Not just for Christmas – puppy sales and responsible breeding

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Scotland is a nation of dog-lovers. Although there is no official data, the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association estimates there are 653,000 dogs in Scotland, with 23% of households being dog-owners. Dog ownership levels are at an all-time high, and so there is an increasing demand on the puppy breeding industry.

Indeed, the Scottish Government estimates the puppy trade to be worth around £13 million annually, and with some puppy breeds being sold for as much as £2,500, they can be a lucrative source of income.

Alongside increased demand, evidence from national animal welfare non-governmental organisations and others suggests that illegal puppy breeding and trading is increasing.

This blog outlines the main features of this trade, its impact on the welfare of puppies, parents and owners, as well as current and proposed measures to help end the practice.

The puppy trade

The RSPCA estimates the annual market for puppies is between 700,000 and 1.9 million animals per year UK-wide, with approximately 400,000 supplied by non-licensed breeders, including those breeding fewer than four litters a year.

In addition to domestic breeding activities, there is a sizeable international puppy trade in farmed puppies, with an estimated 30-40,000 per year imported from Ireland alone.

The UK puppy trade is therefore made up of breeding and sales that are:

  • legally regulated (e.g. licensed breeders)
  • legally unregulated (e.g. small-scale ‘hobby’ breeders)
  • illegal and irresponsible (e.g. puppy farming).

It is currently difficult to distinguish these different types of trade, making it hard to accurately quantify the scale of the UK puppy trade.

Puppy farming and its impact

A puppy farmer is generally described as a high-volume breeder who breeds puppies with little to no respect for the welfare of the puppies or parents.

Illegally-bred puppies are often born with serious health complications. Statistics published by the Scottish Government-led ‘Buy a puppy safely’ campaign state that 1 in 4 pups bought online die before they reach their fifth birthday, with 1 in 3 getting sick or dying in their first year.

The RSPCA’s 2016 report ‘Sold a pup’ identifies a number of factors in illegally-bred pups which have a significant impact on their health, such as being separated from their mother too early, not being socialised at the correct age, and kept in unsanitary, unsafe and uncomfortable conditions.

Increased demand has also led to growth of puppy imports from the EU and beyond. An investigation by the Dogs Trust in 2018 found evidence of widespread abuse of animal welfare regulations in the breeding and transport of puppies entering the UK.

The SSPCA has also highlighted a growing demand for ‘designer’ puppies, fuelling the lucrative nature of selling particular breeds and a culture where “pups are throwaway commodities for some people.”

What is the law on puppy farming?

The Breeding of Dogs Act 1973, as amended, provides some protection for dogs used in breeding establishments. Under this Act any establishment that produces five or more litters per year for the purposes of selling must obtain a license from the local authority.

Local authorities have the discretion whether to grant a licence and, before doing so, must be satisfied that:

  • the animals are provided with suitable accommodation, food, water and bedding material
  • are adequately exercised and visited at suitable intervals
  • that all reasonable precautions are taken to prevent and control the spread of diseases amongst dogs

After devolution in 1999, animal welfare was devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Correspondingly, regulations on puppy farming have diverged between north and south of the border, as shown below:


The Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 is the main piece of legislation that relates to the welfare of dogs and other animals in Scotland.

In addition, the Scottish Government has published a Code of Practice to help those responsible for dogs meet the required duty of care.

Regulations in England and Wales

The Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (England) Regulations 2018 came into force on 1 October 2018, and aim to control ‘licensable activities’, including the sale of animals as pets, dog breeding and the keeping or training of animals for exhibition. A useful summary of the regulations and how one local authority in England is implementing them can be found here.

Meanwhile in Wales, legislation introduced in 2015 lowered the licensing threshold from five or more litters per year to three litters, in line with regulations in England. In February this year the Welsh Government announced a consultation on the ban on third party puppy sales.

Proposed changes

The Scottish Government’s 2017-18 Programme for Government included a commitment to improve licensing for dog, cat and rabbit breeding, dealing and selling, so that conditions in breeding units in Scotland can be properly controlled. A Government consultation seeking views on new licensing proposals ran in late 2018. The Scottish Government’s report on the responses submitted is due later this year.

In November 2018 the Scottish Government, in collaboration with the SSPCA, launched its ‘Buy a Puppy Safely’ campaign, which seeks to raise awareness of the tactics used by illegal breeders to deceive buyers. The Government has committed to invest £300,000 to the campaign which runs under the slogan ‘No mum. No Paperwork. Walk away.’

In addition to the above Scottish Government initiatives, Christine Grahame MSP’s Proposed Responsible Breeding and Ownership of Dogs (Scotland) Bill aims to strengthen the regulations surrounding the breeding, selling and transferring of puppies. The bill also sets out obligations on owners as well as breeders with the aim of ensuring a more responsible and informed approach to buying a puppy. The final proposal of the Bill was lodged on 26 February 2019 and has the support of 36 MSPs. The proposer now has the right to introduce a Member’s Bill to give effect to the proposal, until 1 June 2020.

Alisdair Grahame, Enquiries Officer