Publication - Research publication

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

Published: 9 Nov 2017
Agriculture and Rural Economy Directorate
Part of:
Farming and rural, Research

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

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


Dogs are the most popular companion animals in the UK ( PFMA 2017); for many, they offer companionship, support and a special emotional bond. For others, however, dogs are a lucrative source of income ( IBF International Consulting 2015). Evidence from key national and international animal welfare non-governmental organisations [ NGOs] [3] , supports stakeholder (such as the British Veterinary Association [ BVA] 2014) concerns that illegal and irresponsible puppy breeding and trade are escalating. Central to these concerns are the large-scale industrial and international commercial breeders now characteristic of the breeding industry and the third party online traders who dominate the UK puppy trade: effectively a sea change in UK puppy trade in the last decade.

With the introduction of the Pet Travel Scheme [ PTS] in 2012 the requirements for travel with companion animals within the EU became cheaper and easier, whilst maintaining public and animal health. Commercial and non-commercial movement and trade of companion animals from EU countries has thereafter markedly increased (Dogs Trust 2014). Simultaneously, stakeholders have identified UK-bred puppies coming from large-scale legal and illegal breeding establishments. The development of 'industrial'-style puppy breeding establishments (also referred to as puppy 'farms' or 'mills', and canine commercial breeding establishments [ CBE]) in the UK and abroad suggest that: first, legitimate and registered breeders cannot provide enough puppies to satisfy UK consumer demand; second, puppies have become a lucrative and vigorous commodity for trade - both nationally and internationally; and third, the nature of the trade has changed significantly, with fewer puppies now being sold from pet shops (less than 5 percent according to the RSPCA (2016)), with the majority now advertised online and then purchased in person or purchased from classified advertisements. Problems inherent in puppy breeding and sales are extensive and encompass all parts of the trade, including commercial breeding, selective breeding, online and international trade, and trade at markets and from third parties (Calder 2014).

The harmful consequences of these changes are widespread - impacting the breeding dogs, their progeny, animal health and welfare, dog traders, consumers, public health and the economy. Holzer (2009:2) identifies puppy mills as "by far, the most inhumane kind of dog breeding that exists today in the United States [ US] and elsewhere in the world". According to Yeates and Bowles (2017) the harms associated include poor care, poor mate-selections and non-compliance with laws designed to maintain a standard of animal welfare (Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 and equivalent legislation in England and Wales) and minimise disease transfer (Balai Directive - Council Directive 92/65/ EEC [4] ). These harms cause animal welfare problems in the short term (for example, infectious disease) and in later life (for example, behavioural issues and inherited health disorders). Consequently, Burger (2014) and McMillan et al. (2011) found puppies raised in these establishments are more likely to suffer from illnesses and be poorly socialised. According to an EU study, 42 percent of legitimate dog traders identified the illegal trade as the main threat to their business ( IBF International Consulting et al. 2015).

The literature, providing evidence of the scale, nature and harms involved in the UK puppy trade, is detailed further in Appendix II. This literature identifies three types of UK puppy trade - a legal regulated trade, a legal unregulated trade (that is, those who breed less than five/three litters of puppies a year in England and Scotland/Wales and NI) and an illegal puppy trade. It is currently impossible to accurately estimate the scale of each category, as it is often difficult to distinguish one type from another. Trade is illegal if it breaches the regulations detailed in Table 1.

Table 1: Summary of UK puppy trade legislation

Types of Illegal Behaviour

Legislation Regulating Behaviour

Breeding more than five/three litters a year without a licence or excessively breeding bitches or selling puppies at less than eight weeks of age

Breeding of Dogs Act 1973 (England and Scotland);

Breeding and Sale of Dogs (Welfare) Act 1999 (England and Scotland);

Animal Welfare (Breeding of Dogs) (Wales) Regulations 2014;

The Welfare of Animals (Dog Breeding Establishments and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations ( NI) 2013

Importing puppies from unregistered premises, and/or without the correct paperwork, treatment or transport conditions

Balai Directive 92/65/ EEC

Travelling abroad with puppies under age, and/or without the correct paperwork, treatment or transport conditions

Travelling with puppies under PTS with the intension of selling or transferring ownership

Regulation ( EU) No 576/2013 on the non-commercial movement of pet animals;

Non-Commercial Movement of Pet Animals Order 2011 (Amendment) Order 2014

Non-Commercial Movement of Pet Animals Order (Northern Ireland) 2011 (Statutory Rules of Northern Ireland)

Selling puppies without a sales licence

Pet Animals Act 1951; Licensing of Animal Dealers (Scotland) Regulations 2009; Pet Shop Regulations ( NI) 2000

Selling puppies without appropriate identification

Microchipping of Dogs (England) Regulations 2014;

Microchipping of Dogs (Wales) Regulations 2015;

Microchipping of Dogs (Scotland) Regulations 2016;

Dog Licensing and Identification Regulations ( NI) 2012

Animal welfare requirements on the appropriate treatment and conditions in which dogs should be kept

Animal Welfare Act 2006 (England and Wales);

Animal Health and Welfare Act (Scotland) 2006;

Welfare of Animals Act ( NI) 2011.

Failure to declare income from the puppy trade

Taxes Management Act 1970; Finance Act 2008;

Customs & Excise Management Act ( CEMA) 1979.

Fraudulently selling a puppy

The Consumer Rights Act 2015.

Other than requiring consumers to ensure the welfare of their puppies after purchase, consumer behaviour is not regulated. Consumer behaviour is key to the irresponsible and illegal nature of the current trade - specifically, without capricious and impulsive buyers demanding young 'fashionable' dogs, large-scale commercial breeding establishments and illegal trade would not be profitable. Adjustments to consumer demand will directly impact on the nature and scale of supply. In response to consumer demand, NGOs and enforcement agencies have developed a number of initiatives and projects based on prevention, education and enforcement of the puppy trade. For example:

  • The Kennel Club [ KC] - Assured Breeder Scheme (see Case Study Box 7)
  • PDSA - Paw report
  • Dogs Trust - Generation Pup
  • SSPCA and RSPCA - Operation Delphin's multi-agency partnership
  • Pet Advertisement Advisory Group [ PAAG] - Monitoring and advising online sales advertising companies
  • Puppy Love - Online educational campaign

Consumer motivation to buy certain dogs and how they go about doing so has yet to be investigated in depth in the UK context. Consequently, this project has sought to explore consumer motivations and behaviours as a key step to identifying improvements to the puppy trade. Thereby, this research project set out to explore the following key questions:

1. What are the nature, extent and value of legal and illegal puppy sales in the UK?

2. What improvements can be made at each part of the trade to help prevent the international illegal trade of puppies and unregistered puppy farms?

Aim of the Report

The aim of this report is to present existing and new empirical evidence on the scale, nature and value of the illegal and irresponsible puppy trade, with a particular focus on the role of breeders, traders, consumers and enforcement agencies in the trade. The report is divided into 4 parts. Part A introduces the research project and methodology employed to investigate the puppy trade. Part B presents the findings from the empirical research which unites the experiences and suggestions of key experts, stakeholders and consumers of the puppy trade. This section is presented broadly in line with the key issues identified in the literature review, which included i) the prevalence and nature of the puppy trade, ii) understanding consumer behaviour in the puppy trade, iii) regulation of the puppy trade, iv) the impact of non-compliance and non-regulation in the puppy trade, v) recommendations. Part C outlines the main conclusions of the report. Part D highlights the proposed recommendations and solutions for responding to the illegal and irresponsible puppy trade.