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Publication - Research Publication

Sourcing of pet dogs from illegal importation and puppy farms 2016-2017: scoping research

Published: 9 Nov 2017
Part of:
Farming and rural, Research

The report describes research into the scale of the trade in imported and illegally bred puppies.

153 page PDF


153 page PDF


Sourcing of pet dogs from illegal importation and puppy farms 2016-2017: scoping research

153 page PDF



Legal and Illegal Trade

All experts identified the lack of accurate data on both the legal and illegal trade as problematic. Although there are many sources of data available, most are based on estimates, which reside with a variety of agencies, who do not share their data. Consequently, a complete picture of the trade is not available. Furthermore, both experts and consumers in the trade find it difficult to distinguish the legal and illegal trade. As such, we cannot rely on recorded offences, prosecutions or victim complaints' data, as these are seen to significantly underreport the problem. There is, according to some experts, often little to separate the legal and illegal trade, which makes identifying the prevalence of either impossible. Partially, this confusion relates to current regulations, which are perceived to compromise the welfare of the dogs involved ( e.g. through industrial-sized breeding establishments and irresponsible breeding, which results in inherited diseases and disorders), with some illegal traders reportedly providing better standards of care and consideration for their dogs.

"It's often very difficult to distinguish between what's legal and what's illegal… just because they give you a licence doesn't mean to say that you're legal. What that means is you've got a piece of paper that says you've got a licence but it doesn't mean to say that you're not compromising welfare" [ EI2].

"There's not been a single puppy farm that we've gone into that hasn't been in breach of the Animal Welfare Act or the old 1973 act, the Breeding of Dogs. Not one, and we've been in unlicensed farms that have been far, far better conditions than licensed farms, so, you know, you put them all together, throw them up in the air and what comes down, there's not a fig to pick between them" [ EI6].

This issue was echoed by focus group participants:

"I mean, I don't know what the legal definition of a puppy farm is but to me, this is a mass production of puppies and, you know, maybe the puppies aren't ripped off the mum too early but it doesn't look ethical or responsible to me" [ FG13].

Consequently, two NGO experts concluded that:

"I wrestled for a while … is this just about documentation? Is this really just about dogs that don't have the necessary documentation? But what I actually found was once I'd looked into it, the industry, the industry is built on the foundations of compromising dogs, bitches and pups from start to finish and there is significant and very, very serious animal health issues throughout the whole industry, and that's why I have no issues or confusion at all about the [ NGO organisation] dealing with this" [ EI1].

Experts concur that an accurate assessment on the scale and nature of the trade (both legal and illegal) is currently impossible. Developing accurate means to record the trade was identified as the first requirement in responding to the trade. As one Government agent noted:

The councils … a lot of them are completely unsighted as to just the scale of what is a multi-million pound industry under their nose [ EI4].

Without accurate data on the trade, experts noted various sources that provided partial estimates on the scale and value of the trade, trade offences and related harms. The following sources of information on the trade were identified:

  • Trading Standard's data, which includes consumer complaints,
  • Local Authorities' licensing and complaints databases,
  • HMRC's breeder/trader tax records, tax offences and intelligence database,
  • TRACES international commercial imports database,
  • APHA's rabies or other animal health-related risk information,
  • KC registrations, sales and complaints databases,
  • Commercial Organisation ( e.g. transport) client databases,
  • Microchip and Insurance companies' client databases,
  • Royal Veterinary College [ RVC] national database recording clinical codes of animal illness,
  • Various websites' online advertisements,
  • NGO surveys and client databases,
  • DEFRA and Border Forces' seizures and offences.

These data are crucial in estimating the prevalence and nature of the trade. For example, through HMRC intelligence data, one expert was able to confirm " the HMRC is satisfied that there is a credible risk of Tax Evasion within the puppy/kitten breeding and selling industry" [ EI10]. The RVC database can identify trends and clinical significances of health conditions associated with the puppy trade across the UK [ EI1]. The KC registrations database can clarify how many breeders should be LA registered, while the LA database confirms how many breeders are registered and the number of complaints and non-compliance issues identified. NGO surveys and databases are also of value as they provide prevalence data from professionals (for example , "79% of veterinary professionals report they've seen an increase in the number of pets imported from abroad…in the last 12 months. 89% report they've seen an increase in pet sales from adverts from the internet in the last 2 years") and consumers (for example, "50% would get a pet from an online advert on a classified website") [ EI1]. The same NGO expert used the data available to estimate annual UK sales of between 800,000 and 1.3 million puppies [ EI1]. Others suggested the organised nature of the illegal puppy trade must be considered when estimating the trade. For example, one suggested it was now similar in scale to the drugs trade:

R - So do you get a sense, then, of the scale of the problem?
P - It's huge. It's the new drugs money. It's that big.
R - So you think that the puppy trade is now on the scale of the drugs trade, essentially?
P - Yes. It's taking it over… [ EI6]

One NGO Inspector emphasised that when legislating for the trade 12 years ago the regulations did not provide for this kind or scale of trade. That there has been a significant increase in the scale of the legal and illegal trade was supported by all experts. While there are many variables which will influence the scale and nature of the trade - including the future impact of 'Brexit' on the soft Irish border - consumer demand was identified repeatedly as the cause of this increase due to the UK not producing " enough of the right sorts of puppies" [ EI2] and " a shortage of good quality French bulldogs" [ EI6].

