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Polite messaging will no longer cut it
  1. Adele Waters

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The Scottish government is to be applauded for its recent advertising campaign aiming to educate people about the dangers of buying puppies online.

The ‘Buy a puppy safely’ campaign ran across social media, in cinemas and on radio at the end of last year, and is currently being evaluated for its impact.

You can watch the advert here:

Anecdotally, however, the signs are that this hard-hitting campaign has had impact.

The average length of time people spent on the campaign’s website has been 14 minutes – compared to a marketing average of around a minute, that’s very impressive. Engagement data have also shown users going on to explore suggested links, hopefully learning more about the consequences of illegal puppy farming.

One in four of puppies bought online will die before their fifth birthday

There is no question that such a campaign is needed – most illegally bred puppies are sold online through social media or small ad sites and one in four of those puppies bought online will die before their fifth birthday.

In Scotland, a quarter of people would consider using an online advert or website to buy a puppy, where a large majority of illegally bred puppies are sold, according to government figures. Those aged 18 to 34 are considered most at risk of falling prey to illegal puppy trading.

But of course this is not simply a Scottish problem, it’s very much a UK wide problem (the RSPCA estimates that around 30 per cent of puppies are sold through the internet) and it’s a great shame that the campaign did not extend more widely – onto our TV screens and across the UK (TV ads are too expensive and the other UK governments chose not to support it financially).

Nevertheless, there is a need for a UK-wide drive to reduce the demand for puppies and promote best buying practice.

This issue, alongside other related matters of responsible pet ownership, was discussed at this year’s British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA) congress earlier this month.

Vets speaking on the issue included chief vets Sheila Voas (Scotland) and Christianne Glossop (Wales), as well as Chris Laurence, chair of the BVA’s Animal Welfare Foundation and the Canine and Feline Sector Group (CFSG), which advises government on dog and cat welfare issues and standards.

Too many people see owning an animal as a right – an entitlement – rather than a privilege, argued Laurence. There is a pervasive view of ‘I want to have it so I’ll go and get it’. And after years of animal organisations putting out responsible pet ownership advice, we still have a group of people that are simply resistant to such messages.

Is it time to accept that some people are not capable of looking after animals? They have neither the knowledge, the ability, nor the facilities to look after pets? If the answer is yes, then the next question is the biggie – what do you do about them?

This is the very problem that the CFSG is currently trying to solve – how to reach those people ‘who don’t understand, don’t hear, don’t listen or won’t do’.

Part of its work will be to try to coordinate messaging so that its consistent across all sources – so that all advice says the same thing in the same way. But one thing is for sure – reliance on polite messaging will no longer cut it.

The ‘Buy a puppy safely’ campaign offers a shift in gear – it is arresting and provocative. Its website has a range of free downloadable resources. If your practice is looking for something to make a noise about over Easter, you are encouraged to use the materials to spread the word.

The Scottish government has committed to a follow-up campaign this year. Nice work.

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