The dark side of the 'puppies of Instagram' fad

·13 min read
Photo credit: Jessica Lockett | Getty Images
Photo credit: Jessica Lockett | Getty Images

From Cosmopolitan

She is a teacup chihuahua, just three months old and oh-so-small. You could fit her in the palm of your hand, or a reasonably sized pocket.

I found her on Instagram – the account has 10,000 followers, and promises “the best chihuahua puppies in the world, worldwide delivery.”

Tiny dogs pose in front of turquoise backdrops, or on pink fluffy cushions. The images are hashtagged #puppiesofinstagram and #puppiesforsale. I send a DM to the account’s owner.

“She’s £2,500,” she tells me, “delivery included. She’s still small, so I can book delivery now and she’ll be with you within a month.” She sends me a video of the dog next to a hairbrush for size – the hairbrush dwarfs her. “She’ll be sent to the UK by car, with a nanny,” I’m promised. “Where from?” I ask. “Ukraine,” she responds. “It will take four to six days.” I’m also told she’s up to date with her vaccinations, and will be cared for en route to the UK, in hotels.

I ask to see a video of the puppy with her mother, to see them interacting. It never arrives, and when I chase the seller, she goes quiet. I ask about the conditions the chihuahua is being kept in – but again, silence. I want to assume the puppies are safe and cared for… but there’s a feeling in the pit of my stomach that tells me otherwise.

Photo credit: Jessica Lockett | Getty Images
Photo credit: Jessica Lockett | Getty Images

Take a look in your local park and you’ll see them. Puppies everywhere. We have, as a nation, gone absolutely wild for dog ownership. As the coronavirus pandemic swept the country, many people bought puppies, reasoning that it would be a good time to raise them, as they’d be working from home. Google searches for “buy a puppy” increased by 115% after lockdown measures were announced this time last year. Puppy prices spiked: data from the Dogs Trust reveals that the asking price for sought-after breeds including chow chows, dachshunds, pugs and French bulldogs shot up after the first lockdown, too. The average price for a pug in October was £1,220, compared to £684 pre-lockdown, while French bulldogs went for £2,128, up from £1,251. Whereas once prospective dog owners might have asked friends and family for breeder recommendations or visited their local shelter, we now turn online. And for those illicit puppy breeders, where better to advertise than Instagram? After all, it’s the social media platform where aesthetics rule, making it the ideal shop window. The hashtag #puppiesforsale has featured on more
than 870,000 posts at the time of publication.

But, as with so much of what we see online, all is not as it seems. Molly-Mae Hague and Tommy Fury learned this the hard way in June last year, when their Pomeranian puppy, Mr Chai, died from health defects just six days after he arrived with the couple. Mr Chai was imported from Russia by Cheshire-based breeders Tiffany Chihuahuas & Pomeranians, whose Instagram account has over 100,000 followers. “If we had the time again, we would have got a dog from the UK,” said Molly- Mae after Mr Chai’s death. After the news hit the press, Tiffany Chihuahuas & Pomeranians breeder Elena Katerova insisted that “Mr Chai was a healthy dog. I only work with trusted people and have a small network of reputable breeders who care for their dogs to the very highest standards.”

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

While Mr Chai’s death was found not to be down to him being shipped from Russia, Dr Samantha Gaines of the RSPCA says the Instagram puppy market is of great concern.

“There are people out there who know how much people want puppies,” she says. “And they are taking advantage of that.” She explains that many of these puppies – like the adorable teacup chihuahua I was offered on Instagram – will most likely come from puppy farms. “They will have been reared in poor conditions – meaning they may have health issues – before being separated from their mum and siblings at too young an age, and exposed to stressful transportation,” says Dr Gaines. “What the buyer ends up with is a puppy that hasn’t had the best start in life. They’re opening themselves up to significant vet bills, and a lot of heartache.” Not to mention the considerable hurt inflicted on the animal itself.

