Questions and Answers on the welfare of dogs and cats

Why is the Commission proposing new rules on the welfare of dogs and cats?

Dogs and cats are close to the hearts of EU citizen as well as big business in the EU: EU citizens own more than 72 million dogs and more than 83 million cats. The estimated value of cat and dog sales is €1.3 billion annually. When it comes to pets overall, around 44% of all households in the EU have a companion animal, and over 90% are dogs or cats.

High prices and an ever-increasing demand for pets are incentives for illegal operators, who are also encouraged by lenient penalties and the ease of obtaining inexpensive animals to sell domestically and across borders, resulting in problems for the welfare, including the health, for the dogs and cats concerned. This does not only result in serious animal suffering, but also distress and economic burden for the people who buy animals with health or behavioural issues.

Current EU legislation does not offer sufficient protection of dogs and cats. It only applies to:

  • Dogs and cats intended for scientific purposes.
  • Dogs and cats transported for commercial purposes.
  • Measures for dogs and cats to prevent the spread of rabies and other contagious diseases.

Moreover, Member States' rules on the welfare of dogs and cats vary widely, with large discrepancies on issues such as identification and registration, registration of breeding establishments and age limits for breeding. The Commission has therefore decided to propose minimum harmonised rules on the welfare of dogs and cats in the EU. The proposal tackles animal welfare of dogs and cats kept by breeders, sellers, pet-shops and shelters and creates a level playing field for honest operators. By doing so, it responds to a very strong call of the EU citizens to improve the animal welfare of their pets. The proposal is also important from a One Health perspective: unvaccinated or unhealthy animals can harbour and spread diseases that may impact human health, and may require the administration of antimicrobial substances, thereby increasing the risk of antimicrobial resistance development.

What problems need to be addressed in relation to dogs and cats sold in the EU?

The lucrative nature of the dog and cat market in Europe makes it attractive for unscrupulous operators and fraudsters. Some establishments keep dogs and cats in very poor conditions, neglect or abuse the animals, sell them too young, or fail to ensure proper vaccination and medical interventions.

It is estimated that 60% of dog and cat owners buy their pet via the internet. Online advertising of pets has soared in recent years, making it difficult for both consumers and authorities to verify the true origin and welfare background of these dogs and cats.

The illegal trade in dogs and cats is also considerable and has far-reaching consequences. The animals are often brought from non-EU countries with lower animal health and welfare standards, and bred and kept in appalling conditions. At the EU's borders, animal movements are often camouflaged as non-commercial to by-pass registration and declaration requirements. Documents are forged and falsified, including fake information on the animals' vaccination status for serious diseases such as rabies.

All of this impacts the wellbeing of the animals, poses serious risks to public health and causes economic damage in terms of lost tax revenue. It also creates unfair competition for the responsible breeders, pet-shops, sellers and shelters.

Furthermore, people who buy animals bred in poor conditions face higher veterinary costs. Some of these animals also have serious behavioural problems that make them unfit to be pets.

What are the main elements of the proposal on the welfare of dogs and cats?

The proposal is based on the principle that dogs and cats must be kept in a way that respects their basic needs and allows them to express their natural behaviours.

Proposed uniform welfare standards may include, depending on the type of establishment, minimum space allowances and a ban on cages, access to natural light and outdoor exercise, temperature limits for housing, and basic feeding requirements. Breeding is regulated (with limits on breeding frequency and minimum age), and inbreeding is prohibited. Painful mutilations, such as ear-cropping and tail-docking, are also banned, unless carried out for veterinary reasons and under anaesthetic. 

Breeding establishments will have to be authorised following an on-site inspection by competent authorities. All dogs and cats will have to be microchipped and registered in a national database before they can be supplied in the EU, and Member States' databases will become interoperable. In addition, when dogs and cats are advertised online, a free automated system will be available to the prospective owner to verify the identification and registration of the dog or cat. This increased traceability will enable authorities to better monitor and control the breeding, trade and movements of the animals. It will also provide citizens with more reliable information when buying a pet.

Animal caretakers will have to obtain a minimum level of competence and Member States will have to ensure availability of training courses to those caretakers. Suppliers of dogs and cats will have to ensure that prospective owners are aware of the importance of responsible ownership i.e. the need to provide proper care, nutrition and medical attention for their pets.

Imports will be subject to the same or equivalent standards. Imported dogs and cats will have to be registered in an EU database within 48 hours of their entry into the EU.

Are pet owners impacted by this proposal?

