The boom of online marketplaces for buying pets, as well as a lack of transparency around breeder standards, has made it harder for potential pet owners to make informed decisions about what kind of animal they’re getting, consumer advocates say.
That lack of information can come at a high cost if animals have undisclosed health problems, which can cost owners hundreds or thousands of dollars in veterinary bills, and carry heavy emotional tolls.
A 2019 survey by the American Pet Products Association, an industry group, found that 36% of people who get a pet say they found it online.
Breeders increasingly use websites or social media platforms to advertise animals that are available for sale, and not all websites guarantee information is accurate.
It has also become harder to check if breeders have a good track record after federal inspection reports that would list violations of animal welfare laws were taken off public websites in 2017, with lawmakers citing concerns for the breeders’ privacy.
"Getting dogs through the internet is an area that I think we're going to have more attention and more scrutiny about, and I think that's how it should be. We're not buying widgets here,” said Candace Croney, an animal welfare professor at Purdue University who studies breeders.
“This is where I think online retailing of dogs potentially becomes the Wild West, because you're going to have to go into it with a certain level of trust, but we're talking about living beings that are coming into our home,” she added.
The inspector general for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates federal animal welfare laws, warned in 2010 that more consumers received dogs with health problems through online sales because breeders who sell over the internet were not regulated or inspected by the agency. In 2016 the USDA adopted rules that pet "dealers" who sell animals in any way where the buyer can't meet the animal in person -- like online -- must have a federal license.
But that doesn't always apply if a breeder or a dealer offers to bring a puppy to the customer or meet somewhere other than the breeding facility. Those transactions aren’t regulated as pet “dealers” because the breeder, dog, and buyer are all in the same place, even though the customer isn’t able to see the place the puppy came from.
Sheila Goffe, vice president of government relations at the American Kennel Club, and other experts warned that exchanging money for an animal in a random location can be a red flag in these transactions, because it could indicate sellers don’t want you to see conditions at the breeding facility.
“That’s a big flashing light, ‘buyer beware,’ if somebody wants to meet you in a parking lot,” she said.
Experts recommend consumers visit a breeder in person to see the facility, and meet the animal's parents to evaluate their health and temperament. Goffe said that some breeders may not want customers in their home if it’s a small operation but should still be willing to answer questions or offer alternatives to see the conditions where the puppy was raised.
The Better Business Bureau told ABC News that online pet sales are one of the main type of scam complaints they get, either from consumers who say they got a puppy that’s sick or different than advertised, or that they never receive a puppy they paid for at all.
While there isn’t much national data available on how many puppies are bought online or how many of those have health problems, the Humane Society of the U.S. says they’ve received more than 5,000 consumer complaints from people who bought puppies between 2007 and 2017.
Breeders are regulated on the state and federal level, but standards of care can vary widely, according to Croney.
That's why she recommends that prospective pet owners ask if animals received high standards of veterinary care, training and socialization, which will set them up for success in their new home. Both consumers and breeders should have a lot of questions of each other, and expectations for how to care for a puppy, she added.
"If you're asking reasonable questions and they're not willing to answer those questions, that in and of itself should give you pause," she said.
Consumer advocates say there are steps prospective pet owners can take to make sure they’re getting a healthy animal if they choose to look online or use a breeder directly.
The most important thing to do is try to impartially research a puppy the same way you would any other big decision like buying a car, according to Better Business Bureau spokeswoman Katherine Hutt.
“It’s a very emotional purchase and odds are that you’re going to live with whatever you end up with, and so doing your homework before you’ve got that little bundle of fur in your lap is the best way to go because once you do, it’s all over,” she said.
“Be as cold and calculated as you can be before you go see your dog because it will become your dog pretty quickly," she added.
Even though inspection reports are no longer publicly available, online pet breeders or pet stores can still voluntarily provide them to consumers who ask. Asking how often females are bred or how puppies are socialized will also get you more information about your prospective puppy.
The Better Business Bureau has profiles for many breeders to show if they've chosen to be certified or if other consumers have filed complaints, according to Hutt.
The American Kennel Club (AKC) also works with small-scale breeders and can help connect people looking for a puppy to reputable sellers, according to Goffe. The AKC also has a voluntary program for breeders who agree to maintain health standards for puppies allow inspections of their standards.