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Lynn Boylan: Illegal sale of puppies online can no longer be ignored

The Sinn Féin senator says new legislation to stop the sale of dogs online is not being enforced.

Lynn Boylan

DURING THE COVID lockdowns, there was a significant increase in interest in dog ownership.

While I encourage anyone considering bringing a dog into their home to adopt rather than shop, there will always be people who, for their own reasons, will want a pup or a specific breed.

Over recent years, online platforms have become the port of call for anyone looking to buy a dog. In February 2020, new regulations were introduced in a bid to try and regulate the sale and supply of pets, including the online sale of pets.

While it was much needed and welcomed across the board by animal welfare organisations, it appears that almost 20 months on there has been an absolute lack of enforcement of the regulations. Not one single enforcement case has been taken by the Department of Agriculture.

More must be done

When I raised the matter in the Seanad with Minister Pippa Hackett, the advice given was for the public to do their research before buying. This advice might seem all well and good but the breeding of dogs in Ireland is a highly sophisticated, multimillion-euro industry. Research carried out by Dogs Trust found that 68% of those surveyed were unable to spot an illegal advert.

Many of the adverts lack the required information regarding microchips and seller registration numbers/breeder licenses or contain falsified numbers. Unscrupulous breeders have even been known to use holiday homes to give the impression that the puppy has been bred in a family home, masking the reality of where they have actually come from – which in many cases is a large-scale puppy farm.

Calls for the online platforms to do more are warranted but it is not enough because they don’t have access to a database where the information supplied by the seller can be verified.

In June this year, at my request, the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture invited Dogs Trust in to outline how easy it would be to address this issue if the Department of Agriculture backed up the regulations with a traceability and verification system.

We already have such a system for cars where you input the registration and immediately you know the type, year and colour of the car. There is no reason that we can’t do the same for a dog’s microchip.

Likewise, when it comes to information regarding dog breeders and sellers – currently, the Local Authorities manage the dog breeding establishment licenses (required for anybody with six female dogs capable of breeding) but fewer than half of the local authorities display the list of these establishments on their website and others show only partial information. People should be able to access online information which clearly shows the commercial dog breeding establishment’s address (as you can with any other commercial premises) and the volume of breeding females they are permitted to have on their premises.

Political will

For very little cost, the Department of Agriculture could establish a system that would allow the online platform to verify the information is factual before the advert goes live.

Under the current system, by the time the volunteers and welfare organisations monitoring the online platforms report an illegal advert and have it taken down, the dog is sold and the contact details of the seller are no longer valid.

A verification system allows anyone who is looking to bring a puppy into their home to check that the microchip is valid and that it does correspond with the puppy advertised. Perhaps even more importantly, it would allow them to see where the puppy has come from and how many breeding bitches the breeder has.

Many people are unaware that Dog Breeding Establishments can have hundreds of breeding bitches. Transparency empowers people to make an informed decision and to choose the type of breeder that they wish to buy a puppy from.

The tools are all there for a robust tracking and verification system. What we need now is political will. Bringing the microchip data, dog breeder’s license and the registration number of the seller into one centralised register would not only clean up the industry from an animal welfare perspective but the increased transparency would also be very beneficial for revenue.

Currently, dogs are in a type of no man’s land when it comes to their sale as the majority are sold for cash, with no invoice. Full rate VAT is supposed to be paid on the sale of dogs which mean the Revenue is missing out on a number of taxes: VAT, Income and Corporation Tax. The cash transactions with no paperwork make it very hard for revenue to assess the income of dog breeders. Greater transparency would make it much harder for unscrupulous dog breeders to avoid paying tax.

Make no mistake, dog breeding in Ireland is on an industrial scale with approximately €187m in sales last year alone. Most of those sales are cash transactions. In Britain, they are currently looking at banning cash sales and this is certainly something that should be looked at here. Even at a bare minimum, the Department of Agriculture should be running public campaigns to highlight why cash sales are bad.

It is possible to breed dogs with high welfare standards and still make a living from it. Reputable breeders know this and have nothing to fear from greater transparency.

However, that greater transparency would make it much harder for those who seek to profit on the backs of breeding bitches and puppies being kept in deplorable conditions. It’s time for Ireland to lose its reputation as puppy farm central.

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Senator Lynn Boylan is Sinn Féin spokesperson on Climate Justice and a member of the Oireachtas Agriculture and Climate Action & Environment Committees.

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