Skip to content

Buying a pet: Common scams to avoid

Bringing a new pet home is an exciting time and not something you do every day! There are many ways to find that special companion, but it’s crucial to know how to do this safely. Unfortunately, the increase in online sales of animals in recent years and the higher than usual demand during the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in some pet parents-to-be being scammed. Read below for tips to help increase the chances of your search resulting in a happy outcome for you and your furry friend.

Looking online for possible pets, such as by viewing photos of animals for adoption from rescue organisations or to purchase from a reputable breeder can be a lot of fun. Conducting the actual purchase this way, however, is fraught with risks. The primary rule when looking for a pet online is to never buy an animal without first meeting them and, ideally, their parents. Unfortunately, many people have made this mistake and ended up being scammed or unknowingly supporting animal cruelty.

How common are puppy scams?

In 2020, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) reported that losses to puppy scams amounted to $1.6 million, over four times higher than those experienced in 2019. Over the same period, prices for purebred puppies such as Samoyeds soared up to as high as ten thousand dollars during the pandemic. In 2021, Australians lost millions of dollars to scammers posing as breeders and selling non-existent animals (mostly puppies, but also cats and birds).

Many people have also been heartbroken after buying pets with serious health problems that have led to death or required expensive veterinary treatment. This is often due to breeders with poor standards of care and to being raised in puppy farms, which are characterised by intensive overbreeding, neglect, lack of essential veterinary treatment and overcrowded, unhygienic conditions. Like scammers, puppy farmers typically hide behind online classified sites, posing as reputable breeders.

When browsing pets for sale, be alert to techniques that appeal to your emotions to secure a quick sale. The following red flags are known indicators of scams so if you have concerns, take a screenshot of any messages or adverts and report them to Scamwatch:

  • Advertising six-week-old puppies or kittens – reputable breeders would never allow puppies or kittens to leave their mothers until at least eight weeks of age, when they are fully weaned and their immune system has developed
  • Reluctance for you to meet before purchase or suggesting you meet in another location – it is important for you to meet the breeder, animal, the animal’s mother and ideally their father in person first, ensuring the animals do actually exist and are happy and healthy.
  • Claims that the pet’s parents have been DNA tested – this is meaningless unless you have written proof of the tests and that these were to detect inherited conditions known to occur in the breed
  • Lack of information, such as the breed of pet, date of birth, whether they have been microchipped and desexed
  • Inconsistency in the photographs of pets (in style or backgrounds), suggesting they may have been ‘lifted’ from other legitimate businesses with only a different phone number
  • Requests for a non-refundable deposit
  • Requests for further payments such as shipping fees and refundable air-conditioned cargo crates
  • Sellers who are unavailable by phone and only communicate by email
  • Heavily discounted prices for popular breeds

How to avoid common scams

The best way to avoid these risks is to never buy pets online without meeting the breeder or seeing the animal, their parents if possible, and the environment they were raised in. Browsing online is a useful way to source and make initial contact with reputable owners, breeders or rescue organisations. The key is to only use responsible websites. In 2018, RSPCA Australia developed guidelines for the online advertising of pets to ensure that pets advertised for sale are safe and healthy. These guidelines require sellers to publish detailed descriptions of animals, their vaccination status, microchip number, health status and supporting documentation.

Prospective buyers should also read the RSPCA Smart Puppy and Dog Buyer’s Guide and the RSPCA Smart Kitten and Cat Buyer’s Guide. Caution is needed when using general online marketplaces such as Gumtree and Trading Post, but the websites of reputable animal welfare or rescue organisations are a great place to start, such as RSPCA Adoptapet.

Whether to adopt or buy?

Once you decide to bring a new pet into your home, the first decision is whether to adopt or buy. Adoption has many advantages – pets have already been assessed as suitable for rehoming in terms of health and behaviour and staff can help you find the best match for your family situation and lifestyle. You can also meet a range of pets and introduce them to family members (such as introducing a potential new dog to current dogs) pets, to get an idea of compatibility.

If you choose to buy a pet, it will be important to find a responsible breeder. They should welcome a visit to meet the puppy or kitten, the mother (and possibly the father) and to inspect the premises to be sure the animals are kept in clean, hygienic surroundings and appear happy and healthy. Be wary if the breeder doesn’t ask about you and the home you will provide for the puppy or kitten (for example, questions about your lifestyle, other pets, what you would like from your new family member) or if they want you to meet the puppy or kitten a different location, which may be to disguise poor conditions where the animals are bred. It’s also important to be aware that many purebred dogs and cats have inherited health issues, so do your research and ask the breeder how they test for these. To be properly prepared, consult your veterinarian about the breed you are considering, and what you need to know about the ongoing care and cost associated with any common issues. They may also be able to recommend responsible breeders.

Welfare of pets is the most important thing!

When caring for companion animals, their wellbeing and safety is a priority, and this should start from the time you find the right pet to bring home. Animals are easily exploited, so if you have any welfare concerns during your search for a pet, contact your local RSPCA.

To help keep your new dog or cat protected from the unexpected once you bring them home consider taking out pet insurance so you can seek veterinary assistance if needed. With RSPCA Pet Insurance, a portion of first-year premiums help support the RSPCA’s work to help animals in need.

Image of Dr Rosemary Elliot

Dr Rosemary Elliot 

Dr Rosemary studied veterinary science at the University of Sydney after having established her career as a clinical psychologist, and has qualifications of BVSc (Hons), MANZCVS (Animal Welfare), MPsych (Clin), BA (Hons) as well as previously establishing her career as a clinical psychologist. Her experiences during veterinary training fostered an ambition to focus directly on animal welfare and ethics, with a particular interest in animal sentience and the human-animal bond. Currently working in small animal practice, Dr Rosemary combines her psychology background and veterinary skills to contribute to and promote animal welfare, and regularly contributes quality content to RSPCA Pet Insurance's Pet Care blog.