EYES puffy and scabbed over and his fur matted with pus, emaciated Cookie the kitten couldn’t have looked further from the cute and cuddly images in his online advert.
Torn from his mother early, Cookie was just four weeks old – drastically under the required eight-week mark – when he was sold by unscrupulous breeders for £150.
He was riddled with worms and fleas, had a burst abscess on his neck, and at one point vets were unsure if they’d be able to save his eyes.
Horrifyingly, this is not a one-off case.
Clueless to the hazards of buying a pet online, his unaware owner had been what is now described as ‘petfished’ – which is currently the focus of a campaign launched by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
A play on the phrase ‘catfished’, the term refers to when a breeder advertises healthy puppies and kittens from a happy home online, but in reality they’re sick animals, often from a cruel pet farm, bred in inhumane, unhygienic conditions for the sake of profit.
In 2019 alone, at least 190,000 online adverts for puppies and kittens were available to the public, and 87 per cent of all calls made to the RSPCA about the puppy trade come from people who have bought dogs from online ads.
Worryingly, it comes as the welfare charity reports a spike in visits to their fostering pages as Brits in lockdown seek pets for company during the coronavirus crisis.
Parasites, profuse diarrhoea and death
Now six months old, thankfully Cookie was nursed back to health by Cats Protection and has since been adopted – but not every story like this has a happy ending.
Petfishing can even result in death within hours or days of bringing a pet home, and for experts it’s a frustrating and heartbreaking problem they see on a regular basis.
“Gumtree is a very common place for these sales but you see them anywhere – [even] Craigslist or Facebook," says Michael Lazaris, 30, a vet at RSPCA Putney Animal Hospital. "They’ll often provide little or false information.
“The [animals are] often riddled with parasites, intestinal worms and many of them are younger than the minimum eight weeks, which means they’re taken away from their mothers far too early.
“You have clients who are excited they’ve got a new puppy and a day or two later they bring them in vomiting and passing profuse, bloody diarrhoea."
Some of these poor animals don’t survive, resulting in devastated owners and hefty vet bills.
“Often they’ll have infectious diseases which can be avoidable through proper welfare and hygiene and looking after the mother," says Lazaris.
"We often see parvovirus in dogs – this is a severe form of vomiting and diarrhoea – quite a few puppies who have this end up dying. Around fifty per cent survive, and vet bills rack up into the thousands.
"That’s just the upfront cost – many will have conditions that will also be costly for the rest of their lives.”
‘My puppy was at death’s door within 17 hours of buying him’
For mum-of-two Rebecca Reed, 44, from Sussex, buying her dog Max from a third party seller on site Pets4Homes – where puppies can be sold for anywhere up to £2,000 – ended up costing her over £5,500 in vet bills.
She was left distraught when Max, now four, collapsed and almost died within 17 hours of bringing him home.
Before that moment, there’d been little to cause suspicion.
“We took about six months to decide to get another dog and did a lot of research online," says Rebecca – who also has a rescue labrador called Louis.
“We found an advert on Pets 4 Homes within a 40 mile radius of us for cavapoo puppies – a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel/Poodle cross – with a nice picture. It said they were Kennel Club registered, de-wormed, fleaed, vaccinated and brought up with children – everything you’d want.
“When we got there, it was a normal family home. We saw three puppies, and the dogs they said were the litter’s mum and dad.
“We fell in love with Max. He went straight to my son and curled up on his lap – he chose us.”
Despite all the positive signs, unbeknown to Rebecca and her family, it all turned out to be lies.
In fact, Max wasn’t a Cavapoo at all and was instead a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel/ Bichon Frise cross – a fact found out later after a DNA test.
It also turned out he was just five weeks old – far too young to be separated from his mother.
The family paid a £100 deposit for the £475 pup, and agreed to pick him up a week later once they’d returned from holiday.
“He was very quiet initially, which we put down to being taken away from his environment and missing his mum," Rebecca says.
However, just 17 hours later, Max’s life was in danger.
“My husband rang me and said I needed to get home and Max was basically on his last legs – he’d collapsed and couldn’t even lift his head," Rebecca says.
"He was just like a rag and we were warned he might not survive the night. It was awful.”
He stayed on a drip for 18 days in total while the vets carried out tests.
“He couldn’t keep any food down or anything," Rebecca adds. "He was very lethargic, and gagging, and couldn’t even drink water.”
'Worse than having a baby'
Rebecca was left an "emotional wreck" – but the financial implications were huge too.
“In total, including what we’d paid for him, it came to just over £6,000," Rebecca says. "I didn’t question paying the money – from the day I had that puppy in my hands I knew I would do everything I could for him.”
Eventually, Max was diagnosed with megaesophagus – a hereditary condition in which the dog's oesophagus doesn't function properly and prevents it from swallowing food.
“It was worse than having a baby – we had to feed him liquidised food every two to three hours then wind him to burp. We had to do this for six months," Rebecca says.
Sadly, it transpired Max had been puppy farmed by a gang who were later prosecuted – they’d made £2million before being caught.
“After Max was ill I text the breeder twice and he replied once, but after that they stopped replying and wouldn’t answer my calls," Rebecca says.