Puppies in transit

Photo credit: SARAH WOODS
Photo credit: SARAH WOODS

When nail artist Sarah Woods bought her £3,000 Pomeranian puppy Sushi from a breeder she found via Instagram, she was so excited that she put a deposit down straight away because she couldn’t bear the idea of losing the animal to another buyer. In the pictures and videos she was sent before her puppy arrived, Sushi was an adorable bundle of white fur – a healthy, active pup. But when she arrived in the UK, she was covered in poo and unable to walk from exhaustion, her fur was matted, and she kept vomiting. Sarah took her to the vet the following day, but there was nothing they could do, and Sushi died within days. “I had no clue this goes on in the world,” Sarah tells me. “I’d never heard of puppy farms. I feel so guilty for what happened. I do blame myself.” She buried Sushi in her boyfriend’s garden.

The bitches at puppy farms are often constantly impregnated and kept in poor conditions. Their litters may be taken away at a very young age, causing long-term health and socialisation problems. Often, the animals are kept in unsanitary and stressful conditions, and not given proper medical attention or vaccinations. As the UK has stringent animal welfare standards, it can often be easier for unscrupulous puppy dealers to source animals from eastern Europe, where regulations are more lax. According to Kennel Club data, 18% of puppies found via social media get sick or die before their first birthday, and 24% of owners experienced complications when buying their dogs via social media, including not receiving the animal’s medical history, being overcharged, the dog becoming unwell, or having behavioural issues.

Red flags

I show Dr Gaines my conversation with the chihuahua Instagram account. “I would be hugely worried about buying a puppy from her,” she sighs. “If the breeder was genuinely putting welfare first, they would be willing to set up video calls so you could watch the puppy interacting with her mother. Three months is also too young for the puppy to enter the UK legally on a pet passport, which is another red flag. Plus, six days is a long time for a puppy to be on the road.”

Photo credit: Jess Dougan
Photo credit: Jess Dougan

“I always wanted a little Pomeranian,” says Jess Dougan, 25, a property developer from Buckinghamshire.“But it was always one of those ‘one day, maybe’ things” – until COVID-19 hit, and suddenly Jess had time to rear a puppy at home on her family farm. In April, she messaged an Instagram account that advertises itself as a high-end supplier of Poms, and asked if there were any puppies available. The owner of the account responded straight away, and sent some pictures of puppies via WhatsApp. “I went through as many tagged photos as possible on her account,” says Jess. “I thought that was me doing my research.” Jess agreed to pay £3,000 for a black Pomeranian puppy called Pixie, who would be imported from Russia. “I fell in love with her instantly,” says Jess, “and I was worried that someone else was going to buy her. Looking back now, I should have taken a moment.”

Jess waited nearly three months for Pixie to arrive – the delivery date kept being pushed back because of COVID-19, but Jess was assured that Pixie would fly to the UK, with a puppy nanny by her side. As the months crawled on, Jess became desperate. “The two weeks before she arrived were the worst weeks of my life,” she says. When Pixie eventually arrived, the scene was horrific. “A van pulled up at the house, and there were 25 dogs in the back,” says Jess. “It was really hot, and there was no air conditioning. All the dogs were barking, and none of them had food or water. Pixie could hardly open her eyes. She just flopped her head down. She looked half-dead, and she was covered in poo and sick, and was tiny.”

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Pixie was rushed to a vet, who found that she had parvovirus, which can be fatal in dogs. But the person behind the Instagram account denied that there was anything wrong with Pixie, and became abusive and threatening when Jess asked them to pay the vet bill. “The vet said that if we hadn’t taken her in, she’d have had a seizure,” says Jess. Thankfully, Pixie pulled through, after three days in intensive care at a cost of £1,500. But she has long-term behavioural problems: she eats her own faeces, a common behaviour among former puppy-farm dogs (because they weren’t fed enough), and she has anxiety attacks and vomits in cars because she’s still traumatised by her journey from Russia. Jess feels hugely guilty about what she unwittingly put Pixie through.“I feel really ashamed,” she says. “I fully take responsibility for being involved in this. I got so caught up in wanting a puppy, and I ignored all the red flags.”