No. The proposed rules and requirements will only apply to dogs and cats kept by breeders, sellers, pet-shops and shelters. Those that only keep a very small number of animals will be exempt from the rules. However, anyone who wants to supply a dog or cat in the EU will have to ensure that it is microchipped for traceability purposes - (except if the supply is only occasional and through other means than online).

Is there any evidence of the nature and scale of the illegal trade in this area?

An EU coordinated action of the Commission, Member States and NGOs on the illegal trade in dogs and cats was carried out over the course of an entire year in 2022-2023. All relevant authorities exchanged information, including on law enforcement, customs and financials. A report with the results of this action was published today.

The coordinated action threw new light on the routes and techniques used by illegal traders, while also showing the loopholes that they are exploiting. It also resulted in the identification of organised crime networks and 35 judicial proceedings.

The problems found included pets transported in unsuitable conditions, animals that were too young or not appropriately vaccinated to travel safely, trafficking of materials used for fraud (e.g. veterinary stamps, passports, microchips) and the abuse of EU pet movement legislation. The primary origin of the animals within the EU were Romania and Hungary, while Russia, Belarus, Serbia and Turkey were the main non-EU countries from which the illegal trade was originating.

Online advertising and the use of social media has exacerbated illegal trade, with offenders easily able to reach a wide audience. The information on the advertisements is difficult to verify and traceability is frequently impossible.

What measures is the Commission taking to tackle this illegal trade?

The coordinated action helped to spot the problems linked to illegal pet movement, by exposing the types of fraudulent activities, identifying recurrent patterns and enhancing cross-border information exchange between authorities. It also showed that a multifaceted approach will be needed to tackle this problem, including new laws, more targeted and risk-based controls, greater collaboration between authorities, stronger penalties, tougher enforcement and public awareness campaigns.

The proposals put forward today will already address legislative gaps that have been exploited by the illegal traders up to now. For example, all dogs and cats will have to be identified and microchipped, breeding establishments will have to be approved and new rules on welfare in transport will make it easier to detect non-compliance. Rules on the import of dogs and cats will also require compliance with the EU rules or equivalent for these animals entering the Single Market. The requirement for suppliers to prove that dogs and cats have been identified and registered before they are advertised on online platforms will greatly improve traceability and reduce the risk of fraud and illegal trade. Member States need to have appropriate penalties for those that breach the rules.

The reform of the Customs Union, proposed in May 2023, will also help in implementing more targeted, risk-based and effective controls at the EU border.

Member States will have to report to the Commission every three years data on animal welfare. On this basis, the Commission will publish every five years a monitoring report on the welfare of dogs and cats sold in the EU. This will serve as a basis to decide whether further measures need to be taken.

How will consumers be able to tell if the dogs and cats they buy comply with the EU animal welfare rules?

The proposed rules will substantially increase transparency for consumers. Dogs and cats will have to be microchipped and registered before they are sold. This will allow consumers to check that the pet they intend to buy has been bred and kept in line with EU animal welfare standards. There will be advisory veterinary visits to establishments, as well as training for anyone taking care of dogs and cats in breeding establishments, pet shops or shelters.

At the same time, suppliers of dogs and cats will have to ensure that prospective owners are aware of the importance of responsible ownership i.e. the need to provide proper care, nutrition and medical attention for their pets.

Will the Commission act to better regulate the online sale of pets?

The proposal allows the prospective owners to check the identity and the registration of dogs and cats advertised online in the EU. To do so, online platforms will provide their audience with a weblink to a system that will automatically check the identification and registration of the dog or cat in an EU database. This will significantly enhance the traceability of these animals and provide a strong incentive for suppliers to register with the authorities. In addition, online platforms will adapt their online interface to allow dog and cat suppliers to provide necessary information to prospective owners.

The proposal is also in line with the results of a recent Eurobarometer on the digital decade, showing that protecting users from disinformation and illegal content is one of the three top priorities for EU citizens.

Can Member States apply stricter rules than the proposed EU rules?

Yes. Member States will be allowed to maintain or adopt stricter national rules on housing conditions, mutilations, enrichment, selection and breeding programmes. The Commission's proposal will ensure that there is a minimum standard of welfare for dogs and cats applied throughout the EU.

How will the proposed measures be enforced?

Member States will be responsible to ensure that the rules are enforced, and that there are effective penalties for those who breach the rules. They will have to report to the Commission with data on the welfare of cats and dogs in their Member State every three years. Member States will also have to set up a national database of microchipped dogs and cats, which should be interoperable with other Member States' databases, and make publicly available the list of approved breeding establishments.