“I felt angry – we’d been fooled but it turned out they were professionals who’d been doing this for years”.
At eight months Max underwent an op, with vets cutting from the shoulder blade to the chest, to repair his oesophagus, and thankfully he has gone on to make a full recovery.
‘I had to have my five-week kitten put down’
Shop manager Amy Heathcote, 31, from Southend, Essex, bought her kitten Marley in July 2019, but tragically had to have him put down just a week later when he was just five weeks old.
“I’d always been brought up with pets, and already had two cats when I saw Marley advertised on Gumtree," she says. "It was a litter of seven kittens, who were being advertised at eight weeks old, for £100 each.
“I found out after that she was advertising multiple different litters of puppies too at the same time, and there was another advert elsewhere advertising Marley at a higher price too.
“I messaged asking if I could go and view him so I went and saw him that night. He had such unusual colouring, and he was the one that came over to me straight away.
"There were no alarm bells at the house, and I paid a deposit and arranged to pick him up the following week.
The seller told Amy he was fully weaned and eating Whiskas cat food, but as soon as she got him home she knew that wasn’t the case because he had such an upset stomach.
She took him to the vets and they told her he was a lot younger – around four or five weeks old, below the required eight-week mark.
It was unlikely he was going to survive, so the kindest thing to do was to put him to sleep
“A few days later he wasn’t eating, or interested in playing," she says. "I took him back to the vet, and they said he had a high temperature, and gave him some medication but he then took a turn for the worse.
"I knew it wasn’t going to be good news, he was just sat quietly with his head down, and the vet said he had an infection and because he was so young he was too weak to fight it off.
"It was unlikely he was going to survive, so the kindest thing to do was to put him to sleep.
"I could see he was suffering so it seemed fairer on him.
Shocking rise of puppy farms
Every year, thousands of Brits go through the horror of losing their beloved pets to evil dognapping gangs, with research showing five dogs are stolen every day in the UK.
According to Kennel Club, 20 per cent of puppies (four times more than the average) bought from pet shops or directly from the internet suffer from parvovirus, an often fatal disease which can cost up to £4,000 to treat.
According to Nature Watch, up to 400,000 farmed puppies are sold to the British public every year.
All have been exposed to disease in the breeding sheds. None have known love and care in a family home.
It has been reported that puppy smuggling gangs can make up to £35,000 per week from illegally transporting puppies to be sold to unsuspecting families in the UK.
Amhy contacted the seller when he took a turn for the worse, and told her that she'd had to have him put to sleep.
The seller was adamant the vet was wrong about his age but Amy didn’t believe her, and told her she was going to be reporting her to the RSPCA.
“I felt upset and angry that people put money before the animal’s welfare – this could have been prevented if they hadn’t wanted to sell him so young.
"It was the last thing I ever expected to happen. You just expect there to be checks in place.”
Dogs covered in their own faeces and bred until they die
Describing the conditions of a farm, vet Michael explains: “The conditions are horrific.
“You’ll have female dogs kept in crates and mated every few months.
"In puppy farms they’re just bred until they die. As soon as she’s had the litter they’ll be taken off her after a few weeks and she’ll be bred again.
“The mothers don’t receive care, they’re not vaccinated, or treated for parasites and a lot of parasites and infectious diseases can then be passed down to the litter.
Dogs are covered in their own faeces, no access to water, kept in dark stuffy rooms.
“Dogs are covered in their own faeces, no access to water, kept in dark stuffy rooms. The puppies then get sold to third parties and you won’t be able to see the mother.”
Thankfully, along with DEFRA’s latest campaign some action is being taken.
The government has already changed the law to ban commercial third party puppy and kitten sales, known as Lucy’s Law, and is going further to improve the lives of animals including supporting a bill to raise the maximum penalty for animal cruelty from six months to five years.
What the websites say
Pets4home manually approve the majority of adverts that are placed on the site.
However, they don't visit any of the advertisers homes or do any checks on the advertisers, therefore, they say it is the buyers responsibility to make any necessary checks before buying or adopting a pet.
They claim they try to stop puppy farmers using the website by monitoring the number of adverts each advertiser can place, and check advertisers local authority breeders licenses to make sure they are valid.
On their website, Gumtree say they do not review users' postings and are not involved in the actual transactions between users.
As most of the content on Gumtree comes from other users, they do not guarantee the accuracy of postings or user communications or the quality, safety, or legality of what's offered.
They also say they work with a number of animal welfare charities, including the RSPCA, and are an active member of the Pets Advertising Advisory Group (PAAG).
PAAG is made up of animal welfare groups, vets and online classified sites, all working together to promote responsible pet advertising.
Their shared goal is that all animals advertised for sale online are advertised legally and ethically.
When contacted for comment by the Sun Online, a spokesperson for Pets4Homes insisted they check all adverts placed on their site, with around 40 per cent of listings declined as they don't abide to their standards.
They added: "Our team of support staff works around the clock, seven days a week to monitor the website.
"We do our best to prevent puppy farmers from trying to use our website. We do this by monitoring the number of adverts we allow each advertiser to place, and check advertisers local authority breeders licenses to make sure they are valid."
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