The Impact of COVID-19 on Companion Animal Welfare

Battersea’s research reveals how the pandemic has affected the UK’s dogs and cats.

Research by Battersea has revealed the potentially devastating impact COVID-19 has had on dogs and cats. From popular local rescues facing the threat of closure through lack of income, to pandemic pets now suffering due to irresponsible breeding, the consequences of for animals in the UK are far-reaching.

The First Response

On 23 March 2020, following the outbreak of COVID-19 in the UK, the UK Government and its counterparts in the devolved nations instructed all citizens to stay at home. All but essential services were closed. Full national ‘lockdown’ lasted two months while localised restrictions continued in many locations. The UK consequently entered recession. By March 2021, a year on from the first national lockdown, the unemployment rate was 5%, up 1.1% on the same time the year before.

In November 2020, Battersea released a research report examining the impact on companion animal welfare of ‘Phase one’ of the virus control strategy: the national lockdown.

Animal Welfare – Serious Concerns Emerge

Pet ownership increased during lockdown.

More people wanted pets:

  • In the three months April to June 2020, Battersea received 40,392 applications to rehome dogs, an increase of 53% compared to the previous three months.
  • 31% of people who acquired a dog or cat in this period had not been considering becoming pet owners before lockdown.
  • Interest in staking a legal claim to the pet dog increased, likely in the context of couple or family break-ups, reflecting the stronger pet-owner bond during lockdown.

This cohort of new pets is at potential risk of health and behaviour problems:

  • There are reduced opportunities for socialisation during lockdown
  • New pet owners – many of whom bought on impulse – may have bought poorly-bred animals from low welfare dealers or breeders.
  • Overseas breeders have become a more significant source of puppies and kittens, to meet the significant spike in UK demand.

Domestic abuse increased

Domestic abuse crimes by current partners recorded by the Metropolitan Police increased by 8.5%. The link between domestic violence and animal abuse is now well established. Pets, especially dogs and cats are at high risk of harm in abusive households, as perpetrators direct their anger at them and use them to manipulate and control their human victims.

Dog theft went up compared to 2019

Theft of dogs and cats in the six months from March to August 2020 was up by 6% compared with the same period in 2019 but is 6% lower than in 2018, suggesting that thefts have not become a significant source of supply in this market – in spite of increased media coverage of pet theft.

Microchipping is down

Microchipping rates have dropped significantly:

  • Local Authorities microchipped 77% fewer dogs during lockdown
  • Vets around the country stopped providing non-emergency treatment
  • The continued lower than normal numbers of veterinary consultations suggests that microchipping rates may not recover quickly as pet owners potentially choose to visit vets only for urgent care.

This will potentially impact on ability to reunite stray or stolen dogs with their owners quickly in the future, resulting in additional costs to the welfare charities and Local Authorities.

The Future is Uncertain

The UK likely enters a second recession as a result of this pandemic. Our experience of the last major recession in 2008 indicates we can expect a 27% increase in the numbers of stray and unwanted pet dogs. This would lead to 25,500 more animals in need of care and rehoming over this period.

In these uncertain and challenging times of high coronavirus infection rates, social restrictions and recession, the capacity of the charitable welfare sector to meet this demand is at risk. In a survey undertaken by the Association of Dogs and Cats Homes (ADCH), a third reported an income drop of more than 50% and the recession will make recovery difficult. For small organisations, this is an existential crisis.

There is a real and valid concern that for many smaller rescues in particular, who perform such a vital social and welfare function, the pressure of increased demand and reduced incomes will prove too great.

Lockdown: Some Good News for Pets?

It wasn’t all bad news. One of the consequences of the lockdown was the care and control of dogs appears to have improved in some ways, as more owners spend more time at home and fewer walk their dogs off lead.

  • In April, May and June 2020 Local Authorities dealt with 48% fewer stray dogs than in the same period the previous year
  • Veterinary data suggests fewer dogs may have been injured in road traffic accidents and caught infectious diseases.
  • Fewer dogs and cats were left alone during lockdown due to the rise in home working. More than half of dogs (58%) were not left alone for any period of time, up from 15% before lockdown.

Recommendations

Battersea recommends the following steps to help solve these issues:

  1. The Government should provide financial support to the animal welfare sector. Many animal welfare sector organisations were not eligible for the Government support provided through the original £750m Frontline Charities Relief Fund launched in April 2020. Battersea and other sector stakeholders have done much to help and support the wider sector through this financial crisis, but we cannot meet the challenges on our own. We need to work in partnership with the Government to ensure the sector is able to meet the demand that is likely to increase as a result of COVID-19.
  2. Remind potential new pet owners of the benefits of getting their animal from a rescue centre and the risks of buying from unknown sources online. The rapid increase in interest in owning a dog or cat has led to a surge in online buying. Acquiring a new pet should always require buyers to do their research and undertake the proper checks themselves to ensure they are buying a healthy animal. Rehoming a pet from a recognised rescue organisation helps buyers avoid unscrupulous dealers, breeders and traders that pose such a threat to the health, welfare and happiness not only of the animal, but of the whole family. A rescue pet will be healthy, having received any necessary medical treatment and will be vaccinated and microchipped.
  3. Increase awareness among landlords of the benefits of allowing tenants to keep a dog or cat. COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on the value of a pet dog or cat in times of stress and hardship, particularly helping with feelings of isolation and loneliness. In May 2020, Battersea surveyed 2,000 UK pet owners with 75% saying their rescue pet had helped to ‘rescue them’ during lockdown. Good mental health is linked to good physical health, both of which support positive social and economic outcomes. The support of a pet is not available to many in the rented sector, but landlords can play their part in supporting their tenants through this crisis by allowing them, wherever possible, to keep a pet dog or cat.
  4. Ensure controls on puppy importation strengthen now the UK has exited the EU. Overseas breeders have become a more prominent supply source for puppies to the UK during lockdown. This demand will only perpetuate the illegal trade in puppy smuggling, unless the UK acts to enforce and strengthen current controls on cross-border movement of companion animals. It is essential that the UK legislates to increase the waiting times post-vaccination for puppies coming into the UK. This would make it impossible to bring in underage puppies, making the unscrupulous puppies for profit trade economically unviable.
  5. Ensure buyers are aware of the legal obligation on puppy breeders to microchip their animals. All new dog owners have a legal duty to update the microchip database with their contact details, but it should not be necessary for them to have the animal implanted with a microchip because this should already have been done by the breeder or the previous owner. Ensuring this is one of the vital checks that buyers undertake before getting their pet will limit the negative impact of COVID-19 control measures on microchipping rates. If puppies are not being microchipped at the current time, this means that breeders are not being held accountable for the health and welfare of their puppies.

You can read the full report here

The full report

Find out how COVID-19 impacts companion animal welfare

Read our full report