Often, I look at my beloved cat Bertie and wonder how it’s possible that he is a miniature predator. He’s a large black cat, a former stray who is blind in one eye after a few too many scraps on the streets. Now he lives a life of total leisure as an indoor cat, meowing all day for pets and food, snoring in his multitude of beds, and occasionally running headfirst into furniture.
And yet, he is a predator. If I were to let Bertie outside, he would join his brethren in killing thousands of species of birds, rodents and other miscellaneous small animals. It’s hard to believe – given the imploring look he gives me when he gets a claw stuck on the sofa – but a recent paper published in the Nature Communications journal labelled house cats “the most problematic invasive species of all time”. This is because felines take pleasure in killing just about anything smaller than them that moves, with no consideration for whether they are endangered animals.
The fact that cats kill things won’t come as a surprise to anyone. But we, as pet owners, have ignored this part of their nature for so long that there are now millions of cats in the UK, both owned and feral, killing scores of endangered wildlife wherever they roam. Whether or not we want to face it, the fact remains that our sweet little predators are posing a threat to the environment. Those who don’t neuter their outdoor cats make things worse, as unspayed Mochi comes across unneutered Whiskers and they mate, resulting in kittens that increase the cat population, and therefore, the risk to small wildlife.
Meanwhile, in recent months, the biggest problem when it comes to pets has been among the dog community. Of the approximately 38 million pets that live in UK households, more than a third are of the canine persuasion. They are our cuddly, dependable, loyal companions. But there’s been a shift in the mood of late when we think of man’s best friend, and I can’t help but wonder if we need some sort of temporary ban on pet ownership while we sort things out.
Pets are a touchy subject in the UK, and I am not, in all seriousness, actually suggesting such a ban be implemented. Besides, I’d be a hypocrite – what with my own killer cat. But recent headlines about dog attacks, misbehaving animals and pet abandonment have left me wringing my hands about what can be done to create a better world for pets and pet owners alike.
Over the last two years, fatal dog attacks have exploded in the UK. In 2023, 16 deaths by dog bites were recorded, double the figure from the year prior. Two years prior saw five deaths, while 2020 recorded three. Just two years before that, in 2018, there were zero deaths by dog. Meanwhile, NHS data showed the number of people admitted to hospital due to dog bites rose by nearly 20 per cent in 2022 to 8,655 – around 600 of those were young children under the age of four.
This sudden rise in dog attacks can be linked to the exponential growth in pet ownership. Statistics show that, while pet ownership stayed relatively stable from 2012 to 2018 at around half of households owning an animal, it soared in 2022 to a high of 62 per cent.
You see fewer people selling puppies on Facebook, but you can still just Google ‘French bulldog puppies for sale’ and get an unbelievable amount of hits
Jade Nicholas, companion animal behaviourist
This was largely driven by Covid. The lockdowns of 2020 saw people mulling over the idea of pet ownership. The lockdowns of 2021 saw them looking at ads, contacting breeders or considering adoption. And 2022 witnessed the puppy ‘plosion. If you didn’t get a dog that year, chances are you know about three other people who did.
But it hasn’t been all wagging tails and snuggles on the sofa. Instead, a huge proportion of these dogs have gone untrained. The RSPCA’s dog welfare expert has said many of these dogs missed out on socialisation – a key period during which puppies learn how to interact with humans and other dogs, so that they are equipped with the necessary skills to be a Good Boy. But lockdowns and social distancing meant a lot of these dogs weren’t able to mingle healthily, paving the way for aggression and other behavioural issues.
One breed in particular has been in the spotlight after a spate of attacks: the American XL bully. Described bluntly, this breed is a bit like a pitbull on steroids. It has a wide, stocky stance, with huge muscular shoulders, a large head and powerful jaws. Nine people have been killed by these dogs since 2021, including – in a high-profile case – Natasha Johnson, a 28-year-old dog-walker who died after being mauled by her own XL bully.
All of this is to say that Britain has a huge pet problem. We are obsessed with them – rightly so, as they often become important family members. But with the way things are going, it doesn’t feel like we are doing right by both our pets and ourselves. Animal shelters across the country are at a tipping point as the cost of living crisis has forced droves of pet owners to give up their animals, unable to afford their upkeep. Experts warn that soon these shelters are not going to be able to take in any more animals – which means leaving them on the streets.
Jade Nicholas, a companion animal behaviourist, tells me that the problem is largely due to a lack of regulation within the pet industry. Cowboy breeders run rampant, despite the government implementing Lucy’s Law in 2020. The legislation, which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs trumpeted as the “beginning of the end for puppy farming”, means that potential pet owners must buy their animals directly from a breeder or consider adopting from rescue centres. Licenced dog breeders are also required to show puppies interacting with their mothers in their place of birth, to crack down on puppy farms.
But Nicholas says that little has changed since the legislation came into force. “You see fewer people selling puppies on Facebook and other platforms, but you can still just Google ‘French bulldog puppies for sale’ and get an unbelievable amount of hits,” she says. “It’s really difficult because if people are in a really difficult financial situation and they can’t get work, they can make absolutely tens of thousands from breeding, and you can see why it’s so enticing.”
The issue with cowboy breeders – lawless breeding aside – is that many of them lack knowledge about genetics and what puppies need in their early days and weeks. Some of these dogs end up in the hands of people who are not aware of how to properly care for them. “Then when that person realises they’re not in the position to care for that dog properly, they end up turning to big UK charities who are bursting at the seams because they can’t support everybody,” Nichols says. “It is just so problematic.”
So what can be done? The government could step in to tighten legislation on breeders, and add amendments to ensure they are properly licenced and trained in dog safety and care. It could also require all potential pet owners to undergo basic training, supported by licenced breeders who can give them a list of accredited trainers and puppy classes. But, Nicholas laments, there is no appetite for that in the current political climate. Adding XL bullies to the list of banned dog breeds is much easier than enacting any real change.
Perhaps, then, it has to come down to the way we view pet ownership. Bringing any animal into your home and caring for it is a huge responsibility and a privilege, not a right. But, for whatever reason, we view animals with an inflated sense of entitlement. We expect instant gratification out of them. And when something goes wrong, we expect someone to fix them for us with a single command or a spare kennel. This just isn’t the case, Nicholas says.
“There’s a huge lack of understanding of the kind of resources and time and actual financial constraints that come with owning a pet,” she says. “I’m not saying that people shouldn’t have pets. But at the moment, there are people who get a pet just because it looks cute or they think it’s going to make them happy, but they’re unprepared… It’s so important that people are choosing to get animals when they’re in a position to do so, whether it’s a dog, a cat, or any other living thing.
“I’m really passionate about people being able to do things like afford their insurance, because vet care is expensive. I would say to everyone, even if it means waiting another six months to save up a bit more money, please wait until you are really, truly ready before making that huge commitment.”
As someone who desperately wants a dog herself, I allow myself to daydream about the time I get the puppy I want. In this daydream, I have a stable job. I live in a house with a garden, so there’s plenty of space for my dream dog to run around and sniff. I can buy good, nutritious food for them, as well as toys, dog beds and silly outfits for the pictures I take of them.
But as tempting as it is to give in to my desire, I know that I’m not in the right position yet. My fictional dog’s wellbeing is my priority. I can’t afford the training nor the time needed for it, and I certainly can’t afford food or vet bills. It’s OK, though, to wait a little longer, so that when I do get this dog, I can give it the absolute world. And more people need to consider this. Our pets aren’t around for that long, and they deserve our very best. Until then, I’ve got Bertie for company – and he’s staying firmly indoors, where violence is reserved for toy mice and the occasional housefly.