Respondents to the online survey provided a snapshot on the prevalence of the trade across Scotland, based on practitioners' engagement with consumers:

  • A majority felt the illegal puppy trade (Illegal imports, exports and breeding - Question 6) was a problem in their locality - 21 people (42.9%) agreed and 19 (38.8%) strongly agreed.
  • A majority also indicated (Question 7) that illegal imports for the whole of Scotland in the last year had increased (16/32.7%) or significantly increased (14/28.6%). In the last five years, illegal imports were also thought to have increased (14/28.6%) or significantly increased (21/42.9%) (Question 9).
  • In terms of illegal breeding (Question 8), 17 respondents (34.7%) felt it had increased in the whole of Scotland over the last year and 12 people (24.5%) felt it had significantly increased. Question 10 asked about illegal breeding in the last five years and again a majority of respondents said it had increased (13/26.5%) or significantly increased (17/34.7%).
  • Thirty per cent of respondents were unable to identify an increase or decrease of illegal importing and breeding (Questions 7-10). Likewise, most (30/61.2%) could not estimate the number of puppies smuggled into their local area, though 11 people (22.4%) said it was over 250 puppies (Question 11).
  • When asked how often respondents were concerned that a puppy they were working with may have been smuggled (Question 14), a majority of the responses indicated that this was a concern either at least monthly (15/30.6%) or at least quarterly (15/30.6%). Only one person responded this was a daily concern.
  • In terms of illegal breeding (Question 15), again, at least monthly (15/30.6%) and at least quarterly (13/26.5%) were the majority answers.
  • Respondents were also asked (Question 12) what percentage they thought of illegally imported puppies goes undetected. Twenty-four (45%) and 13 (26.5%) respondents felt it was 75 percent or between 51 and 75 percent respectively.

Legal Commercial Imports

The TRACES database provides some information about the legal commercial importation of dogs. Figure 1 below shows the number of individual Canis familiaris (pet dogs) that were brought into England, Scotland and Wales in 2016 for commerical purposes (these figures include organised "rescue" of dogs by NGOs) and therefore does not include dogs brought through the Pet Travel Scheme [ PTS] [8] . The data do not indicate the age or breed of the dog, or any further information, so there is no way to know if they are puppies or rescue dogs The total number of dogs imported to Scotland was 909 whereas 27,564 dogs were imported to England and Wales. The number of consignments is also recorded as seen in Figure 2. Seven hundred and thirty one consignments were imported to Scotland and 10,827 into England and Wales.

Figure 1 - Numbers of individual Canis familiaris commerically imported from other European countries in 2016

Figure 1 - Numbers of individual Canis familiaris commerically imported from other European countries in 2016

Source: TRACES database

Figure 2 - Numbers of consignments of Canis familiaris commerically imported from other European countries in 2016

Figure 2 - Numbers of consignments of Canis familiaris commerically imported from other European countries in 2016

Source: TRACES database

Table 4 breaks down the European countries from where the dogs were exported. Romania is the highest (10,812 dogs; 3,112 consignments) followed by Ireland (8,737 dogs; 2,970 consignments). APHA shared that 47 of the consignments to Scotland were deemed unsatisfactory. According to APHA (personal communication), unsatisfactory means the consignment was non-compliant, which could be for a variety of reasons. There might be errors on the health certificate of the dogs, the dogs may not have complied with the relevant animal health trade requirements, or the importer may not have notified APHA of the import 24 hours prior to the consignments arrival in the UK (which is a violation of the correct import procedures).

