A concerning number of recent posts on Facebook featuring pets being given away for free has prompted animal welfare advocates to issue a serious warning.
"There's been a steady increase (in posts advertising free pets)," the president of the Orange branch of Animal Welfare League NSW Tina Pacey said.
"I don't know if the hardship has increased around here during covid but I've seen more and more ads popping up with 'free to good home' and I'm like 'what's going on?'"
In addition to it being against the law in NSW to give away animals that have not been microchipped or vaccinated, AWLN is worried about the uncertain fate of those cats and dogs.
"It's really hard to know who's coming to pick the dog up," Ms Pacey said.
"Giving them away for free with no vaccinations or anything like that, it just increases the risk of them (dogs and cats) falling into the wrong hands."
In the worst case scenario - free animals could be unwittingly handed over to people involved in dog fighting or backyard breeding - also known as puppy farming, she explained.
"They use them for bait-dogs. They get fighting dogs used to blood and ripping dogs apart and it doesn't matter what breed. They'll take any dog," Ms Pacey said.
"It's not just that, people will pick up undesexed females and use them in backyard breeding."
In one instance in the Central West, a dog was found very badly injured after going missing, like it had been in a dog attack. Rescuers had suspected the animal had been picked up by dog fighters.
Even for pet owners who aren't giving away or selling their animals, Ms Pacey thinks people are not aware of the strife and heartache that can result from not microchipping their furry love ones.
"The reason for microchipping is, (number) one, ownership - it will prove ownership. If you don't have a dog microchipped and someone steals it and microchips it, your chances of getting that dog back are very limited," she said.
It's something Ms Pacey and her team of volunteers know all too well having seen it first hand.
After a pedigree cavalier had ended up in their care, they were approached by a "pet detective" who believed the dog had been stolen as a puppy before it could be microchipped. The foster dog turned out to be a different dog that looked very similar to the missing dog, but the incident highlighted what can happen when owners don't microchip pets.
"They tried everything to get this dog (back)," Ms Pacey said, but without a microchip there was no proof of ownership. And no amount of photos could help prove their case either.
In the case of ethical rescues like AWLN, pets also need to be desexed before being adopted.
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Ms Pacey also advised people who were buying a dog to make sure the breeder was accredited. Just because they gave you a purported breeder registration number and the number of the individual animal's microchip, both needed to be checked.
"There's been a massive increase in scams over puppies and dogs during covid," she added.
"Never give money up front... See the puppy first and the parents because you don't want to support a puppy farm."
The AWLN president urged pet owners experiencing hardship - whether it was financial or otherwise - to turn to rescue organisations for help before they turned to Facebook.
Pets could be vaccinated and even desexed at heavily discounted rates by AWLN. And for those forced into circumstances where they needed to give up their animals, the rescue could provide temporary care or, if necessary, help them be re-homed.
Pets could be vaccinated for $20 and microchipped for free at rescues like AWLN. To go straight to a vet it could cost any where between $70 and $100. Help was always available to pet owners and their animals, she added.
"We don't judge, it's not our place to judge - we're there for the animals," Ms Pacey said.
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