Dogs Trust

The puppy smuggling problem

With millions of people working from home during the pandemic, demand for puppies has soared. Unscrupulous sellers have exploited that demand, with large numbers of puppies being smuggled into the UK.

Our Puppy Pilot scheme cares for puppies that have been illegally imported across UK borders. These puppies are often forced to travel for long journeys in squalid, cramped conditions with no toilet breaks and sometimes no food and water, so they can be sold to unsuspecting buyers.

In just five years, we’ve rescued 1,500 puppies.

During the pandemic, we've continued to aid the interception of puppies, despite travel restrictions. In 2020, with a surge in demand for puppies and enforcement changes at the borders due to the pandemic, we saw a 66% increase in dogs rescued through the scheme (compared to the previous year). These dogs were destined to be advertised online for extortionate prices, to line the pockets of cruel puppy smugglers.

Another disturbing trend we’re seeing is younger and younger puppies being illegally imported. The legal age for puppies to enter the UK from another EU country is 15 weeks, but shockingly the average age of pups seized in 2020 was just eight weeks. The youngest puppies we’ve helped rescue at the border were just four weeks old — far too young to be taken away from their mums, let alone transported thousands of miles.

The Puppy Pilot scheme was originally set up in 2015 to aid Government agencies with the interception of illegally imported puppies at the ports, and to provide care for them prior to finding them new homes. Five years on, the scheme is needed more than ever as demand for dogs during the pandemic continues to fuel the trade. For more than six years, we've been calling on Government to end puppy smuggling. Once again, we’re demanding urgent action is taken to stop this cruel trade, as demand for dogs soars and puppy smugglers cash in.

Puppy Pilot Facts

1,500 puppies rescued after being illegally imported across the UK border

£3m approximate street value of dogs rescued

66% increase in dogs rescued through the scheme in 2020, compared to 2019

Average age of smuggled pups

8 weeks old in 2020 > 11 weeks old in 2019

The legal age is 15 weeks

Most popular breeds


French Bulldogs

English Bulldogs

About puppy smuggling

For over six years, we’ve investigated puppy smuggling and seen how the cruel trade has developed and grown.

Puppy smuggling is an illegal practice whereby puppies, generally under the legal minimum of 15 weeks of age, are brought into Great Britain for sale via the Pet Travel Scheme. The scheme is intended for pet owners taking their dogs on holiday, but unscrupulous breeders have found ways to exploit it.

Some of these pups have no paperwork, or have falsified documents, and often haven't received the necessary treatments, including rabies vaccination. These poor dogs are forced to travel for long journeys in squalid, cramped conditions with no toilet breaks, no food and insufficient water, so they can be sold to unsuspecting buyers.

Our initial undercover investigation in 2014 revealed the high level of corruption at the heart of the puppy smuggling trade and the very worrying welfare risks being imposed on dogs.

Since then, our investigations have been ongoing, focusing on puppies travelling into Great Britain under the Pet Travel Scheme. In 2012 the Pet Travel Scheme (PETS) rules were changed, resulting in the relaxation of the UK’s pet passport rules. Now puppies as young as 15 weeks can travel to the UK, whereas previously the minimum age was ten months.

Unfortunately, these changes have resulted in a sharp increase in the numbers of puppies entering Great Britain for sale – these poor dogs are often forced to travel thousands of miles in cramped, squalid conditions.

The puppies that were seized at the border and went into quarantine primarily came from Hungary (16%), Poland (12%), Romania (10%) and Slovakia (5%). Our investigations found dealers and vets in these source countries willing to falsify documents stating that puppies were older than they were.

Another disturbing and increasing trend is heavily pregnant dogs being transported illegally into the country in the late stages of pregnancy, causing significant suffering and health implications to both mum and puppies. This tactic allows criminals to give the impression of being legitimate breeders and avoid being reported to Trading Standards, as transporting one dog attracts less suspicion at the border, and responsible buyers will ask to see the puppies with their mother.

Befa’s story – the 1,500th puppy cared for by our Puppy Pilot

In January 2021, we rescued one Dachshund, two Labrador and two Springer Spaniel puppies who were all found hidden in a small cat carrier in the back of a van.

All five puppies were no older than five weeks old when they were rescued – well under the minimum 15 weeks that puppies must be to legally be imported into the UK. The spaniels weighed around 2kg and the Labradors around 3.7kg.

Before they were intercepted, the puppies had been transported thousands of miles across Europe from Slovakia and were due to be delivered to homes in the UK.

Heartbreakingly, three of them became seriously ill and despite being rushed to the vet and receiving round the clock care, they all died within days of coming into the country.

Given the timeframe, from when they started showing symptoms and to when they passed away, it is highly likely their deaths were a result of the poor welfare backgrounds they came from before entering the country. Many puppies are bred in appallingly unhygienic conditions in puppy farms overseas. An incredibly stressful journey, mixing with other puppies, potentially being unvaccinated, poor breeding practices and their young age is a recipe that leaves imported puppies exposed and vulnerable to potentially fatal disease.

Tara, a black Labrador, and Befa, a Springer Spaniel, thankfully both survived their ordeal. They’re now being cared for and rehabilitated before we can find them new homes.

Puppy smuggling facts

fact 1

In just five years, we’ve helped rescue 1,500 illegally imported puppies.

fact 2

Our undercover investigations found dealers and vets willing to falsify documents to say puppies were older than they were.

fact 3

If they’d been sold as planned, the dogs we’ve rescued would have put an estimated £3m into breeders’ pockets.

We’re calling on the Government to take urgent action to end puppy smuggling by:

  1. raising the minimum age for puppies to enter the UK, to six months
  2. increasing penalties for illegally importing dogs

Dogfish alert!

If you suspect a seller is acting suspiciously, or if you think your puppy may have been illegally imported, please report them to Trading Standards.

Report now

Don't be dogfished

Unsuspecting buyers think they are getting a healthy, happy puppy but are duped by unscrupulous breeders who care more about lining their pockets than dog welfare.

Many of these poor puppies suffer significant health conditions or lifelong behavioural challenges. Sadly, some don’t survive, leaving their buyers helpless and heartbroken as well as out of pocket.

Make sure you know the signs of a dodgy advert to avoid being dogfished.

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