How a change in pet-importation rules would tackle puppy smuggling

23 APRIL 2021

There’s such high demand for dogs and cats at the moment, many people might be finding it easier than ever to find new homes for unwanted pets through online sales sites or word of mouth – but along with this are worrying stories of consumers being scammed, irresponsible breeding, and sick and under-socialised puppies being illegally imported.

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Puppy smuggling is the name given to the practice of young dogs being brought into a country illegally to be sold. This cruel, money-making operation puts both animal and human health and welfare at risk. At Battersea we support making changes to the existing legal routes for bringing young pets into the UK as we believe the current importation system is far too open to exploitation by puppy smugglers.

What is the current system for importing pets to the UK?

There are two ways in which pet animals can be brought in and out of the UK legally, which are based on the European Union’s Pet Travel Scheme (PETS) and the Balai Directive. PETS applies in the case of non-commercial travel, such as taking your pet on holiday, and the Balai Directive applies for commercial movement, which includes importing puppies to sell. Although Britain has left the EU, many of the requirements from these schemes have remained the same. To understand what has changed, you can read our previous blog on travelling with your pet and read the Government’s advice on commercial imports.

Why the system needs to change

There are problems with the current importation system which enable smugglers to bring animals into the country. These include things like border enforcers only carrying out vehicle checks during standard working hours, puppy smugglers targeting entry points with less stringent checks, and smugglers exploiting loopholes in the law.

How big is the problem?

Unfortunately, as so much illegal importing is never discovered it is hard to know the true scale of it. However, we do know for certain that the number of dogs entering the country overall is increasing; between 2015 and 2019 there was an 86% increase in non-commercial imports and a 57% increase in commercial imports. Anecdotally, at Battersea we are increasingly seeing dogs brought into our centres with foreign microchips, which may indicate more animals coming into the UK from abroad. If we don’t have a veterinary history for these dogs– such as strays – we need to quarantine them while they are checked for certain diseases.

Why is this concerning?

Unprecedented demand for puppies and dogs is likely driving increased illegal importation. Unfortunately, these illegally imported puppies often come from puppy farms, may be underage and can have severe health and behavioural problems that can seriously affect their welfare. They can also carry diseases and their lack of training and socialisation could pose a risk to other animals.

What is Battersea doing about it?

At Battersea we believe there are several ways in which the system could be improved to stop illegal imports and improve animal welfare:

  • Increasing the time puppies and kittens must wait after receiving the rabies vaccination before they can enter the country. Currently vaccination is meant to take place when a dog is at least 12 weeks old, followed by a three-week post-vaccination wait period before the dog can be transported over international borders.

    Battersea proposes increasing this post-vaccination wait period to 12 weeks, meaning dogs and cats would not be allowed to enter the country before they are approximately six months old. This would make puppy smuggling less profitable, as very young puppies fetch the highest prices, and would make it easier for enforcers to spot animals who are obviously underage.
  • Reducing the number of dogs allowed to enter the country by non-commercial means. We recommend reducing the limit of animals to three dogs per non-commercial vehicle rather than the current five dogs per person. This will still allow for families to travel with their pets whilst guarding against smuggling whole litters or puppies and kittens for sale under the guise of them being already-owned pets.
  • Adding a requirement that dogs be treated against ticks before entering the UK from countries where certain tick-borne diseases are present.

Battersea have recently responded to the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs Committee’s inquiry on animal transport, recommending these changes and more, as a way to tackle puppy smuggling. This inquiry and Battersea’s work with DEFRA will hopefully result in new legislation in the next parliamentary term.

What does this mean for me?

Puppies smuggled into the country are often taken from their mothers far too young and profit put ahead of their health and welfare. This results in suffering for the animals and heartbreak for their owners.

With demand so high, and prices soaring to match, potential owners should ensure any new pet is coming from a reliable source, and that the animal is happy, healthy, and well-socialised. At Battersea, we believe that rehoming a pet from a rescue centre is the safest and most responsible choice. However, if you are considering buying a puppy, there are a range of questions you should ask and certain information that reputable sellers and breeders will be happy to tell you. You can find more of Battersea’s advice on making sure any animal you’re bringing into your home is from a reputable source on our 'Questions to ask when buying a puppy' advice page and 'What to know when buying a kitten' page. You can also find additional information through the UK Government’s Petfished Campaign.


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