The illegal puppy trade is cruel business. Countless puppies are bred in deplorable conditions, torn from their mothers far too young, and transported long distances to be advertised online to families across Europe.
Why is the illegal puppy trade an animal welfare problem?
Every year, countless numbers of puppies are illegally transported across Europe from source countries such as Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Romania, to be purchased on classified ad sites with little more than the click of a button. Illegal puppy traders prioritise profits over animal welfare. Dogs used for breeding are usually kept in cruel conditions; kept in cellars, sheds or small crates, forced to sleep and give birth in their own excrement. They receive only enough food and care to keep them alive long enough to stay ‘productive’. When they are unable to continue producing puppies, they are disposed of, either through killing or abandonment. While some illegal traders have links to unscrupulous vets who provide fake documents, veterinary treatment is rarely provided.
The produced puppies often have short, painful, lives. Denied necessary vet care such as vaccinations, and proper socialisation or developmental opportunities, many will develop long term health or behavioural problems. Many will also die soon after purchase from preventable diseases such as parvovirus or distemper.
What role do online platforms play in the illegal puppy trade?
Anonymity drives the illegal online puppy trade. Anyone, anywhere in the world, can create an account on a classified ad site and sell a puppy, then disappear without a trace.
Due to the lack of traceability in the online trade, there is no way of knowing for sure the exact origins of puppies in Europe. Lack of traceability of dogs and the people involved in their breeding and sale is enabling the illegal trade across the EU. It allows unscrupulous puppy dealers to easily advertise puppies online with little threat of being caught.
However, as the preferred channel to market for illegal dealers, online platforms can also drive the solution to ending the trade. FOUR PAWS is collaborating with several pioneering classified ad sites who support our Model Solution for full traceability across the EU online puppy trade. Find out more!
How big is the illegal trade in puppies?
Due to the very nature of the illegal trade, this question is impossible to answer with total accuracy. Furthermore, inadequate data on dog ownership, acquisition methods and breeder/seller registration, all make it challenging to accurately measure the legal trade, yet alone the illegal elements.
But we can get an idea of the scale of the illegal puppy trade by first understanding how big the demand for dogs is. In the EU, United Kingdom and Switzerland, there is currently an estimated population of around 69 million kept dogs. Considering the average lifespan of a dog, we can estimate a demand of around 6 million dogs per year. However only around 1.1 million puppies are bred via official kennel club registered breeders each year. This leaves around 4.9 million puppies of unknown origin. Not all of those will be illegally bred and sold, of course.
According to a 2015 study, an estimated 46,000 dogs are traded between EU countries every month, most of which are not registered.
In 2017, FOUR PAWS investigated three major classified ad sites across Europe (Gumtree UK, Markplaats [Netherlands], and eBay Kleinanzeigen [Germany]). We calculated that the online trade in puppies in Europe is worth well over €1 billion euros per year, and almost 2.4 million dogs were offered annually across these platforms.
Read more about our research on eBay Kleinanzeigen here (only available in German).
Where do the puppies come from?
Many of the dogs that are offered on European classified ad platforms come from puppy farms, also sometimes called puppy factories, puppy mills or breeding stations. Such facilities can be located anywhere in Europe, but investigations show that many are located in Eastern European countries, such as Romania, the Czech Republic, Poland, Serbia, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Hungary, and supplied to buyers in Western Europe where demand for cute, young, puppies is high.
We are often asked how big a facility needs to be before it is considered a puppy farm. But puppy farming is a term applied to facilities based on their operating methods and welfare standards, rather than rate of production. A reputable, licensed breeder - motivated by animal welfare and love for a particular breed - could breed 3 litters a year and offer the best standards of care possible. A puppy farmer, however, could breed the same number of litters in cruel conditions. They can be backyard operations, or large scale ‘industrial’ businesses breeding hundreds of pups per year. It is more about quality of care, than quantity of animals.
Puppies are usually moved from puppy farms to third-party sellers, where puppy dealers either pose as breeders, or offer them to the public via outlets. Sometimes these places come in the form of a pet shop, but these are becoming less common in Europe. They are sometimes recognisable by the large number of puppies and multiple breeds available on site.
What should I look out for when buying a puppy?
Currently, the only way to be sure you are getting a dog from a reliable source is by adopting from a reputable rehoming organisation or shelter. FOUR PAWS encourages anyone considering bringing a dog into their home to first carefully consider whether they are ready for an animal family member and choose to adopt a rescue dog. Read our guidance on adopting a pet.
If you choose to buy a puppy, you must have evidence that the person you are buying from is the breeder. Find out how to recognise a responsible puppy seller.
The process of bringing a new dog into your family should never be quick or simple. If you have the feeling that something is not quite right, don’t be tempted to ‘rescue’ a puppy by buying one – you will only be enabling the dealer to continue abusing animals. Instead, politely leave, discreetly take down any identifying information you can (such as addresses and car registration numbers) and report your experience to FOUR PAWS and the police. You can save animals by reporting criminal activity and sharing your experience with us.
When is the puppy trade illegal?
The puppy trade is considered illegal if it breaks any number of laws that are in place to ensure animals and buyers are protected, and that regulatory requirements are met by the people involved in the breeding and sale of the animal.
These laws will differ somewhat from country to country. Unfortunately, there is currently no EU-wide regulation of the online pet trade or harmonized mandatory identification and registration (I&R) of dogs across the EU. This lack of EU regulation leaves gaping holes between the national laws that do exist, wherein the illegal trade can thrive.
