transport between commercial breeders and retailers, via dealers, and time spent in pet shops cannot be good for the welfare of any puppy.

Puppy owners in this survey also appear to have been either unaware or unclear where they could complain if their puppy had problems. 72% took no action, while others typically complained to the KC, Local Authority, Trading Standards or the RSPCA. With this range of reporting, it would probably be very difficult to identify recurring issues from particular sellers. More than half the owners who had problems found their seller to be “very helpful” and only 6% said they were “completely unhelpful”.

Did these buyers learn any lessons?

More than half the buyers claimed they would do nothing differently and it would be really useful to know how this differed, if at all, between new owners and those who had previously owned a dog.

Surprisingly, nearly one third said that, next time, they would rehome from a rescue centre. This perhaps suggests they are looking for some degree of certainty about who the seller is, but they may not have considered why a dog might be in rescue in the first place. It’s certainly debatable whether there are sufficient dogs in rescue to meet this potential level of demand.

The other main lessons learnt were: visit the puppy at least twice before purchase, see the puppy interact with its mother, request health test results, ask more questions and do an online search for the seller’s name. It strikes me that if we could achieve this combination of buying behaviours it could make a significant difference to the puppy-buying process and would make it significantly more difficult for high-volume, poor-welfare breeders to continue their trade.

Next steps: See Mum Twice!

The report suggests that further analysis of the responses will be carried out and acknowledges that more data is needed on the behaviours and experiences of first-time puppy buyers. Both of these will, I’m sure, be helpful.

The current licensing and inspection system is clearly flawed and failing, but the chances of politicians addressing this anytime soon seem remote.

I’ve said before “if you wait for the perfect set of data, you’ll wait a very long time” and there are certainly some actions that can be taken quickly to help nudge buyers in the right direction and to make it more difficult for low-welfare sellers to get away with it. “See Mum twice” could be a key message that has the potential to make a big difference.

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