What happens to pet owners when the recession squeezes their incomes?
For those that find they cannot afford to pay vet bills, there is help available from Blue Cross.
The animal welfare charity runs four animal hospitals that treat sick and injured pets when their owners can’t afford private fees.
They also run rehoming centres across the country and a mobile clinic in London.
When Shadow Defra minister Huw Irranca-Davies paid a visit to the Blue Cross Victoria animal hospital in central London, Central Lobby went along to find out more about Blue Cross’s work.
Steve Goody, Blue Cross director of external affairs, said: “It was a very constructive visit to our flagship hospital and it gave us an opportunity to talk about key concerns, especially our call for tougher laws on dangerous dogs, ensuring irresponsible owners are penalised.
“We also discussed the worrying rise in unregulated sale of pets online and irresponsible breeding, along with our recently launched Blue Cross Big Neutering Campaign.”
Blue Cross treats around 30,000 pets every year, and the Victoria centre is one of three hospitals in London.
“This is by far the largest one,” said Mr Goody.
“It has been here since 1906 and has never closed its doors, through both World Wars.
“It is primarily here to support individuals who cannot afford private veterinary fees.
“We have seen an increase the number of people using the service.
“What is interesting is the numbers of people who fall through the gap of provision of charitable services on one end and private insurance at the other.”
Mr Goody said that the recession is having an impact on pet owners.
“Particularly as times get harder, people suddenly find themselves in the position of not having a job anymore. That is where we have seen a substantial shift. We are obviously limited in what we can do by the capability of the hospital in terms of numbers.
“The other thing is that as vet treatment increases in cost, fewer and fewer people are able to afford what traditionally would be classed as first referral.
“So now people come to the hospital for almost a quasi-referral for specialist treatment, and the costs then become prohibitively expensive.”
While Christmas is traditionally seen as a time when people buy – and in some cases abandon pets, Mr Goody says that the internet has changed the way people are purchasing animals, and the market is unregulated.
“It is something that we see 365 days a year now, one of the major concerns that we have got which has changed over the last few years is the proliferation of internet sales sites,” he said.
“You have got sites where there are literally tens of thousands of dogs, cats and every other animal you can think of available for sale or exchange or give away.
“With charity partners we are working with some of the bigger ISPs to adopt a code of practice that will stop some of the irresponsible advertising of sale of pets.
“There is not going to be legislation on that, but what we want to see a government sponsored code of practice which sets out some minimum requirements.
“We want the responsible internet sites to adopt and enforce that code.”
Often consumers are not aware of the dangers of buying a pet online.
“Anybody that is looking for a dog or cat, a puppy or kitten, they are a consumer so they will visit a site see the animal, and make what they consider to be an informed choice.
“What they do not consider is what sits behind that advert in many instances.
“You have got commercial breeders masquerading as private individuals.
“You have got dogs, cats and other animals on those sites with poor health histories, poor socialisation, and a lot of the guys who are selling through internet sites we know are puppy farmers.
“So what the consumer does not see until it is too late is that maybe they are not getting what hey want are expecting or deserve as a responsible pet owner.
“There are legitimate and bona fide breeders out there and places that people can go but it is easier to go to internet sites.”
Blue Cross is also pushing for new legislation to tackle puppy farms.
Westminster is “once again is dragging its heels and falling behind the curve” in comparison to the devolved administrations, said Mr Goody.
“As far as we are concerned the breeding and sale of dogs legislation is not strong enough.
“Wales has just announced a consultation, Northern Ireland is looking at breeding legislation as it applies to commercial premises to try and get some of these puppy farmers.
“At the moment the legislation is predicated on the number of litters can be bred in a year, which is if you like the commercial test.
“We would like to see that law changed and move toward a system of licensing and registration enforced by the local authority that deals with the number of dogs there are in a home or in an environment that is actually capable of bearing pups.
“It would require a substantial shift in the law as it stands but it would better protect the pets and individuals looking to buy good quality puppies.”
At the Victoria animal hospital, Mr Irranca-Davies was given a tour of the facility and spoke to staff about their work.
“It was a really enjoyable visit and I was very impressed with the hospital’s facilities and the way their staff looked after the animals in need,” he said.
It was a typical busy day at the hospital, which is only a mile from Parliament.
Mr Goody said the patients are primarily dogs and cats.
“With dogs, in the last two or three years there has been a proliferation of bull breeds,” he explained.
“If you look around the waiting room now you can see most of the dogs are Staffies or bull crosses. A lot of the people we have got coming through the doors are responsible owners.
“We get a lot of quasi-status dog owners who are tarred with the brush of irresponsible, socially inept or poor owners, but that is not the case.”
Mr Goody said sometimes dogs have to be put down because of poorly-drafted dangerous dogs legislation.
“Being in London, we get a lot of dogs coming through who are potential ‘Section 1’ dogs and that presents a dilemma, particularly if they present as a stray.
“We keep them and treat them, spend a lot of time and money on them and then we have to call in the Met police. If they say it is it is a ‘Section 1’ dog we have to euthanize them - we have no option at all. It is a ridiculous situation because a lot of those dogs are socially sound and they would make good pets.”
Blue Cross will be inviting more MPs and peers to visit their hospital in New Year.