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


In order to answer the project questions and thus propose interventions and solutions to improve the status quo, a mixed-methods research design was employed. This section provides a brief summary of the research design (methods and sample).


The research began by creating an annotated bibliography (see Appendix I) and a comprehensive literature review (see Appendix II). The materials reviewed included academic and grey literature from the UK, but also the wider European community and the US. From this previous research and consultations with the Scottish Government and the project steering committee ( BSAVA, Dogs Trust, and the SSPCA) a multi-method approach was adopted to collect empirical data, a summary of which is provided in Table 2 and below:

Table 2: Summary of Methods






Expert Interviews

UK and Ireland

12 Interviews with 14 participants


Online Advertisement Data


12 weeks, 7 websites


Economic Data

Scotland, England and Wales

TRACES and Trading Standards interview


Stakeholder Survey


53 participants


Consumer Focus Groups

Scotland, England and Wales

40 focus groups, 160 participants

*a small number of respondents were based in England.

1. The expert interviews asked a small selection of experts (n = 12) to comment on the nature, extent and value of the illegal puppy trade and possible ways of reducing this trade (see Appendix III for the interview schedule). The experts were identified as those persons who have specialist knowledge and/or direct experience in responding to the puppy trade. These included interviews with six NGOs, two veterinarians, three government employees and a breeding standards organisation.

2. Simultaneously, from October 2016, seven key websites (Craigslist, Dogs & Puppies UK, Epupz, Freeads, Gumtree, Pets for Homes and Pets Viva Street), advertising puppies online in Scottish localities were monitored for 12 weeks. All advertisements in Scotland were recorded, with the following data collected whenever possible: website name, local authority location, breed, number in the litter, sex of the puppies, price per puppy and in total, phone number, name of the seller, KC registered, Local Authority [ LA] registered and any other information. Not all advertisements contained all of this information (name of the seller was frequently not given) or were not specific enough (no information related to KC or LA registration). The number in the litter and the sex of the puppies were also not always clear. In advertisements where 'pups' plural were advertised, but there was not a specific number given, we assumed there were at least two - one male and one female. Since we used two puppies as the standard in the cases with not enough information, it is likely that our recorded number of total puppies for sale in the 12-week period monitored is lower than the actual number that were for sale.

3. To supplement the online advertisement data and to further understand the economics of the puppy trade, we also requested data regarding trade of puppies from the Animal and Plant Health Agency [ APHA] TRACES database and from Trading Standards Scotland. TRACES (the Trade Control and Expert System) is a European network linking veterinary authorities and commercial entities, by electronically tracking the movement of live animals and animal products for which veterinary health certificates are issued. The data found in TRACES can only provide insight into legal movement of dogs for commercial purposes and identified transgressions within this trade. Trading Standards Scotland is the agency tasked with taking complaints should purchasers of puppies feel that there is something wrong with the purchase and/or seller.

4. Subsequently, an online survey was designed to capture the wealth of experience and insights from key stakeholders. Predominantly, this included people working in a related field (for example, dog walkers, groomers, trainers, boarders and veterinarians) in order to learn about their experiences of dealing with consumers and their puppies who may have come from irresponsible or illegal sources (see Appendix IV). To distribute the survey, we created a database of all those professionals in Scotland found through a Google search and recorded their contact information. We emailed over 400 individuals and organisations the link to the survey. Additionally, the survey was advertised in the newsletter of the British Small Animal Veterinary Association [ BSAVA] in January of 2017 reaching several thousand veterinarians.

5. Drawing upon the economic and online advertisement data, expert interviews and online survey, we also undertook consumer focus groups aimed at people who were thinking of buying a puppy or who had bought a puppy within the last two years. Forty focus groups were conducted: 20 in Scotland, 16 in England and 4 in Wales. Nine of these focus groups were conducted online (from a range of locations). For Scotland, we chose our focus group locations based upon the highest amount of online advertisements taking place in combination with areas of higher population. For the focus groups in England and Wales, we based our location selection on the literature, population centres and guidance from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs ( DEFRA). In order to recruit participants in the 40 locations, the final question in the survey asked if people were interested in participating in focus groups. We emailed or telephoned over 400 professionals from the aforementioned stakeholder database to ask for their help in recruiting their customers.

A Facebook page ( was created explaining and advertising the project, which was used to engage with key stakeholders and their clients online and was used to promote the focus groups to a cross-section of the population. The Facebook page was shared by key NGOs, community interest groups and professionals through a variety of social media outlets. By the 15 th of March 2017 the Facebook page had reached 108,000 people and had been engaged with 2,000 times. The page was also used as a platform to raise awareness of the issues in the puppy trade. Interested participants could contact the research team through Facebook, Twitter, email and a dedicated research mobile phone. Posters and flyers detailing this contact information were sent to organisations and businesses willing to help. For example, flyers were sent to nine branches of the PDSA for them to advertise the research and focus groups in their clinics. The focus groups facilitated discussions around how consumers choose their specific dog (that is, breed, age, gender), where they located information and guidance prior to purchase, their experience when purchasing and their suggestions about how to improve buying (see Appendix V for a more detailed focus group guide).

An overview of participant sample and demographics is provided in Table 3.

Table 3: Summary of Participant Demographics


Participant Details

Expert Interview

12 interviews with 14 experts from key agencies across the UK:

6 interviews with national NGOs.

4 interviews involved government bodies responsible for enforcing the puppy trade,

2 interviews involved veterinarians, one of whom was also an adviser for an international micro-chipping database provider.

Online Survey

53 respondents predominantly from Glasgow [5] :

15 (30.6%) identified as 'other' indicating they were owners, behaviourists, veterinary nurses and staff of rescue centres

13 (26.5%) dog walkers/carers

11 (22.4%) veterinarians

9 (18.4%) trainers

1 (2.1%) breeder

0 dog groomers

Focus Group

Focus groups conducted in Scotland (20), England (16) and Wales (4):

160 participants - Scotland (70), England (72) and Wales (14).

Average focus group involved four, however, five focus groups involved only one person.

25 conducted face-to-face

15 conducted over the phone, online or through written communication. Mostly female (n = 119) and aged over thirty [6] .

Lower representation of those aged 29 and under [7] .

Research Limitations

While the experts consulted for this research came from a range of professions, the purposive sample is small and was identified through availability and snowballing sampling, conseqently, the findings should be read to represent the values and experiences of a small number of experts. Furthermore, as half of the experts represented animal welfare NGOs, the findings emphasise NGO viewpoints and perspectives. Both the survey and the focus groups are limited by selection bias. It is likely that only those people concerned about dog welfare chose to participate. While our focus groups involved a wide range of consumers of the puppy trade - those who bought through 'assured' breeders, registered breeders, friends, backroom breeders, online traders and illegal traders - those who had inadvertently or purposefully bought puppies from irresponsible and/or illegal sources were underrepresented in our sample. Participation was voluntary and due to the sensitive and emotional nature of the topic, those who engaged with questionable actions or who experienced the death of their puppies were less keen to participate. That is not to say our participants had no experiences with the darker side of the puppy trade, but in general we did not reach a significant portion of puppy consumers who have experienced the darkest side of the puppy trade. Despite these limitations, the data collected provide a useful insight into the influences on and buying patterns of consumers and evidences that behavioural change is required across the spectrum of buyers.