Buying a dog responsibly means asking yourself how much time, space, and money you can dedicate to your new hairy friend. But in the UK, another pressing consideration has emerged: Are you funding organized crime?
Every year, criminal gangs smuggle unknown thousands of puppies into Britain, with Ireland and Eastern Europe key points of origin. Many of the dogs are too young to legally enter the country and few have been vaccinated against communicable diseases such as rabies.
According to Paula Boyden, veterinary director at the NGO Dogs Trust, growing public awareness of the trade has been met with increasingly sophisticated tactics from the illegal sellers to cloak their activity. Where criminals have previously been found doing deals out of parking lots and empty properties — and still continue to do so — they are now often duping buyers by renting and furnishing houses for business, and sometimes even passing off an unrelated bitch as the mother of the puppies up for sale.
"It's a very challenging market for people to try to do the right thing," Boyden told VICE News.
Boyden says around 8 million dogs are kept as pets in the UK, meaning up to 800,000 puppies are needed each year to maintain the population. While she says the country is capable of meeting that need through legitimate breeders, a voracious demand for fashionable small breeds combined with lax border controls has given rise to a multimillion pound illicit economy.
The clandestine nature of the puppy smuggling trade makes it hard to establish the exact number of dogs entering the UK illegally, but organizations such as Dogs Trust and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) estimate it to be in the tens of thousands, if not higher.
According to Boyden, around a quarter of a million puppies are registered each year by the Kennel Club (KC), while a further 150,000 are rehomed by animal welfare groups and shelters — accounting for just half the number needed to meet the demand. "Where are these missing 400,000 puppies?" she said.
Some are provided by legitimate breeders who are not KC registered or litters from people's pets, while a case in Greater Manchester in 2013 highlighted the presence of illegal puppy farms on UK soil. But many come from abroad, enduring arduous road journeys before being sold and often being abandoned in the event they are confiscated at entry points.
"Dogs are considered property, so if you are caught and don't want to foot the bill for quarantine, you can just say 'I don't want it' and walk away," said Boyden.
According to Ian Briggs, chief inspector of the RSPCA's special operations unit, the groups involved do not fit a single profile, though they often begin as family-based operations that expand to become networks including dedicated drivers, corrupt veterinarians, and full-time staff at the farms.
They are driven by immense profits, with Briggs saying in-demand "handbag dogs" can be bought in Eastern Europe for as little as 20 pounds ($29) and sold for as much as 1,200 pounds ($1,700) in the UK, allowing even small-scale operators to make thousands of pounds every week.
Briggs says around 10,000 puppies are legally imported from Ireland for sale in the UK, but up to four times as many are thought to be entering illegally. He says the number coming from Eastern Europe is likely to be even higher.
The dogs are usually born in deplorable conditions, where hygiene and disease control standards are non-existent and mistreatment of both the puppies and their mothers is commonplace.
"The mothers are just breeding machines, continually impregnated and their litters taken away at an extremely early age," Briggs told VICE News.
Boyden said in one case witnessed by Dogs Trust, a litter of puppies was kept in a cupboard under the stairs of a house in Eastern Europe and was only exposed to light when a potential buyer came for a viewing and possible transportation.
A quarantined French bulldog. Photo via Dogs' Trust.
As highlighted in a report published by Dogs Trust in November 2014, the trade has exploded in recent years as criminals take advantage of changes introduced in 2012 to the EU Pet Travel Scheme (PETS), which made it easier to bring puppies into the UK.
Owners are allowed to enter the country with up to five puppies as long as they are over 15 weeks old, have been microchipped, and carry valid paperwork proving they have been vaccinated and dewormed.
But during a six-month undercover investigation in Lithuania and Hungary undertaken for the report, Dogs Trust found evidence of widespread forging of documents. It also revealed numerous veterinarians taking backhanders to list false birth dates and sign off on vaccinations for dogs they had never even seen, allowing underage and unvaccinated puppies to enter the UK.
Boyden says that poses a serious public health risk, including diseases that can be transmitted to humans, such as rabies or the tapeworm echinococcus multilocularis. Briggs says diseases such as parvovirus and distemper are also capable of ravaging entire litters and infecting dogs subsequently kept in the same areas if they are not cleaned out properly.
In many cases, such diseases only appear in the puppies after they have been sold, leaving the buyers with massive veterinary bills and inflicting anguish on entire families.
