Stricter legislation needed to tackle illegal puppy imports

Posted on January 15, 2019 by Paula Boyden

Changes to the Pet Travel Scheme (PETS) in 2012 to harmonise the UK with the rest of the EU were the catalyst for a new trade to develop – the illegal import of puppies from Central and Eastern Europe into the UK for sale.

How and why did this happen?

The minimum age of entry for a dog dropped from approximately 10 months to 15 weeks. Due to the PETS checks at the ports being a ‘document and identity check’ – there is not even a requirement to view the animal – puppies are regularly certified (by veterinary surgeons in the source country) to be older than they actually are and evade detection because the paperwork is correct.

Dogs Trust has spent the past four years, via three undercover investigations, exposing this activity.  Our investigations have seen us travel to Lithuania, Romania, Hungary and Poland. We have found puppies bred in horrendous conditions, being subjected to long journeys in cramped, filthy conditions with no food and little water, and have seen puppies as young as 4 weeks old enter the UK, far too young to be separated from their mother.

Abuse of the system - profit before welfare

It is clear that those behind this trade are abusing the system, putting profit before welfare and exploiting these puppies to be sold to unsuspecting members of the public. I call them ‘unsuspecting’ because many of them have no idea about the horrific ordeal their puppy has been through before being welcomed into their home.

This is not naivete but often a reflection of the lengths the dealers will go to in order to make a profit; whereas once breeders and traders would have openly sold the puppies as having come from abroad, they now disguise this by setting themselves up in fake homes, offering the puppies as UK-bred. If a prospective buyer has done their research and asks the questions we all encourage, such as ‘Where’s mum?’, they are now faced with sellers having a cover story about mum’s whereabouts or using a bitch of the same breed as ‘mum’ when she is unrelated to the pups. Worryingly, we have also experienced the practice of importing heavily pregnant bitches into the country, so ensuring a pup is seen with its mum.

Often, the first time an unsuspecting owner becomes aware that their pup is an illegal import is when they take it to their vet for the first time and the microchip is scanned. Whilst an overseas microchip is not definitive proof, this is when things start to unravel. The end result; an illegal import has to be quarantined until it complies with the rules of pet travel. For example, an eight-week-old pup will spend 7 weeks in quarantine; 4 weeks until it can be rabies vaccinated at 12 weeks and then a 3 week wait. Not only do the new owners end up paying both emotionally and financially, but this is at a critical time in terms of socialisation and habituation of a puppy.

Supporting enforcement authorities

To support enforcement authorities to down on this trade, Dogs Trust has been underwriting the quarantine of puppies seized at the border and will take them on if the importers abandons them or refuses to pay the quarantine costs. Through this work we have cared for over 800 puppies; it is no surprise that over 80% are desirable breeds such as French Bulldogs, Bulldogs, Pugs and Dachshunds.

Any dog imported into the UK for change of ownership, be that for sale or rescue, must travel under the Balai Directive, the commercial counterpart of PETS. Even this is not a failsafe mechanism, with no required checks at the border, less than 10% undergo post-import checks, again a conduit for abuse of the system.

Brexit opportunities?

The laws surrounding pet travel are EU legislation; with the UK’s planned exit from the EU now only months away now is the time to look at what changes can be made to PETS (and Balai) which will tackle the trade and introduce measures that will also help to protect our nation’s pets from those diseases not common to the UK.

BVA recommendations

With these abuses in mind, we welcome the 16 recommendations BVA has set out to strengthen pet travel regulations and reduce the trade of illegally imported puppies

Paula Boyden

Written by Paula Boyden

After joining Dogs Trust in 2010, Paula became Veterinary Director in 2011. Paula is Representative at the European Commission’s Animal Health Advisory Committee, Chair of the Links Group, Vice Chair of the Canine and Feline Sector Group, Member of the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Rabies Core Group, Member of the Wales Animal Health and Welfare Framework Group, and a Board member and treasurer of the Blue Dog Trust. She has sat on working groups for both the British Veterinary Association and the British Small Animal Veterinary Association and is a founder member of the Association of Charity Vets.