The pandemic pups: how unscrupulous sellers have exploited the demand for lockdown dogs
“I have gone into illegal breeding establishments where breeding bitches are being kept like battery chickens in small enclosed areas, which are absolutely filthy, covered in their own faeces and urine.”
The sheer depravity that exists on puppy farms is captured by the head of the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) at the Scottish SPCA in a single sentence. Because of his undercover work, he cannot be named.
When asked by Holyrood just how miserable and degrading these settings can be for a dog, the chief inspector is frank, casting light on a situation that would anger even the most cool-headed.
“There’s been so many pups,” he continues. “Many have been dying, and many have been put outside and burned [as a way] to dispose of them because they are dying. These people are not instilling regimes that promote healthy pups.”
It is suspected the puppy trade was first exploited by organised crime gangs as a means of laundering cash from the proceeds of conventional criminality. But crooks have come to see the potential of making serious money in the industry through the sale of puppies.
The SIU tries to disrupt the illegal trade in several ways. It does so at the point of breeding or by posing as customers and seizing puppies at the point of sale. In some cases, they use powers to intervene and stop dogs being brought into Scotland at Cairnryan port in Dumfries and Galloway.
The larger scale operations exist outside of the country. “The biggest one we know of has 1500 breeding bitches in cattle sheds,” the head of the SIU explains. “Scotland doesn’t have anything like that, or England, to the same extent. These puppy farms are producing these pups on a conveyor belt system and the consumer by and large is in Scotland, England or Wales. The main farms that are producing these pups are in Northern Ireland, Southern Ireland and Eastern Europe.
“They’re breeding en masse and the pups that survive are the ones that they sell and even then the pups are not safe because once they get sold, often the stress of the transportation in the sale is enough to induce a condition called parvovirus, which is very often fatal.
“It’s extremely dangerous to puppies. The stress of them being transported and moved to a new house manifests itself in this virus. Customers buy these pups and the pup’s dead in the morning.
“People have often paid many thousands of pounds for these pups and if they get them to a vet – if they’re needing specialist care, put on a drip and kept at the vet – some of them have had bills in excess of £3,000 to £5,000. It’s a real dire situation.”
There’s been so many pups. Many have been dying, and many have been put outside and burned to dispose of them because they are dying. These people are not instilling regimes that promote healthy pups.
The demand for dogs has spiraled in the last year, with more people working from home or finding they have more time during lockdown to take care of a pet. This surge in potential buyers has meant a shortfall in supply, leading to the price of puppies soaring.
A report from Pets4Homes, an online marketplace, said the average puppy price in 2020 was £1,875 – an increase from around £800 in 2019. A quick search on the Pets4Homes website will return puppies with price tags of more than £3,000.
Trusted breeders have not been able to keep up with the growing demand, which in turn has created an opportunity for the unscrupulous to step in and take advantage of the market.
The stark reality of the situation is brought home in the story of Milo the puppy. He was purchased on Gumtree for £920, having been advertised as an eight-week-old Jack Russell. The buyer asked to meet his mother but was told that wasn’t possible due to COVID-19 restrictions.
The seller turned up at their house in Lanarkshire just 45 minutes after a phone call and, although they could see immediately something wasn’t right, the buyer feared what would happen to the pup if they refused the sale.
He was taken to the vets within 24 hours, where it was found he had been separated from his mum too early and was a four-week-old Border Collie. He was hospitalised for nearly a week but after being taken home he had to return to hospital and later died.
Many prospective owners, including Milo’s buyer, see the red flags but feel the need to rescue the dog by going ahead with the purchase. Others don’t see them, which is why organisations like the Dogs Trust are doing their best to inform buyers.
Claire Wilson-Leary, a senior public affairs officer at the charity, tells Holyrood: “The problem with the growth in online advertising of puppies for sale is we know it’s even easier for puppy buyers to make those emotional purchases without perhaps doing enough research and sellers are very quick to take advantage of this.”
Last year, the Dogs Trust consumer research team polled 2,000 people in the UK who had either bought a puppy or were looking to buy one in the future. The results, which were released in December, showed 30 per cent were willing to buy a puppy even if they thought it had been illegally smuggled into the country and 44 per cent were willing to buy from online ads, despite 41 per cent saying they knew someone who had a bad experience or had been scammed.
Wilson-Leary adds: “We know the people involved in the puppy trade generally are unscrupulous sellers, whether it’s puppy farming or puppy smuggling, we know that they have very little regard for dog welfare. Their priority, their main concern, is making a profit.”
