Thousands of puppies worth hundreds of dollars each are shipped to British ports and then on to mainland Europe every year, many of them secreted in the back of vans and cars.
Ireland’s canine trade is “a national disgrace”, said Brian Gillen, head of the Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (DSPCA).
“Our aim is to put them out of business,” he said. “The more we interrupt their trade, the more it hits them where it hurts: in their pockets. We want to make it uneconomic for them to continue.”
Although buoyed by recent seizures at various ports throughout Ireland, welfare agencies continue to face an uphill battle against an export industry – much of it illicit – involving at least 30,000 pups a year worth up to 20 million euros (B769mn).
Seven intelligence-led seizures at Irish ports over the past two months alone have yielded 150 puppies.
Most were so-called “designer breeds” such as Beagles, Bichon Frises, French Bulldogs or King Charles Spaniels. One shipment discovered in a car boot was worth just under 30,000 euros B1.14mn).
Many of the puppies are too young to travel, lack mandatory pet passports and microchips and are a potential health risk due to a failure to inoculate them against the deadly rabies virus.
All of them, according to welfare agencies, will likely develop mental and physical illnesses as a result of in-breeding and their treatment.
Raids on illegal puppy farms have found cramped conditions, little or no exercise or interaction, poor sanitation and even lack of access to water.
Campaigners say that the vast majority of smuggled puppies continue to escape detection.
Prosecutions are rare and to date nobody has been jailed for even the most flagrant breaches.
“We do not believe that local authorities are best placed to enforce the regulations,” said Suzie Carley, a spokeswoman for Dogs Trust, a Dublin-based animal welfare group, calling on the central government to take control of the crackdown.
The DSPCA has already worked with government agencies in Britain to develop a co-ordinated strategy for stemming a trade facilitated by the immediacy of the internet and the popularity of certain smaller breeds.
The twin-track approach involves high-profile seizures of “cargo” at ports in Ireland and Northern Ireland as well as public education campaigns to raise awareness among would-be buyers of the animal cruelty they are facilitating and the potential trouble they face for purchasing dogs illegally.
Gillen said the export trade from Ireland is particularly prevalent due to “historically useless” legislation and “lax controls”, although the government has toughened laws in recent years.
Official figures show there are 73 registered puppy farms in the Republic of Ireland producing at least 30,000 dogs a year. In contrast, 895 establishments in Britain produce only around 70,000 puppies.
According to welfare organisations, some farms have more than 500 breeding bitches. The DSCPA said it would like to see them limited to 10 or fewer.
“It’s certainly a money racket. I would hesitate to call any dog a ‘fashion statement’ but there is little doubt that celebrity culture combined with the instant gratification enabled by the internet is fuelling this horrible trade,” said David Wilson, spokesman for the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Northern Ireland.
“Traditionally, you would contact a reputable breeder who would put you on a list but nowadays people are not prepared to wait.
“You can go online now in the morning and pick up the dog in a car park without any questions being asked – it’s that simple nowadays.”