Illegal puppy farming in Scotland is now a multi-million industry and parents who buy the pets as Christmas presents could be funding organised crime, prosecutors have warned.
According to the latest Scottish Multi-Agency Strategic Threat Assessment (SMASTA) report, the market for illegally traded puppies is worth a staggering £13m.
Up to one in four buyers could be purchasing a dog reared in appalling conditions by criminals who use online platforms, particularly Gumtree, free ads and Pets4Homes, to make the trades.
Some sought-after designer breeds, such as Chow Chows or Cavapoos, can be priced as high as £3,000.
But many animals later suffer serious health problems and either cost their new owners huge vets’ bills or are too sick to survive.
Black market puppy farming also seriously impacts the lawful business interests of thousands of properly licensed breeders in Scotland.
On Monday, prosecutors urged parents to double-check the legitimacy of sellers if they are buying their children a dog for Christmas.
Laura Buchan, procurator fiscal for specialist casework, said: “We realise the popular attraction that many people have of buying a puppy as a Christmas present.
“Organised crime gangs have infiltrated this activity and continue to use the profits they accrue from it to inflict widespread harm on communities throughout Scotland.
“Illegal puppy farming has grown significantly among serious organised crime gangs as a vital way of raising finance. These gangs are involved in the distribution of illegal drugs and money laundering.
“We would urge people to ensure they buy dogs from properly licensed breeders or from recognised outlets.”
According to the SMASTA report, there are currently three serious organised crime gangs involved in the illicit puppy trade, and a further seven groups recorded as having links to puppy farms and dog trading businesses.
Demand for puppies during the Covid-19 pandemic soared to unprecedented levels as thousands of people sought companionship in a pet.
However, that increased interest led to a huge jump in the cost of puppies, many of which are illegally imported from Ireland.
Criminal gangs in the Irish Republic and the north have used Cairnryan port as a main channel for bringing badly bred pups to the UK.
The situation has also been exploited by illicit and low welfare breeders. Almost one in four consumers may have inadvertently bought from a puppy farm, the report warned.
Detective chief superintendent Stuart Houston, of Police Scotland, said: “Unauthorised breeding is extremely serious and has a significant impact on dogs’ welfare. We would urge anyone considering buying a puppy to look into breeders before committing to purchasing.
“Police Scotland takes this type of activity very seriously and will fully investigate any cases.”
Puppies bought from unlicensed breeders and dealers frequently suffer from behavioural issues, congenital health defects and infectious diseases.
Consumer detriment ranges from the costs associated with unexpected vet bills to quarantine costs, and in extreme cases, the emotional and financial costs associated with a dog that may not live.
Prosecutors in the specialist Wildlife and Environmental Crime Unit routinely provide advice and assistance to police officers and SSPCA inspectors supporting their investigations into offences relating to puppy farming.
On receipt of a report of circumstances relating to puppy farming, specialist prosecutors consider a range of legislation at their disposal in order to bring offenders to justice.
A spokesperson for the Scottish SPCA said: “Puppies are treated like a commodity, bred in huge numbers with no regard for their welfare. The conditions they are born in lead to serious medical and behavioural issues and, in many instances, death at just a few weeks old.
“Our special investigations unit investigated hundreds of reports of puppy farms last year. They have successfully raided puppy farms and individuals involved in the greed-driven trade have been prosecuted.”
Prosecutors in Scotland said they are committed to tackling illegal puppy breeding through using proceeds of crime legislation to recover the proceeds of criminal activities, as well as prosecution.
Ms Buchan said: “We will pursue and penalise this illegal activity on the public’s behalf with the express aim of bring to justice all those who are a part of it. And by doing so we aim to reduce the size of this illegal market in Scotland.”