The crimes committed in the illegal EU puppy trade usually revolve around four main areas:
- Animal cruelty: Prevention of animal cruelty is legislated at the national level, but in the EU it is based on the foundation that animals are sentient beings and therefore Member States shall pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals.
- Transport conditions: In the EU, transport conditions are set by Council Regulation (EC) No. 1/2005 of 22 December 2004 on the protection of animals during transport and related operations. This regulation prohibits the transportation of animals in such a way that is likely to cause injury or unnecessary suffering.
- Consumer law: If a person purchases a ‘product’ that has not been sold as advertised, and an agreement is not settled with the seller, they may be able to take a civil case for reimbursement for veterinary or purchase costs against the seller.
- Tax evasion: Revenue and customs officials are becoming increasingly conscious of the amount of tax payments that are evaded by illegal puppy traders. In 2019, the UK HMRC recovered over £5 million GBP from 257 dog breeders and traders as part of investigations into the illegal trade.
Does every dog have to be chipped and registered?
Despite the majority of EU countries having some form of mandatory identification (microchipping) and registration, there is no uniform requirement across the EU as a whole. This means several EU countries, including Germany, have been left behind the rest of Europe while the benefits of mandatory identification and registration (I&R) are now widely acknowledged as an important way to combat the illegal puppy trade, as well as reunite lost pets with owners.
Live in Germany? Sign our petition 'Illegalen Welpenhandel stoppen' to demand regulation of the online trade based on mandatory I&R of dogs.
Find out more about why I&R is critical to stopping the illegal puppy trade, and what projects FOUR PAWS and our partners want to implement based on I&R.
What are the human health risks associated with the illegal puppy trade?
The online puppy trade presents health risks to both humans and animals.
Some of the diseases puppies might have are zoonotic and can be transmitted to humans. Sometimes they do not make the animal appear sick but can cause serious illness in humans especially to immune-depressed people, children, and the elderly. Dog-transmitted zoonoses include rabies, leptospirosis, ringworm and internal & external parasites.
Many of the diseases can be prevented through vaccinations and good hygiene, but due to the nature of the illegal puppy trade, there is a high risk that dogs might be infected.
Just as important is the risk of mental trauma to victims of the illegal puppy trade. Heartbroken victims may find it very hard to recover from the experience of having a helpless pup, who they have bonded with, die in their arms - or from knowing they have been deceived by criminals. Few victims find the strength to come forward about their experiences but should know they are not the first to be conned by illegal puppy traders, nor are they powerless to act. Please feel welcome to contact FOUR PAWS if you would like to tell us about your experience in confidence and help us stop the illegal puppy trade for good.
What is FOUR PAWS doing to stop it?
There are multiple factors that enable the illegal puppy trade, so FOUR PAWS takes a multilateral approach in our campaigning.
Education and Awareness Raising: FOUR PAWS has been providing evidence of the cruelty and criminality at the heart of the illegal puppy trade for over 15 years. We run cross-border investigations, use open-source intelligence, and work with police and customs authorities. We conduct in-depth research, supported by our team of scientific experts, and run effective public awareness campaigns.
Improving legislation: Working at both national and EU levels, including with allied NGOs, FOUR PAWS is calling on legislators to end the illegal puppy trade through mandating the FOUR PAWS Model Solution. This includes:
- Mandatory, harmonised, identification and registration (I&R) across the EU with verified, reliable data
- Database interconnectivity
- Allowing only registered pets to be advertised online by their registered, and verified, keeper
Industry Engagement: Traceability of dogs and the people involved in their breeding and sale is key to ending the illegal puppy trade. No illegal puppy trader wants to be traceable to authorities, so FOUR PAWS has developed a solution that would make it a requirement to provide identifying data before being allowed to advertise a puppy online. We believe that reliable pet and owner registration is the key to ending the illegal online puppy trade. This, in addition to registering all breeders and sellers of puppies, will help to greatly increase traceability. FOUR PAWS has partnered with EUROPETNET to develop a system that classified ad sites can use to verify the identity and details of anyone wishing to advertise a puppy, along with the details of the animal being sold. We work closely with pioneer classified ad sites, I&R databases, veterinarians, and other caring stakeholders to jointly end the illegal online puppy trade.
Find out more about the FOUR PAWS Model Solution for full traceability across the EU online puppy trade.
Why not ban the online trade altogether?
We want a world where suitable families can provide loving, permanent homes for dogs, while illegal puppy traders are blocked from accessing the market and impulse buying is discouraged.
Over the last decade, the way pets are sold and bought has changed rapidly, with many people now searching for pets online through classified sites. These sites connect sellers with potential buyers. With appropriate regulation, they allow responsible, serious breeders, to connect with responsible local families; as well as helping shelters and rescue organisations place animals for adoption. However, dubious sellers also use these platforms because they can do their criminal business easily and anonymously.
A total ban on selling animals online, with allowances for rescue organisations, could come with loopholes that criminals can exploit to continue to place ads. Alternatively, it could mean that traders simply move to other parts of the internet that are even more difficult to monitor and control. The only way to block illegal traders is by making the risk of placing an ad far too high for it to be worth the effort.
The good news is that there is a way for reputable breeders and rehoming organisations to benefit from online advertising platforms, while blocking illegal dealers. FOUR PAWS’ Model Solution for full traceability across the EU online puppy trade outlines our vision for how this can be achieved. Find out more!