"Imagine if you've got kids coming down in the morning to find the dog lying on the floor bleeding from every orifice," said Briggs.
In a case in 2013, two men were busted for selling illegally trafficked dogs following an investigation by the RSPCA after numerous complaints of recently purchased puppies falling seriously ill and often dying.
As a mark of how changes to PETS spurred the trade, Dogs Trust report noted that the UK's Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) announced a 61 percent rise in the number of puppies entering the country under the travel scheme in the year after the new regulations had been introduced. Notably, between 2011 and 2013, the number of dogs arriving from Lithuania and Hungary rose 780 percent and 663 percent respectively, and this only accounts for dogs that are declared.
Dogs Trust and RSPCA have also named Poland and Romania as major origin countries during awareness campaigns over recent years — with the RSPCA currently running a petition to pressure the UK government to do more to tackle the trade.
While Briggs says he is aware of smugglers employing a variety of methods to get puppies into the country, including building secret compartments into their vehicles, the Dogs Trust investigation highlighted serious flaws in the checking procedures at British ports. Officials were seen to rarely observe the dogs passing through, instead allowing owners to scan their own animals' microchips and checking that the ID number matched the accompanying documentation.
In a follow-up report published in July 2015, Dogs Trust demonstrated the ongoing ease with which dogs could enter the country unchecked by successfully bringing a microchipped stuffed toy with fake paperwork into the UK from mainland Europe on three occasions.
Another major problem found with the checking system was the fact that the two authorities involved in enforcing breaches of regulations — the Animal and Plant Health Authority (APHA) and Trading Standards — have no officers on active duty at entry points over the weekend. Dogs Trust found that traffickers specifically seek to enter the country at weekends because of the lack of enforcement.
In a statement sent to VICE News, APHA said the responsibility to check compliance with pet movement regulations rests in the first instance with the transport company.
"APHA takes breaches of the rules very seriously and robust penalties will apply to those who do not comply," the statement said, though it did not respond to a request to confirm whether there were any plans to begin stationing officers at entry points during weekends.
Meanwhile, a DEFRA spokesperson said a three-month pilot scheme in conjunction with Dogs Trust and local authorities to rehome puppies abandoned in quarantine at the port of Dover, where the majority of the puppies crossing from Europe arrive, had seen 30 dogs rehomed since its implementation in December 2015.
"The UK government is committed to cracking down on animal traffickers and putting a stop to the abhorrent illegal trade of puppies or abuses of the EU Pet Travel Scheme. The UK has one of the toughest pet border checking regimes in the EU," the statement said.
'They wouldn't go and meet someone in a car park and pay 600 pounds for a television with no receipt and no guarantee, yet they will do exactly the same for a dog'
Trading Standards in the county of Kent, where the port of Dover and Channel Tunnel entrance are located, did not respond to a request for comment.
Yet 30 dogs represent a tiny fraction of the animals being illegally trafficked into the country, and while both Boyden and Briggs recognized that various authorities are making efforts to address the trade, they both say the sheer volume of traffic passing through the ports make it an incredibly difficult task under current regulations.
The RSPCA has called for puppy sellers to receive ID numbers that would have to be displayed on advertisements, so that the lack of a number could act as a warning flag to buyers and authorities.
For Boyden, a welcome measure would be to extend the necessary waiting period for travel after a rabies vaccination from three weeks to two or three months. With puppies only able to receive the vaccination at three months of age, that would effectively shift the age at which they can enter the country from 15 weeks to five or six months — making it much easier for authorities at ports to definitively age them.
Boyden says that would also be more in line with the general incubation period for rabies so would act as an added safeguard against the disease, though such a move would do little to address the undeclared dogs coming in.
But for now, one of the most effective tools in the fight against the trade remains tip-offs from the public and veterinarians — which Boyden says are the source of 90 percent of seizures of illegally landed dogs in London.
Meanwhile, Briggs hopes increased awareness of smuggling will see more people accept that the cost of buying from a legitimate seller with proper documentation is a necessary assurance of the dog's background.
"They wouldn't go and meet someone in a car park and pay 600 pounds for a television with no receipt and no guarantee, yet they will do exactly the same for a dog. It doesn't make any sense," he said.
Follow Charles Parkinson on Twitter: @charlesparkinsn