Buyers are warned to be wary of sellers offering to meet someone halfway to save a journey or people using lockdown and travel restrictions as an excuse for the buyer not to see the puppy at home with its mum.
“It is really important people look out for red flags,” Wilson-Leary says. “Ask breeders lots of questions, expect them to ask you questions as well. A good breeder would want their puppy to go to a good home.
“If someone does suspect something is wrong, it’s really important they walk away and report the seller to Trading Standards. For some people it’s really difficult to walk away because they want to rescue the puppy, but we would recommend reporting it instead.”
Operation Delphin, a multi-agency taskforce spearheaded by the SSPCA’s SIU and supported by other SPCAs, the police and port authorities, aims to detect and disrupt the illegal trade and its trafficking of pups to the British market.
The SSPCA also has an Assured Puppy Breeders Scheme, which has created a free hub for responsible breeders. The charity has developed a framework for responsible breeding and inspectors assess applications and visit premises annually to make sure high welfare standards are in place. Members of the public can view its members and look to buy a puppy safely through them.
These are crucial interventions but need to be backed up by policy and education. The Scottish Government has recognised this and legislation is due to come into force in September which requires anyone breeding three or more litters of puppies in any 12-month period to be licensed – cutting the number from five. In addition, the regulations will prevent the third-party sale of dogs under six months old as pets in Scotland.
Separately, Christine Grahame has proposed the Welfare of Dogs (Scotland) Bill, which aims to address the situation of opportunistic sellers and impulse purchases by further strengthening the regulation of breeding and selling dogs, as well as establishing a more responsible approach to acquiring one.
The bill includes measures which would mean any litters not bred as part of licensed activity would need to be registered before the puppies are advertised, sold or transferred to another owner. It also requires a code of practice that should be followed by someone considering taking on a dog, as well as anyone considering selling or giving a dog away.
The idea is that tighter regulation should improve the traceability of puppies if there are any issues and means people are more accountable for their litters. Meanwhile education helps potential dog owners make an informed decision.
According to the SSPCA, the illegal puppy trade is a “multi-million-pound criminal empire where no thought is given to the welfare of pups and the dogs used to breed them.” But the charity believes it can be stopped and ultimately the buck stops with the buyer. “If people truly want a pup and they want to protect themselves and their puppy, they’ll buy responsibly,” the head of the SIU says.
The advice is straightforward: “They’ll only ever buy from a person that can show them the mother and the dog in the house beside the other puppies. Never buy on a meet or have a dog delivered to you. If you do that you will be calling the SSPCA and telling them you have a sick pup.”
Is there a dog welfare crisis on the horizon?
Puppies’ early experiences influence how they behave when they’re older. And while lockdown has been considered the ideal time by many to buy a dog, animal welfare experts have raised concerns about the longer-term implications for the pet as life returns to some sort of normality.
Socialising and playing with other dogs and people is important in their development, but lockdown has meant less time out and about for pups. This means they may be less prepared for the experiences of a new normal. Additionally, their owners may begin returning to the office when it is safe to do so, leaving the dog at home for a number of hours during the day.
There is a risk of behavioural issues, the single biggest reason canines are handed in to the Dogs Trust, and the charity is worried this could lead to an increase in abandonment in the future.
Professor Cathy Dwyer, of Scotland’s Rural College and the University of Edinburgh, is an animal welfare and behaviour expert. She explains the damaging patterns that can emerge from impulse purchasing of dogs.
She tells Holyrood: “There will come a time, one assumes, when most people will be out of the house again and the kids are back at school, and the dog is left alone for periods of time without any experience of having done that before.
“That is a pretty stressful thing for a dog, it’s a social animal, so I think we have several layers of potential welfare challenge for these dogs.
“Separation anxiety is quite a well-known, well-described phenomenon in dogs. It can take many forms. From the welfare point of view, the dog is always stressed and anxious by being left at home, apparently abandoned in its view of the world.
“For some dogs, they can whine all day, but some dogs become very destructive as a way of dealing with that stress, trying to find a way out, trying to dig their way out.
“That can be stressful for the dog, stressful for the owners, but it can also lead to perhaps inappropriate training, attempted training, by the owner or punishment for the dog for showing this behaviour of fear and stress, and then getting punished for doing that as well… or you end up with the dog becoming aggressive or fearful and then the dog might be relinquished to a shelter.”