Government proposals to tackle puppy smuggling by increasing the age puppies can be imported to the UK are causing concern for international dog rescues.
The plans include raising the minimum age puppies can enter the UK from 15 weeks to six months. Importing heavily pregnant dogs and dogs with cropped ears or docked tails would also be banned.
However, international dog rescue organisations claim the proposals will have a “massive” and “detrimental” impact on their operations and make it harder for puppies to find homes in the UK.
But the plans have been welcomed by the British Veterinary Association (BVA) and RSPCA who claim current pet travel laws are not strong enough and have loopholes that criminal gangs are abusing for profit.
It comes after the number of puppies seized at the border increased to 843 last year, in comparison to 324 in 2019. While this is just a fraction of the 66,000 dogs imported to the UK in 2020, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) said smuggling and low welfare imports are on the rise.
Jackie Mackenzie, a volunteer with D.O.G (Dali Organised Group) Rescue Cyprus, said:
“This proposal has been devised to stop pet smuggling, but it will have a massive and detrimental impact on genuine rescue organisations. As a result, the rescued puppies in their care, if they are lucky to live, will have to spend the first six months of their lives in cages or kennels.”
Since 2010, D.O.G Rescue Cyprus has rehomed over 3000 abandoned, stray and neglected dogs to families in Cyprus and around the world.
Jackie worries the new proposals will damage puppies’ chances of finding homes in the UK because while the shelter is run by a small team of dedicated volunteers, they cannot provide the same level of one-to-one care puppies receive in the home environment.
She said: “How many people want to take on a six month juvenile delinquent when they could have had them at 15 weeks and at least have started to be able to make inroads in their training and into socialising them and getting them settled? It’s much easier – the younger, the better.”
Lorraine Nisbet, from Yorkshire, adopted her dog Jimmy from D.O.G Rescue Cyprus earlier this year. She got him when he was four months old (which is older than the eight weeks puppies born in the UK can be rehomed).
She said: “I do see Jimmy is delayed in some of his learning when I put him with dogs the same age. I think if we’d waited to six months or older we would have had a tougher journey and Jimmy would have as well.”
It often takes time for puppies brought up in shelters to adjust to home life.
Lorraine explained: “When we got Jimmy he would eat his own faeces because that’s quite common for kennel dogs.
“He also resource guarded quite a bit of his own food because he was used to being fed with other puppies. So the quicker we got in the quicker we broke the cycle of that.”
However, the RSPCA is calling for regulations in the UK to cover all rescue organisations, welfare charities and animal sanctuaries so that all imported rescue dogs will be protected by the same welfare standards.
RSPCA dog welfare expert Samantha Gaines said: “We’re really pleased that the Government is looking to crackdown on the importation of puppies.”
She added: “We understand this may prevent some rescue organisations from bringing young dogs into the UK from overseas for rehoming but we do not believe, at this time, that there should be an exemption for rescues as this will create a loophole for criminal gangs to exploit.”
Jason Yorke, founder and chairman of A Better Life Dog Rescue, is also concerned about the impact the new plans will have on international rescues.
Over the last decade, the charity has rehomed over 4000 dogs and puppies from Romania to Britain.
Like D.O.G Rescue Cyprus, every dog and puppy the organisation rehomes to the UK has to meet already strict entry requirements, including full health checks and official documentation.
But Jason is worried that UK vets are not as experienced at ageing puppies as vets in Romania, who deal with thousands of stray dogs each year. This could result in dogs that meet the minimum age requirements being wrongly seized at the border.
He explained that UK vets often estimate a puppy’s age by examining its teeth as it takes around six months for a puppy to grow its full adult set.
In theory then, the new proposals should make it easier for vets to distinguish between a six month old puppy and an underage puppy at the border.
But while UK puppies tend to be reared with their mothers until they are eight weeks old, ensuring they receive important nutrients that aid their growth, young puppies in Romania are often found abandoned without their mother.
Shelters hand-rear these puppies using synthetic substances to aid their growth, but this does not compare with the benefits of the mother’s natural milk.
Jason explained: “Dogs from Eastern Europe are invariably underdeveloped in virtually all their physical appearance.
“I have had six-month-old puppies here at my shelter that took a further two months to gain their full dental set. These puppies were born outside the shelter and on the same day their mother was killed on the road, so we know the exact date of birth.”
He said: “My biggest problem with the DEFRA ruling is there is no recourse for appeal. What they say goes if they seize a dog and the vet there says the dog is underage, which invariably they do.”
Similar to the RSPCA, the BVA also supports increasing the minimum age for puppy imports as this reduces the saleability of dogs once they reach the UK.
Veterinary surgeon and BVA Vice President James Russell said:
“Every day veterinary practices see the devastating consequences of illegal puppy smuggling.
“Puppies that have been poorly bred and taken away from their mothers at a very young age often suffer from disease, other health problems, and poor socialisation leading to financial costs for the new owners.
“We welcome changes to the law that will stop criminal gangs abusing pet travel rules for profit.”