Christmas warning: Telltale signs that a dog has come from the cruel puppy farm trade
It's a time of year when kids are given cute little dogs - but many are bred in cruel conditions on puppy farms
Fozzy the dog and her two small pups were living in appalling conditions at an Irish puppy farm when they were rescued recently by animal welfare workers. Dogs Trust and the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ISPCA) moved in to seize the dogs after the puppy farm failed to comply with regulations.
Fozzy was one of a number of nursing and pregnant Pomeranian bitches that were picked up by the rescues. When Dogs Trust found her, Fozzy was covered in mange. She was bald in places, her skin was red raw, and she had open wounds.
The skin condition had spread to her two pups, and all three had to be treated with medicated washes.
Fozzy and her pups were part of a cruel trade that has become big business in Ireland. And this disreputable form of canine commerce reaches its peak around now, as unsuspecting pet lovers buy puppies as Christmas presents.
Mark Beazley, executive director of Dogs Trust, says at any one time thousands of puppies are being sold online in Ireland. On just one site, 2,500 dogs were on sale this week, and many of these animals come from puppy farms.
There are telltale signs that a dog has come from a puppy farm. The first and most obvious sign in the advertisement is that they are generally sold for much cheaper prices than the dogs from legitimate breeders.
"For the puppies that are well bred and looked after, you would expect to pay anything from €600 to €1,000 for a puppy," says Mark Beazley. "The puppy farm dogs are being sold for €150 to €300."
On the surface everything may look all right, and buyers are inevitably taken in by the cuteness of the fluffy little pups. The traders will go to great lengths to conceal the fact that the dog came from a puppy farm.
"In the ad, the pups may be presented in a nice basket surrounded by flowers in a garden, so that they look like they are home-bred," says Beazley.
"You will be invited to a house to see the puppies or to meet in a car park.
"Unless you are careful, you could end up with a puppy that is in many cases quite sickly because of the environment they have been bred in."
Andrew Kelly, chief executive of the ISPCA, estimates that between 30,000 and 100,000 puppies are produced in Ireland every year. Most are bred for export to the enormous British dog market, where there is a demand for up 800,000 puppies a year.
They are smuggled in cars to the UK through the North and by ferry to Scotland, or they are exported in similar conditions to Holyhead.
In a typical recent case near the ferryport at Cairnryan in Scotland, 20 pups were found in the boot of the car arriving from Ireland.
The puppies - mostly toy, designer breeds - were in a dehydrated state. The puppies were all too young to travel, had no pet passports and were not properly registered.
Often, these puppies are bought by unsuspecting buyers who believe that they have come from legitimate breeders.
Sometimes they have health problems and have not been vaccinated, and frequently they turn fearful or aggressive, because of their inappropriate upbringing in farm sheds.
Over the past 20 years, Ireland has become a centre for dog breeding on an industrial scale. Farmers have even been encouraged to get into the business as a way of supplementing their incomes.
There are up to 73 registered dog breeding establishments - or "puppy farms" - in the country.
Many of these are operating perfectly legally under the Dog Breeding Establishment Act.
Although conditions at many puppy farms have improved, animal welfare agencies believe the regulations are not being properly enforced.
Dogs are still being found in appalling conditions, with bitches confined to cages and dark sheds for most of their lives as puppy-producing machines.
Kelly gives examples of some of the conditions his inspectors have come across.
"They may have small kennels, sometimes with straw, and the kennels are not cleaned regularly enough and are full of faeces. The dogs are not always fed properly and the water is dirty."
Conor Dowling, chief inspector of the ISPCA, has come across horrific scenes in his career visiting dog breeding establishments. In one recent case in the midlands, the ISPCA had to remove hundreds of dogs, including some animals that were already dead.
"There were disgusting conditions there with dogs housed in filthy stalls with solid sides and doors," says Dowling. "They were completely sealed in. Dogs were kept in big sheds in deep straw and there were dirty floors."
Even in the legal establishments where the conditions may be clean, animal welfare agencies say the rearing of puppies on an industrial scale is inappropriate.
Kelly says: "Dogs should not be bred like they are cattle or sheep, because they have different welfare needs, including the need to be socialised and exercised. Clearly they don't get that in big dog breeding establishments with up to 400 breeding females."
The Bray vet Peter Wedderburn has seen how these puppies develop, and warns of the effects on their behaviour.
He says: "Dogs have a critical socialisation period between two weeks and 14 weeks. If they don't get the right social interaction, they can be scarred for life."
Animal scientists at Newcastle University recently produced a study showing how the early weeks of A dog's life spent in a puppy farm affect its temperament as an adult. Puppy farm dogs grow up to be more aggressive and more fearful than dogs from reputable breeders, the research found.
The researcher, Dr Catherine Douglas, said: "Animals destined to interact with humans should not be reared in puppy farms and no breeding animal should be kept in such confinement. The welfare of both puppy and parents should be put above profit."
The Government is currently drawing up new regulations on puppy farms. Animal welfare groups want a limit on the number of breeding bitches at each farm.
Currently some puppy farms can have up to 500 bitches, and according to Dogs Trust this inevitably leads to welfare problems.
Vet Pete Wedderburn says: "For pups to be well socialised, they need to be handled a lot, because that is how they learn to know and trust humans. It isn't easy for this to be done in an establishment with hundreds of puppies."
The vet says anyone considering buying a dog should take specific steps to ensure that they don't accidentally buy from a puppy farm.
"You should always visit the home of the breeding bitch.
"Ideally, you should visit when the puppy is still suckling but not yet ready to go to a new home, so that you are not fooled. You should never buy a puppy by meeting someone in a car park or lay-by."
Woof justice: tips for buying a pup
* Don't buy on impulse. Remember, the cute fluffy puppy will grow into a big dog and could be with you for the next 15 years.
* The ISPCA advises pet buyers to adopt a puppy from their local rescue centre or dog pound. There are plenty of dogs needing homes, and these are given proper health checks.
* If you insist on a pedigree pup, ask your vet if they know a reputable breeder or contact the Irish Kennel Club for advice.
* Make sure you see the puppy interacting with its mother and check that the facilities are clean and the litter of puppies appears alert and healthy. You should be able to handle the puppies under supervision.
* Make sure your puppy is old enough to leave its mother - at least eight weeks old.
* Be wary if your chosen puppy does not originate from the place of purchase.
* Always ask for a copy of its medical records, including vaccination certificates.