On a cold, steely grey day in a farmyard in Essex I meet Spike. Thick-set, broad-chested, narrow-eyed, he has a look that says “don’t mess with me”, and he has tiny, pointed ears that have been cut to make him look more intimidating.
Spike is an XL bully; bully stands for American bulldog, XL means bred to be bigger. They are fashionable among a certain type of dog owner, says Ira Moss, founder of the rehoming charity All Dogs Matter. We’re at its kennels near Waltham Abbey in Essex. XL bullies – along with cuter, “more designery”, says Moss, French bulldogs, dachshunds, cockapoos and cavapoos – “were the top five lockdown dogs”. And they are being abandoned like never before. Sadly, it’s not just dogs. Animal charities and vets have reported everything from cats to cockerels being left. And they are braced for Christmas to be even busier.
But back to Spike. Turns out he is a big softie. When he gets nervous, he wees, and Spike gets nervous a lot. He was imported as a puppy from Hungary, where ear cropping, illegal in the UK, still happens, and was bought by a young couple for £4,000 (prices rocketed during the pandemic). They lived in a flat, so Spike didn’t get exercised or socialised properly, and his owners couldn’t cope. “If they’d sold him online, they’d have had hundreds of offers for him,” says Moss. “Someone with a two-year-old in a flat could buy an XL bully and they are potentially taking home a weapon. There’s no legislation, you can just put them online and you don’t know what you’re taking home.” Unlike many, Spike’s owners did the right thing and gave him up to the charity where Moss and her team will try to find him a suitable new home.
At the other end of Moss’s lead – scuttling around her legs, sometimes demanding to be picked up – is Mimi, another pandemic puppy. Mimi, a French bulldog, was one of a litter of six taken from someone who was breeding dogs in their council flat and handed over to All Dogs Matter by the council. Moss took Mimi home one night, her husband fell in love, and they ended up adopting Mimi themselves. “People think frenchies are cute, because they’ve got big ears, but they can be quite feisty.”
I also meet Ash, a cockapoo with some anger issues; Zara, a shepherd, whose owner had issues of his own; Trigger and Millie, ex-racing greyhounds now happy listening to Christmas music in their kennel; and Diamond, a staffie, who was probably used for breeding then dumped when she got too old. The All Dogs Matter kennels are full to bursting; it has happened in the past few weeks, says Moss, and there’s a waiting list.
The same is happening at all the dog charities. Dogs Trust, the largest dog welfare charity in the UK, has seen a 39% increase in phone calls to hand over dogs since 12 July, when “Freedom Day”, a week later, was confirmed. Traffic to the “giving up your dog” pages of its website in July was up 100% compared with February 2021, and 180% higher than in February 2020, before the UK’s first lockdown.
“We think about one and a half million extra dogs were acquired in the last 18 months,” says Adam Clowes, the Dogs Trust operations manager. “These people got dogs in a very strange time. They weren’t able to introduce their dogs to other dogs in the park, they weren’t able to access good-quality training classes, veterinary care was limited. So we’ve got a whole cohort of dogs that started life in not the real world, and as life starts to return to normal those dogs and their owners are struggling to cope.”
Dr Sam Gaines, the RSPCA’s dog welfare expert, however, thinks the seeds of future problems were sown way before the pandemic. “Families and individuals suddenly found themselves at home with a lot of time and that encouraged them to go and get a dog or other pet on impulse rather than thinking about the commitment and responsibility that comes alongside,” she tells me. Because the supply in the UK couldn’t keep up with demand, Gaines says, there was a surge in puppy imports, as shown by the increased number of certificates issued for the commercial movement of dogs. “The fear was that these puppies had been bred in establishments and conditions focused on high volume over welfare. So you have puppies that have been bred in poor conditions, likely to have been taken away from their mothers at too young an age, and then transported for long periods of time and exposed to lots of stressful experiences which have a negative impact on their future behaviour.”
It’s hard to quantify the issue, but Gaines says that anecdotally there’s been a greater demand for behaviour therapists and trainers. “So we were then concerned that you end up with a large population of new puppies coming into the UK with a host of potential issues, going to new owners who might not necessarily have thought about the long-term commitment.”
Thrown into that mix was a series of lockdowns, which meant a lot of puppies didn’t go out and meet other puppies and other people. “In the absence of adequate or appropriate socialisation you can end up with dogs with a whole range of behavioural problems, for example fear-related behaviour towards other dogs, animals, people, not being able to cope with crowds or loud noises.”
It’s perhaps not surprising that Spike in Essex, though handsome as hell, is lacking in self-belief and confidence. He ticks pretty much all the danger boxes above, plus he has had half of each ear hacked off into the bargain.
There’s more, too. Dogs typically go through adolescence at about nine months (the exact age varies with breed). “It feels like all the training you have done has been wasted,” says Gaines. “They just switch off and ignore you. But they’re being overwhelmed by changes in their brain activity and hormones.” Not unlike human teenagers, in fact.
