Many children were probably disillusioned after Italian authorities revealed that the pandas they had patted and posed for pictures with while visiting a local circus, were actually furry dogs in disguise.

Police said that staff at the itinerant Orfei circus painted black patches on two white chow-chow pet puppies to trick the public into believing they were specimen of the rare Chinese bears.

"Two white furred dog cubs, a male and a female of chow chow breed, were camouflaged as pandas and shown to the public, particularly children, to take photos demanding payment," Italy's state forestry police said.

Police raided the circus premises as it was on a tour stop near the northern town of Brescia, after a tip-off by animal activists.

Members of the Animal Protection Party group, who paid an undercover visit to the circus to gather possible evidence of animal mistreatment, said they were surprised to spot the two weird-looking exotic bears.

"As soon as our volunteers got closer they realised the animals had nothing to do with the East Asian bears but were chow chow dogs painted as pandas," the group's chairman, Fabrizio Catelli, told Il Giorno newspaper.

"We believe it's unacceptable to ridicule animals for entertainment and profit."

Police seized the two puppies for their dog passports were allegedly forged. The animals have been left in the care of the circus, which has however been banned from using them during its show.

The dogs were generally in good health but suffered from excessive eye-watering, possibly due to excessive exposure to camera flashes, police said. An investigation has been opened into possible mistreatment and fraud.

The Orfei circus has denied the allegations, saying they never claimed the dogs were pandas.

"It's obvious they are dogs," circus secretary, Riccardo Gravina told IBTimes UK.

"No animal was mistreated," he added. "They are like children to us".