Think before you click

Tighter controls are needed on the growing phenomenon of online pet advertisements to protect the health and welfare of the dogs and cats involved and the consumer rights of their owners, explains Rory Watson
Photo credit: Jean-Yves Limet

By Rory Watson

11 Dec 2018

That was the message emerging from the annual reception of the EU Dog and Cat Alliance, organised by The Parliament Magazine and hosted by S&D Czech MEP Pavel Poc late last month.

Poc, the President of Parliament’s Intergroup on the Welfare and Conservation of Animals, called for EU-wide registration of domestic cats and dogs, better enforcement of existing legislation and tougher sanctions on criminal activity.

He referred to his resolution on the illegal trade in pets adopted in July, which, among many measures, calls for an EU platform to link national databases of pets, authorised breeders and sellers.

“Pets can’t speak and need people to speak for them,” he said, adding that he “fully supported initiatives taking place in Member States” that are already making a difference.

Eric van der Sommen, veterinary and phytosanitary counsellor at the Permanent Representation of the Netherlands to the EU, described the compulsory and voluntary measures his country uses.

“Our main concern are internet platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn,” he said. “You can’t really see what kinds of animals are being sold, their age, origin or whether they have been vaccinated. You always take a risk.”

The compulsory action the Alliance would like to see focuses on identifying and registering the animals involved as an initial step in uncovering fraud.

“This is a joint task for the Commission and member states,” he explained. Voluntary activity includes awareness raising, sharing good practice and learning from others’ mistakes.

The Netherlands has taken the lead in creating a special EU subgroup on the health and welfare of pets traded across borders. It held its first meeting on 21 June and brings together representatives of national governments, NGOs and professional bodies.

“We share a common goal. We will not walk away from the responsibility put on us by individuals and society. Voluntary standards are something the Netherlands can strongly support," Van der Sommen told the audience.

Suzie Carley, Chair of the EU Dog & Cat Alliance, explained that the organisation now has 85 members from 25 EU member states. It aims to influence policymaking, coordinate initiatives and encourage dialogue on issues which affect the health and welfare of the estimated 66 million dogs and 74 million cats owned in the EU.

"Pets can't speak and need people to speak for them" Pavel Poc MEP

She acknowledged that the internet is a great democratiser, enabling many citizens to buy a pet online.  Yet the absence of checks means unscrupulous breeders and sellers can hide behind anonymity for financial gain.

Recent research has shown around half a million cats and dogs are advertised for sale online on a given day. But as she pointed out: “Sales are unregulated in three-quarters of EU member states. Many pets are brought up in cruel and inhuman conditions.”

It is not only puppies and kittens that suffer. Owners do too from having a pet that may be ill or fragile.

However, Carley explained, “Self-regulation can provide workable solutions to an unregulated area.”

She highlighted two responses the Alliance has developed to tackle the illegal trade. The first is aimed at individual pet buyers, urging them to consider carefully before committing themselves online.

“There is a solution and it is in all our hands: think before you click."

The second is the creation of national Pet Advertising Advisory Groups (PAAGs). These work with animal welfare organisations, trade associations, veterinary bodies and others. Their aim is to ensure online pet advertisements apply minimum standards, meet success criteria and are subject to monitoring and reporting.

“Sales are unregulated in three-quarters of EU member states. Many pets are brought up in cruel and inhuman conditions” Suzie Carley, Chair of the EU Dog and Cat Alliance

Marco Valletta from the cabinet of Health and Food Safety Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, referred to the Commission’s 2015 report on cats and dogs in commercial practices. This confirmed large discrepancies, fuelled by the internet, between registered and unregistered pets traded between member states.

The EU is encouraging awareness of the issues involved and training to tackle them. In 2017, it established the EU platform on animal welfare. This brings together national authorities, businesses, civil society and scientists to address issues that cannot be solved by legislation.

In particular, it focuses on improving application of animal welfare rules, developing voluntary commitments by businesses and promoting animal welfare standards.

Other possible avenues include current moves to merge the various strands of animal welfare legislation into one overall arching framework.

But questions of subsidiarity and proportionality must first be assessed if domestic cats and dogs are to be included in its ambit. He also pointed to EU eCommerce legislation, which requires national authorities to remove any illegal content from the internet.

He gave strong support to national PAAGs, describing them as “a good step in the right direction”.

“We really believe this is the way forward. Legislation is not always the solution. Your initiative can be quicker and more effective,” he added.

In his concluding remarks, Poc noted that 2019 would be a politically important year with the European parliamentary elections and a new European Commission.

But throughout these changes “our most faithful friends will be by our side," he added.

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