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Dangers of buying horses online exposed

THE RISKS of buying a horse online exposed after animal charities launch a new minimum standards for UK websites with Defra backing.

Examples of a horse being offered as a swap for 'a quid' or a motorbike and a partially blind pony being offered free to a new home and are just two of the worst online horse advertisements being highlighted today by the Pet Advertising Advisory Group (PAAG).

The group comprises representatives from the UK's leading animal welfare groups and specialist agencies including Blue Cross who have to deal with the fall out of inappropriate advertising on a daily basis.

PAAG is today launching a set of Minimum Standards for websites offering pets for sale, including horses. They have been developed to improve the welfare of the pets and to protect members of the public from the risk of ending up with sick, dangerous or even illegal animals. The standards have also been endorsed by Defra, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and Lord de Mauley, the Minister for Animal Welfare, who gathered the leading online pet classified websites together today to discuss the need for urgent improvement.

Some of the worst online 'pet' adverts include:

• A free mini Shetland pony stallion who would make a good companion or lawnmower

• An 11-year-old girl pleading to borrow a pony for £10 a week

• Very rare Zonkey (Zebra x Donkey) for sale

• An under-weight and injured 20-year-old ex racehorse needing a foster home

• Four miniature Shetlands free to good home

From underage animals, banned breeds, illegally imported or endangered species to animals offered in exchange for inanimate objects - online pet advertising in its current form appears to allow almost anything. PAAG members hope the standards will help improve the quality of websites' systems to try to filter out unscrupulous advertisements.

People turn to their computers when looking to buy or sell almost anything, including pets. PAAG is working with the Government to remind consumers and websites that an animal is not a commodity like a washing machine or a car, and should not be advertised or bought in the same way. Websites in compliance with the standards will be identifiable to consumers on the PAAG website as the ethical and safer choice when deciding to find a pet online. The group is encouraging the public to stay vigilant to ensure that websites meet the standards consistently, and not to use sites that don't apply the Minimum Standards.

Kath Urwin, manager of the Blue Cross Rehoming Centre, Rolleston says: "Indiscriminate advertising can be dangerously misleading, often resulting in inappropriate, but often well-meaning homes, which can put the animal's future welfare at serious risk. Horses and ponies are large and costly animals to keep. They need specialist facilities and care from knowledgeable and experienced people. It's unethical to treat them as cheap or even disposable commodities as many of these advertisements do."

Clarissa Baldwin, Chairman of PAAG says: "Whilst we recognise that pets are commonly advertised online, it is still shocking to know that there are between 100,000 and 120,000 pet advertisements appearing on UK websites each day. The research undertaken by PAAG has revealed some truly terrible examples where animal welfare was clearly the last thought in the mind of the advertiser. Every day we hear from people who have bought an animal online only for it to fall sick or die soon after.

"We hope that the Minimum Standards will be just that, a minimum standard that a website must reach before posting advertisements for pets. In an ideal world we would prefer people not to buy pets online but would advise that if you are doing so that you check the website adheres to PAAG's Minimum Standards."

Lord de Mauley, Minister for Animal Welfare at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, says: "It is vitally important that advertising websites do all they can to ensure the welfare of animals sold on their sites and to prevent the sale of banned breeds. I fully support PAAG's Minimum Standards and would encourage all advertising websites to sign up to these."

The Minimum Standards are just the first step on the road to improving how pets are advertised online. PAAG will work closely with the websites including Gumtree, Loot and Preloved to provide support on the reporting of suspicious adverts and the moderating of such ads. A team of volunteer moderators will also be created to provide further support for the websites and ensure that if anyone is turning to the internet to buy an animal they can do so with more confidence that they are buying a healthily bred pet.

PAAG has compiled a video of case studies showing the shocking impact of inappropriate online advertising on members of the public, the veterinary profession and animal welfare authorities.