Then, of course there have been the seismic changes in many owners’ lives and circumstances. “Particularly being able to afford a dog,” says Clowes. “Everything seems to be going up at the moment. Bills, food, all reasons why people are unable to cope with a dog.” Others have lost jobs, or had to move. “With the end of the eviction ban we did see a number of people coming forward: they were having to move house and the new accommodation wasn’t dog-friendly so they had to make the heartbreaking decision to give up the dog.”
Are the Dogs Trust rescue centres full, too? “We have a dog in every kennel, and we have dogs with all our foster carers. I think we are at the start of a worrying trend. We are certainly not at the peak.”
It wasn’t just new dogs that people were getting to provide companionship during the pandemic. According to figures from the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association, by March this year 3.2m households had acquired a pet since the start of the pandemic. And again, it’s not just dogs that have been abandoned. Like the six rabbits and three guinea pigs found discarded in a cardboard box in Barnsley on 26 October. Sadly three of the rabbits were dead but the rest were rushed into RSPCA care. Then there was Charlie the cockerel who allegedly just turned up in someone’s garden and is now looking for a new life, and maybe new love. And on 14 November, a dog walker in Morpeth, Northumberland, was surprised to meet a 2ft iguana sitting on a fence – it didn’t have the courage to come down on either side, presumably. Nearby was a cardboard box containing vegetables – it’s believed the animal, now in RSPCA care, had been abandoned before escaping. No name provided, but I imagine he’ll end up being called Iggy. Or Eddie Lizard.
On one of my own lunchtime lockdown runs around the local park last year, I had to hurdle (well, almost, let’s say dodge) a sizeable python. I didn’t stop – there were enough bystanders there already; people had been called – but I named it Monty, obviously.
“We are seeing a whole range of species being abandoned,” says Gaines. The RSPCA says abandonments are up by about 20% this year compared with last year’s figures, and this time is always especially busy. Last December, despite England and Wales having strict restrictions in place, the RSPCA still received a call every minute and took 70 animals into care every day. This year, with the combined factors of soaring pet ownership, and higher bills and energy prices, it fears – and is braced for – a busy Christmas.
And let’s not forget cats. The most recent survey by Cats Protection, the UK’s biggest feline welfare charity, in October found that the owned cat population of the UK rose to about 10.8 million in 2021, up 600,000 on 2020. Covid has been a factor in that rise, with 7% of owners surveyed saying they got a cat for reasons related to the pandemic, such as furlough or spending more time at home. But thankfully, so far Cats Protection has not seen an increase in cats coming into its centres. Sadly the story is different, albeit anecdotally, at Blue Cross.
Caroline Oram, animal welfare assistant at the charity’s Bromsgrove rehoming centre, says there has been a rise in cats and kittens coming in. “Last month we had 25 kittens on site – that’s unheard of at this time of year. With the pandemic and vets only doing emergency calls, a lot of people didn’t get their animals neutered and now we’re seeing that rise.”
She tells me about Mochi, who came in with seven kittens even though she was only seven months old herself. Mochi’s owner couldn’t cope. “The pandemic has shown us that things can change in a flash. People say ‘I would never give my pet up,’ but then they find themselves in situations they never imagined would happen. We’ve had people turn up with a cat saying they can’t cope because they’ve lost their job, or because of a move or a relationship breakdown or they just can’t cope. We don’t judge.”
That phrase – we don’t judge – is one I hear from all of the charities I speak to. And that it is better to ask for help than just to dump your pet. Like one man decided to do outside the veterinary practice in Tottenham, north London, where vet Bosco Yeung works. “A lovely Range Rover pulled up outside; a man got out, dropped a crate with five beautiful black cats, got back in and drove away. None of the cats was microchipped.”
Yeung says they have seen more abandoned cats over the pandemic – old cats and kittens. They’re getting animals dumped there every three or four weeks. He thinks it’s mainly for financial reasons. “Many of the owners just don’t have the money to get them treated. If you can’t afford it, you can’t afford it – you can’t even put food on the table let alone pay for your vet’s bill.”
It’s been a difficult couple of years for the profession, he says. “The whole veterinary field is really stretched. We’ve lost a lot of our vets because we are all burning out. All the EU vets, and the Australian and New Zealand vets are gone – there is no cover.”
More pets, fewer vets: it’s not a good combination. The black cats dumped outside in a crate went to Cats Protection.
Among all the doom and gloom and abandonment, it’s perhaps worth remembering that a lot of pets have played a blinder over the pandemic, as Gaines says. “They were there protecting our mental health and providing much-needed companionship and a reason to go outside to have daily exercise. That attachment between pets and people is incredibly strong.”
There’s potentially good news, too, from All Dogs Matter, a few days after my visit. A nice working-from-home couple from Hertfordshire are coming back to meet Spike for the third time. I hope he doesn’t get too nervous. If it goes well, they’ll take him home. Fingers crossed.
Some names have been changed