Gangs are earning up to £100m a year smuggling puppies into the UK to be sold. The puppies, which are often riddled with disease, are bred on farms in the Republic of Ireland and eastern Europe, before being transported to the UK with fake documents where they are kept in "appalling conditions".
Chief inspector Ian Briggs, from the RSPCA's Special Operations Unit, told the Mirror: "These gangs are highly sophisticated and they have huge earning potential. The level of fraud is staggering.
"The gangs are faking dog passports, forging documents and doctoring their routes across Europe to make them seem like they are legitimate businesses. We estimate the illegal industry is worth in excess of £100m."
He said the animals could be carrying diseases such as rabies. "The gangs pretend to be legitimate breeders but they are hiding the fact they are turning over hundreds of dogs as quickly as possible with no regard for the animals' welfare," he said. "The new owners are saddled with huge vet bills or the dog dies within a few weeks."
He added: "Dogs can be reared in truly horrendous conditions and bred for a fraction of the cost. A designer cockapoo or French bulldog bred in a puppy farm in Ireland or Poland might cost €100 but could be sold for £1,500 over here. Every day, hundreds of dogs are being brought into the country in this way. With the lead-up to Christmas, it's reaching epidemic levels."
The charity called on the government to introduce new laws to clamp down on illegal puppy dealing, saying it's now easier to illegally trade abused animals than scrap metal. It wants stronger punishments introduced, including large fines and a licensing system for those selling puppies.
"It is far too easy to sell puppies and current laws are failing puppies and their parents. The RSPCA wants to see Westminster treat the issue of puppy dealing in England as seriously as they did scrap metal and license anyone who sells a puppy," said RSPCA chief vet James Yeates in a press release.
Puppies made Stockport gang £35,000 a week
Following a five-year investigation by the RSPCA and Greater Manchester Police, a gang which had sold more than 800 diseased and dying puppies was jailed last week. When police raided a property in Stockport, Greater Manchester, they found four Yorkshire terrier puppies that had died from starvation. Live puppies were found with a dead animal in a pen, while dead animals were stuffed into buckets.
In all, 87 animals, including Yorkshire terriers, huskies, West Highland terriers, pomeranians, Labradors, beagles, shih tzus, French bulldogs and cockapoos were found in various states of health in filthy conditions.
The animals were transported from the Republic of Ireland before being kept in holding pens at the Stockport address. The gang set up a fake pedigree registration firm, and worked under fake names and addresses to con buyers that they were purchasing puppies from reputable breeders and good homes. The animals sold for an average of £600 each.
Peter Jones was jailed for six months. Julian King and his sister Grace Banks, all of Greater Manchester, were jailed for five months each for their roles in the gang.
Briggs said in a statement: "From the number of puppies they appear to have been selling, and the prices those puppies were being sold for, we can estimate that these people were making anywhere in the region of £35,000 in cash a week.
"That is the sort of money people hear about footballers or film stars getting paid, but they were making it by importing and selling sick and suffering animals."