Sad realities of our domestic puppy-farming industry
RSPCA estimates 30,000-40,000 Irish puppies supplied to UK each year
On back roads and rural byways across Ireland stand huge sheds and repurposed farm outbuildings containing one of Ireland’s more miserable agricultural secrets: the large scale, caged breeding of puppies, mostly for export.
Puppy farming, the commercial breeding of dogs in volume at what are legally termed “dog breeding establishments” (DBEs) is carried out in 73 centres formally registered under dog breeding legislation implemented in 2012.
The Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ISPCA) conservatively estimates the number of registered bitches at these DBEs produce about 30,000 puppies, primarily for export, every year.
These official figures alone suggest Irish puppy farms run at factory scale compared with their UK counterparts. A Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) study last year estimated about 70,000 puppies were produced by 895 licensed dog breeding establishments in Britain.
Yet, says ISPCA chief executive Andrew Kelly, formal Irish figures fail to take into account the many illegal, unregistered DBEs that animal welfare workers believe exist in significant numbers, based on various investigations and the number of raids and dog confiscations.
Neither do the figures include the many homes and premises with under six breeding bitches, which do not need to register. Spreading bitches across several premises, often with relatives, is known to be one way puppy farmers avoid registration requirements.
Taking all these factors into account, Irish export puppy numbers are more likely to be as high as 100,000 annually, Kelly says.
“If just 1,000 people out there have four bitches producing a litter of six pups annually, that’s 24,000 puppies right there,” he says.
“The problem is we have a paucity of data” to understand the full scale of the problem, he adds. He would like to see legislation changed so that all breeding dogs are registered and all litters have to be recorded to give a realistic national picture of this controversial trade.
The statistics have long earned Ireland the sobriquet of “puppy farm capital of Europe”, although in recent years several eastern European countries have begun providing strong competition and now serve as the other significant source of imported pups into Britain. Overall, the RSPCA estimates 30-40,000 Irish puppies are supplied to the UK each year.
Thanks to campaigning efforts, authorities in both the UK and Ireland have begun to crack down on the ferry port routes – often from the Republic via Northern Ireland and on to Scotland – used to transport pups. These dogs are typically underaged, neither vaccinated nor microchipped as required by law, and closely packed in substandard conditions in vans. Four such seizures have been made in the past four weeks.
The scale of the puppy transport business is huge. Kelly notes an ongoing investigation has revealed that just one such transporter made 23 return journeys in the last 18 months with a van that can hold about 30 pups – that’s just one vehicle, moving about 700 pups.
Puppy farming at small to vast scale – from a few breeding dogs to premises with hundreds of caged bitches, mostly popular toy breeds – is nothing new in Ireland. Campaigners have long noted that farmers were actively encouraged to get into the business, with a ready market of dog lovers, and a shortfall of home-supplied pups, nearby in the UK. Teagasc was criticised on its Facebook page last year for continuing to promote dog breeding as a supplemental farming activity.
Built up over time, close networks of breeders, dealers (who buy up whole litters for sale) and dog transporters send dogs to the UK, Europe, North America and as far as East Asia, according to the Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (DSPCA).
In some cases, families are extensively involved in the trade, says Kelly. One Irish puppy farmer’s daughter is a known dog trader in the UK, for example.
The US trade has been so significant in the past that imported, Irish Kennel Club-registered dogs have gained a terrible reputation there. Purchased in the US by small-scale breeders and puppy farmers, IKC-registered dogs are able to get joint American Kennel Club registration, and are then used to produce AKC-registered puppies that fetch a premium price from gullible puppy buyers.
Ireland’s 2010 dog breeding establishments legislation, which was enacted in 2012, and related 2013 legislation on animal welfare – both solid pieces of legislation, according to the ISPCA – have at least changed the legal landscape, imposing enforceable guidelines on DBEs for the set-up and operation of breeding facilities. The laws also give new powers for prosecutions with significant penalties.
But the problem, according to people in animal welfare circles, is that the local authorities – who are supposed to enforce welfare standards at DBEs – simply look the other way, or refuse to prosecute when told of possible infractions. This lets breeders off the hook for even the most basic duty of care as most DBEs have substandard premises that would fail to meet legal requirements, Kelly says.
One unlicensed breeder with about 50 breeding bitches was not prosecuted but invited to apply for, and then given, a breeding license, notes Kelly. In another case, the local authority declined to prosecute a registered DBE for having more than double his permit for 200 breeding bitches.
Other problems include a continuing national shortage of wardens and other authorities allowed to conduct inspections and seize dogs; no ability for authorities to conduct unannounced inspections of DBE kennels and low fines for violations.
A Department of the Environment spokesman said a review is underway. “A working group is currently examining the legislation to determine if amendments are required.”
He also said joint inspections were launched last year and teams have completed visits to most DBEs. Prosecutions are often a joint effort between various authorities, including law enforcement, for more serious charges, he said.
For now, the ISPCA brings forward every prosecution it can and sees each as an opportunity to broaden public awareness and raise welfare expectations.
But the organisation would prefer if State and local authorities would show some mettle and support and actively enforce puppy farming laws.
Ireland’s embarrassing reputation as a puppy farming haven could end tomorrow “if there was a will for that to be done,” says Kelly. “But there’s no will.”