THE shocking scenes behind a massive lockdown puppy-smuggling trade are today exposed by a Sun investigation.
Sick and distressed pups, some just six weeks old, are torn from their mothers and ferried from Eastern Europe in appalling conditions.
Unscrupulous UK-based middlemen then pass them off as British bred with vaccination and birth documents frequently faked.
It is feared as many as one in three pups advertised for sale in the UK arrived here as a result of the trafficking trade.
Families desperate for company and comfort during Britain’s bleak Covid winter then face heartbreak when the pooches are stricken by often fatal diseases.
Undercover Sun investigators in Romania discovered pups bred in desperate squalor.
Despite it being illegal to transport a dog under 15 weeks without its mother, we were offered toy breeds as young as six weeks old.
A bichon frise-Maltese cross was being sold for £200 in Bucharest’s drab Magurele suburb. A tattooed man, who gave his name only as Marafet, held a whimpering white pup called Snowy inside his coat.
Marafet, in his 20s and wearing a Covid mask, said he knew a vet who would provide us with false papers indicating the six-week-old was old enough to be shipped to the UK.
Declining the offer, we went to a detached house in the nearby south suburb of Popesti Leordeni where bichon frise, Maltese, shih tzus and Yorkshire terriers were on sale.
Tubby middle-aged breeder Vasile ushered us into his kitchen where four bichon frise-Maltese pups were crammed in a cage lined with soiled and ripped newspaper.
He claimed the male dogs were eight weeks old and that smaller females were two weeks older.
He offered us one of the males for £330 — rising to £540 if we wanted to take it back to the UK within 24 hours.
He explained the extra charge would cover obtaining papers from a vet, lying about the age.
These would also wrongly state the dog had been vaccinated against diseases including rabies — meaning it could have entered the UK carrying the killer disease.
We were shown a row of stinking shacks where the animals were bred. Vasile said: “There will not be any problems because I have done it hundreds of times before.”
At another back-street puppy farm in south Bucharest’s 4th district, breeder Costi ushered us into a yard packed with more than 30 yapping chihuahuas.
HOW TO AVOID GETTING CAUGHT OUT
Q: HAS the puppy been imported?
A. If yes, how old is it and does it have a passport?
Q. Did you breed the puppy yourself?
A. If not, who did, where, and why are you selling it?
Q. Was pup born where advertised?
A. If not, where, and how did he/she come to be with you?
Q. What’s the pup’s bloodline?
A. If not known, why’s that so?
Q. What paperwork does pup come with?
A. Imports will have foreign vet records and probably a passport.
Also, be sure to ask to visit the puppy at home more than once, and about his or her vaccinations.
He first offered two pups aged around 11 weeks, then took from a cage a tiny dog and bitch aged just six weeks. He demanded £340 for each dog plus a further £130 to cover fake paperwork.
He took us to a vet on a nearby street corner who produced an official blue EU pet passport. A fluent English speaker, she told us: “I send a lot of dogs to the UK and know I’m taking a risk, but I can do it for you on this occasion.
“I have kids of my own and I know home much pressure they can put on you at this time of year if they want a puppy — who can refuse them?
“I suggest you take them back on the ferry rather than the Chunnel because there are less checks, then get the rabies jabs done in London. I know Romanian vets working there who will help you.”
The puppy trade has been fuelled by lockdown loneliness. Google searches for “puppies near me” have surged 650 per cent.
Meanwhile, the number of licences to import dogs has more than doubled to 12,733. Prices for trendy breeds have more than doubled too — with as much as £2,600 for a chow chow, £2,400 for English bulldogs and £1,220 for pugs.
Even during normal, non-Covid times, only five per cent of dogs brought to the UK using commercial Intra Trade Animal Health Certificates are screened.
But border checks have been scrapped altogether during lockdown. The RSPCA says non-commercial trade in dogs from Romania rose 7,700 per cent from 2011 to 2015.
It is now the biggest source of puppies from Eastern Europe ahead of Bulgaria, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Russia and Slovakia.
Animal charities have discovered puppies are often bred in squalor and then shipped for up to 33 hours across Europe, often with no food and little water.
Traffickers sometimes sedate them to avoid attracting attention — meaning they arrive exhausted, sick, stressed and filthy.
Dogs as young as four weeks have died in transit, while more succumb to disease after being sold to unsuspecting British buyers.
'PUPPIES HORRIBLY EXPLOITED'
The Dogs Trust has launched a “Puppy Pilot” scheme, which cares for dogs confiscated at ports — and has taken in 1,400 dogs worth more than £2million.
Last night, the trust’s veterinary director Paula Boyden said: “The Sun’s findings in Romania sadly confirm our worst fears and concur with what we have discovered ourselves.
“Puppies are being horribly exploited and large sums of money are being made by the people responsible.”
But she said Brexit has given the Government a golden chance to call a halt to the trade by setting tougher import laws and increasing border checks.
She explained: “We are calling on the Government to urgently raise the minimum age for puppies imported into the UK to six months to help make them less desirable.
We also want tougher penalties for smugglers, as only a handful of cases have ever led to a prosecution.” An RSPCA spokesman said: “Action must be taken now to stop this cruel trade.”
Molly-Mae Hague's plea plea to pet lovers
LOVE Island star Molly-Mae Hague spoke of her anguish earlier this year after a dog she bought from Russia died after six days.
Molly, 21, had been assured by sellers in June that her pomeranian Mr Chai was healthy.
But it emerged he had been born with enlarged internal organs and part of his brain was exposed.
Now Molly-Mae has urged pet lovers to steer clear of imports after being left heartbroken by the death of the pup — a gift from fellow Love Island contestant and boyfriend Tommy Fury, 21.
She said: “If we had our chance again, we wouldn’t have imported from Russia.
"The autopsy results showed that his skull wasn’t fully developed and he didn’t have a white blood cell left in his body.”
The blood disorder left the dog unable to fight off any infection.
Molly-Mae, from Manchester, added: “If we had the time again, we’d have a dog from the UK.”
Other puppy peddler victims told The Sun of their heartbreak after Christmas gift pets fell seriously ill or died within days.
Mum-of-two Rebecca Reed, 45, bought a cute pedigree cavachon Max in 2015 — and watched in horror as he collapsed and was put on life support within 17 hours.
Max was much younger than the sellers claimed and was almost killed by megaesophagus — a hereditary condition which stops dogs eating.
Rebecca, from Sussex, said: “He seemed perfectly healthy, but it turns out he was probably imported and we were tricked by a professional gang.
“The whole family endured an awful time over that Christmas wondering if he’d pull through.
“We’ve ended up spending £5,500 in vets’ bills to make him the happy, lovable dog he is now.”
Another mum told how her toy dog cross Evie arrived for Christmas 2019, but had to be put down days later on December 27 after contracting the fatal parvovirus.
Buyer Sarah, 31, from Chichester, West Sussex, believed she was getting a healthy, well-bred dog from a happy home.
But Sarah — duped by online lies by smuggling gangs in a ploy dubbed “dogfishing” — realised the pup was in distress as soon as she saw her.
She said: “The environment the puppies were in didn’t sit well with us. We wanted to take her away from there, get her vaccinated and give her a good home.
“But she was so sick, there wasn’t time to get her vaccinated.
“The vet said she probably wouldn’t last the night, so we had to put her to sleep. We just couldn’t let her suffer any more.
“It ruined our Christmas.”
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