(The Hill) — Animal rescue workers have pleaded with the public to consider adopting a pet to ease an ongoing national shelter crisis

Keep in mind, though: There is a right way to adopt a pet and a wrong way, animal advocates say. Sadly, online puppy scams tend to peak around the holidays.  

A Nashville woman targeted in one recent swindle found a German shepherd puppy in a Google search before Thanksgiving. She filled out forms and paid $600. Then came demands for more cash, $1,600 in all. No puppy ever arrived, according to a report from KSNB News.  

“My husband and I already named him,” Sally Midyette told the news station. “It was heartbreaking.” 

Some pet adoption websites, including Petfinder, are vital and trusted and “very much where we’d want people to look for pets,” said Temma Martin of Best Friends Animal Society, a Utah nonprofit. Many other sites are unknown to animal advocates and potentially unworthy.  

Most puppies sold online “come from puppy mills, commercial breeding facilities that profit by breeding dogs in filthy and inhumane conditions,” said Richard Patch, vice president of federal affairs at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). 

Puppies raised by commercial breeders are protected by the federal Animal Welfare Act of 1966, which sets minimum standards of care. But while federal enforcers have observed “hundreds of violations of the law,” they seldom act to revoke a breeder’s license or confiscate abused animals, Patch said.  

Last December, lawmakers introduced Goldie’s Act, named for Golden Retriever No. 142, an unnamed animal who died at a puppy mill in Iowa licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The measure, which seeks to ramp up federal enforcement, has not advanced from the House.  

In the meantime, animal advocates advise would-be adopters to beware of online pet ads. You may even spot one between the lines of this article: Pet sellers flock to pet-related content. Don’t assume every merchant is legit, and consider forgoing digital venues entirely in the search for a new pet.  

Here is a list of reasons not to buy a holiday puppy online, from Best Friends and the ASPCA. 

1. You risk online fraud.  

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) logged a dramatic increase in pet scams during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a single month during the 2020 holiday season, the BBB logged 337 pet scam complaints. The average complainant lost $750.  

Online puppy scammers “post puppies for sale that don’t exist, using stock images or photos stolen from other sites,” said Julie Castle, CEO of Best Friends.

The scammer might send photos and videos of a nonexistent pet. They often ask for a large deposit on a mobile payment app. Then come last-minute pleas for more money, supposedly to cover urgent vaccinations or special travel crates. 

“By the time the buyer realizes they have been scammed, the seller has vanished, blocked their number or even moved their website,” Castle said. 

2. You may end up with an unhealthy puppy. 

Even if a seller has a real puppy on offer, the animal may come from a puppy mill. 

Many puppies sold online “are born and raised in factorylike, inhumane settings,” Castle said, “where dogs are seen as a cash commodity.” Dogs from puppy mills may carry any number of health problems and behavior issues stemming from “unsanitary living conditions, inbreeding, poor-quality food, and lack of medical care and positive human social contact.” 

3. You risk being deceived by false marketing. 

Puppy scammers can say and show whatever they want. Online retailers often proffer such marketing claims as “USDA-licensed” or “raised by a professional breeder” to seed trust, Castle said. Scammers “can hide behind attractive websites that feature stock photos of adorable photos being raised by families, frolicking in fields or napping in wicker baskets.” 

Online customers might never see the true circumstances in which their puppy was raised. Short of an in-person visit, they may never know if the claims are correct. 

“It’s nearly impossible to know if an online breeder or seller is responsible or trustworthy or if they are actually a puppy mill,” said Patch of the ASPCA. 

4. You would be perpetuating an “inhumane” industry. 

“As long as people continue to buy puppies from online retailers,” Castle said, “the inhumane puppy mill industry will persist.”  

Research suggests younger Americans, Generation Z and millennials, are less knowledgeable than older consumers about pet adoption and more likely to acquire pets from stores, breeders or online retailers, Castle said.  

“The best way to end puppy mills is to withdraw the demand by not purchasing from retailers that sell puppies from these sources,” she said. 

5. Adopting a pet saves a life. 

The “no-kill” movement pledged to end the killing of pets in shelters by 2025. Since 2016, the annual tally of animals killed in shelters has declined from 2 million to around 350,000. In 2021, however, the number of pets killed rose anew, from 347,000 to 355,000. 

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Unless pet adoptions catch up with shelter intake, 2022 could end with an even larger number of animals going to their deaths, animal advocates say. Shelters are counting on a holiday surge to find homes for thousands of idle, ownerless pets. 

“We encourage anyone who is looking to bring a new pet into their family to please consider adopting from a shelter or rescue or visit a responsible breeder,” Patch said.