Table 4: European countries exporting dogs to England, Scotland and Wales

Country Consignment No. Country Consignment No. Country Consignment No.
Bulgaria 72 389 Finland 4 4 Malta 5 5
Switzerland 5 5 France 6 28 Netherlands 18 127
Cyprus 2335 2716 UK 3 5 Poland 94 377
Czech 21 27 Greece 87 106 Portugal 8 141
Germany 4 4 Croatia 126 182 Romania 3112 10812
Denmark 1 1 Hungary 365 1803 Slovenia 5 6
Estonia 1 1 Ireland 2970 8737 Slovakia 7 29
Spain 2303 2948 Italy 6 20

Source: TRACES database

Data availability and reliability

Experts also cautioned the use of available data, identifying errors and problems in the reliability of this data. For example, one expert indicated that when the Irish government trade database indicated approximately 3,000 puppies were being transported commercially to the UK, he was able to " directly follow over 52,000 pups to the UK every year and that was the ones we knew about" [ EI5]. Similarly, Trading Standards Scotland recorded 118 puppy farming and puppy health complaints between November 2015 and 2016 [ EI11], a figure significantly lower than would be expected given the estimated scale of the illegal and irresponsible puppy trade. In the absence of reliable and complete information, stakeholders and consumers use a variety of sources to inform their understanding of the trade. For example, while online stakeholders responding to the survey, for the most part, felt they were reasonably well (20/40.8%), well (14/28.6%) or very well (10/20.4%) informed (Question 4), their knowledge on prevalence and nature (Question 13) is a mixture of anecdotal and evidence-based information (34/70.8%). Their knowledge stemmed from the media, research they had read, informal communication with colleagues, information from membership in professional bodies or networks, and from owners of illegally bred or traded puppies, amongst other sources (Question 5). Although the benefits of data sharing among agencies was echoed by all experts, there are currently many barriers to doing so: " there are sensitivities so I think there is naturally, although it's frustrating, a bit of reluctance to share data" [ EI2]. This expert also provided an example of how international trade and related offences are underreported and under recorded, due to the reliance on commercial organisations to enforce regulations at the borders:

…as you know Euro Tunnel by far carry the most dogs across from mainland Europe. There has been a change in staff there and what we've noticed as a result of that is the reports coming in from Euro Tunnel have dropped off, so it's very much been dependent on personal relationships. And that's a huge worry because I don't believe it's dropped off that much particularly like I say, with the gains to be made and given that we're building up to Christmas, I just think they're not being picked up so there's a big issue there" [ EI2].

Any estimates on the scale of the trade provided herein must be considered with the above limitations in mind.

Value of the Trade

Through the analysis of online advertisement data over a 12-week monitoring period for this project, 1,497 advertisements in Scotland were identified. Approximately 4,074 puppies were for sale. The total value of the puppies advertised is estimated to be a minimum of £3,332,073.00, with the approximate average cost of a puppy estimated at £817.88. Over 25 percent of the advertisements were for four small or toy breeds (see Table 5 page 33). Extrapolating these figures to cover a full year suggests an approximate minimum of 17,680 puppies being advertised for sale, with a total value of approximately £13 million. It should be kept in mind that the period reviewed may not reflect other quarters due to the apparent increased scale of advertising prior to Christmas. However, it is also the case that where information was not fully available ( e.g. price or number of puppies) estimations were purposely minimal to avoid over-inflating sales volumes and values. It was not possible to determine what portion of the trade is illegitimate. However, the analysis demonstrates the viability of the trade in Scotland alone, and the profits available for willing offenders.

The value of the trade was an important consideration for each expert - with examples provided of offenders earning a couple of thousand in one trip smuggling puppies from Ireland, to £26,000 bringing in 12 puppies from Eastern European countries using the PTS (and smuggling others in the same vehicle), to in excess of £100,000 earned annually bringing in five puppies a week using PTS. Overall the profits available to offenders are considerable:

I know the figures that have been presented to PAAG by HMRC are phenomenal - dogs, you know, puppies being traded to thousands of pounds, so it's certainly not a small financial commitment for people [ EI1].

Consequently, the value of the trade was compared with and linked to other organised illegal trade, by the experts:

And the trade has moved on as well, because it's not just for profit from the pups, what you're getting is you're getting serious and organised criminals that are using the puppy trade as a way to launder the proceeds of conventional criminality. So if you're importing drugs or selling guns or doing whatever and you've got all these, what used to be tanning studios or nail bars or whatever, they're now using the front of selling pups. So when they do get detected and they've got X amount of hundreds and thousands in the bank they say that they've earned that money from puppy trading, but in actual fact it's from the conventional criminality [ EI4].

So whilst the exact value of the illegal and irresponsible puppy trade remains an unknown, our evidence suggests that it is prevalent and highly lucrative trade, which warrants further research and targeted interventions.

Summary of Respondent Suggestions regards the Prevalence of the Trade

1. Develop a process to accurately record the legal and the known illegal trade, which facilitates cross-agency data sharing between formal and informal agencies. This approach could initially be piloted at the regional level.

2. Provide anonymised formal data ( e.g. HMRC, LA) for the public domain to help educate consumers and stakeholders on the nature and scale of the trade.

3. Review regulations which oversee the puppy trade to ensure the legal and illegal trade are discernible and provide clarification on these to stakeholders and consumers.