Dogs under the influence

It’s easy to listen to Jess’s story and think: I’d never fall into that trap. But from looking at some of the Instagram accounts online, it’s not hard to see how unsuspecting animal lovers can be taken in. The accounts look legitimate and often have glowing online reviews. “You guys are amazing thanks so much!” writes one reviewer, with an emoji love heart. “Cannot recommend these puppies enough!” says another. “It was the followers that made it seem so legitimate,” says Jess. “They put up all these Instagram Stories of the puppies with their happy families. They’d tag people in them, and you could go on their pages and see that they were real profiles.” Molly-Mae Hague’s friend and fellow Love Island contestant Olivia Bowen knows first-hand how devious Instagram puppy breeders can be – she’s experienced it herself. Because Bowen has a significant Instagram following – 2.5 million – she’s often approached by puppy dealers on the site, offering her free dogs in exchange for a post. “It’s horrendous that people offer their dogs out like commodities,” says Olivia. She tells me that Molly-Mae wasn’t given Mr Chai for free – the couple paid for him, and had no idea about puppy farms. “Lots of influencers just don’t know.” She always says no to offers of free puppies from Instagram dealers. “I just block and delete them.”

Lucy's law

Photo credit: Jessica Lockett | Getty Images
Photo credit: Jessica Lockett | Getty Images

Most of these Instagram puppy dealers are operating illegally. Under Lucy’s Law, which was introduced in April 2020 following a decade of activism from animal-rights campaigners, it is illegal to sell puppies that you have not bred yourself in England (dog rescue centres are exempt from the legislation). Despite this, enforcement is patchy, and many “puppies for sale” accounts remain on Instagram. When I asked a spokesperson for Facebook (Instagram’s parent company) about this, they told me: “We do not allow the sale of animals on Instagram, and we’ve removed the accounts brought to our attention. We encourage people to report these activities to us, so we can take appropriate action.” (I reported all the accounts I found during the research of this feature to Facebook.)

“You absolutely should not ever buy a dog through Instagram,” warns Dr Gaines.“ Absolutely do not. Go directly to a reputable breeder.” She advises all prospective dog owners to use a Puppy Contract with their breeders: it’s a free toolkit designed to encourage those buying and breeding puppies to do so responsibly, and it tells you what questions you need to be asking.

The cost of companionship

For those who do manage to get dogs from ethical, legal breeders, the benefits are immense. “She’s literally my everything now,” says Alice, a 31-year-old communications worker from London, of her working cocker spaniel Dotty. Alice bought Dotty from a licensed, reputable breeder for £2,000 in June: she’d recently come out of a long-term relationship and was working from home for the first time, and had the time and energy to raise Dotty. Plus, the company was nice, after so long living with her ex. “When I was having a rubbish mental health day, especially during lockdown, she gave me something to do,” says Alice. “Dotty was a reason to get out of the house every day.”

But having a puppy is seriously hard work.“It’s like having a baby,” says Alice. “Training her is really time-consuming. She needs me all the time, she follows me around all day, I’m responsible for her 24/7. That was a shock – how much work it was.” But it’s all worth it, of course. “She’s my little mate who’s always there,” says Alice. “She gives me unconditional love.”

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

It’s this that makes the Instagram puppy market even more heartbreaking. Most people don’t buy puppies because they’re going to look good on their feed, but for company and love, something needed more than ever in the past year. This need has been commodified and exploited, with many people unaware of the reality behind the adorable facade. It’s an easy, tempting trap to fall into – but when it comes to Instagram puppies, buyer beware.

How to make sure your puppy is
coming from a safe breeder

Do your research

“Make sure you get to know the seller behind the pet,” says Dr Gaines. Run their name through Google, and check they’re licensed with the local authority to sell pets, if they’re a commercial breeder.

Ask for videos

“Always make sure you see the puppy interacting with the litter, and their mum,” advises Dr Gaines. If the breeder won’t let you visit the puppy or see videos of it interacting with its mother, it’s time to walk away.

Sign a contract

Ask the breeder to sign a Puppy Contract with you. This is legally binding, and helps you make sure your puppy has been bred ethically.

Report it

If you suspect you’ve come across a puppy farmer, don’t buy the dog, even to “save” it – this fuels the trade. Report the incident to your local authority instead. For more advice, visit the National Animal Welfare Trust.

Trust your gut

Your instincts can tell you a lot. “If something doesn’t feel right, they won’t give you paperwork or information, or are pressuring you to buy, walk away,” says Dr Gaines.

This article originally features in the April 2021 issue of Cosmopolitan UK, on sale now.

The latest issue of Cosmopolitan UK is out now and you can SUBSCRIBE HERE.

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