Anyone who wants a pet and is able to provide sufficient care and love should be able to have one. They are massively beneficial for improving mental health, and even provide physical benefits through encouraging exercise and lowering cholesterol levels, as serotonin is released when playing with an animal. For the elderly in particular, a pet can be vital in providing much needed companionship, and for women and other vulnerable people, they can provide protection.
Not only do animals fill the gaps in our lives, but in turn, we become their whole life. The responsibility of this cannot be underestimated, and yet barriers exist that make owning a pet, and in particular a dog, a stressful, costly and in some cases, borderline unethical practice. A quick Google search will tell you that we are meant to be a ‘nation of dog-lovers’, citing the estimated 10 million dogs that UK adults keep as pets. But the evidence suggests that these numbers mean nothing in the face of overwhelming debt, abuse and ignorance.
Covid-19 has exposed the limitations of our status as a supposed ‘dog-loving nation’. Many saw lockdown and working from home as the ideal opportunity to take on a dog, which became known as the ‘lockdown puppy’ or ‘pandemic puppy’ phenomenon. Once restrictions changed, many new owners found they could no longer make time for their new family member, and gave them up to rescue shelters. The RSPCA told Voice that they mainly attribute the abandonment of pets to “financial reasons or struggles with behavioural issues.”
Puppy farms also boomed during the pandemic. Depending on the breed of the litters, puppies can individually be sold for thousands of pounds, making it a lucrative business for breeders who prioritise profit over the wellbeing of the young animals under their care. The abuse that puppies may undergo in these situations can have long-term impacts on their behaviour, making them more likely to be given up to shelters if future owners don’t have the time or patience to train them. It’s easy money for the breeders, and an easy way for the rich to get specific fashionable breeds without there being any vetting on either side.
The profitability of dogs has in turn led to a 250% rise in dognapping. The Kennel Club says less than 5% of cases result in a criminal conviction and that 52% of dog thefts take place in gardens. A recent high-profile case saw the theft of Lady Gaga’s dogs and the attack of her dog-walker. In spite of the obvious distress that this can cause for both dog and owner, dognapping is not considered a standalone crime in the UK. A petition was created to campaign for this, and the government’s response amounted to ‘Sentencing [for dog theft] is entirely a matter for our independent courts and must take into account the circumstances of each case.’ You can read the rest of their official statement here. It is these gaps in the system that create more hurdles for dog-owners to overcome and can dissuade people from taking the plunge by adopting a dog.
Even outside of the pandemic and for experienced pet owners, health issues and vets fees are a source of constant worry. Depending on the condition of the animal, vets fees can easily amount to thousands of pounds, and often put people in deep debt. This results in pet ownership being entirely inaccessible for those on a low income and only adds to the stress an owner feels in being wholly responsible for their pet’s care and quality of life.
When contacted for advice, the RSPCA told Voice that “owning a pet is a huge responsibility and pets can be expensive. It's incredibly important that owners do their research before taking on a pet. We also encourage pet owners to get insurance to help with any unexpected vet bills. If you're struggling to take care of your pet then we'd urge you to ask for help.”
Research is vital
As the RSPCA states, there are many harmful and false assumptions surrounding dog ownership that prospective owners should be aware of and prepared for. When it comes to getting a dog, research and dedication are vital. In most cases (and if you’re lucky), dogs are a decade-long commitment, and sometimes longer. Adopting a dog and then returning it for whatever reason can cause extreme trauma for the animal and should be a last resort.
Researching different breeds is also important so you can find one that best suits your lifestyle. For example, some breeds are better with families, while some are predisposed to genetic health issues. You can find a comprehensive guide here, and I would also recommend Channel 5’s show Badly Behaved Dogs for training advice, but the main message is that this is not something to undertake mindlessly.
Another harmful myth is the concept of ‘dangerous dogs’. Unbelievably, some breeds are illegal to own in the UK under the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act, which banned Pitbull Terriers, Japanese Tosas, Dogo Argentinos and Fila Brazilieros for their history as fighting dogs. Under this law, police can guess at the breed of a dog solely by its appearance and take it away from its owner before putting it down – even if it is well-behaved and has no complaints against it. You can obtain a certificate of exemption to prove your dog is safe, but this requires insurance, which can once again cause financial strain. This blanket law reinforces the misconception that dogs are to blame for any danger they might pose, and not their ignorant and often abusive owners. Sentencing a dog to death simply because of its breed type while ignoring its individual behaviours and how these have been cultivated through its owner and living situation is unethical.
Individual and collective action must be taken nationwide to ensure that not only the financially secure or privileged can afford to get and keep a pet. A lot of the onus lies with vet practices, who could look at lowering their prices, providing payment plans with no interest, or volunteering their services to those in difficult financial circumstances. There must also be a national crackdown on puppy farms, dog-thefts and any other illegal practices.