Sean the shar pei was in too much pain to open his eyes.

Romanian breeders had stitched his eyelids, rolled in due to excess folds of skin, but botched the job.

Smugglers had then taken the eight-week-old puppy on a non-stop road trip across Europe in a van without food, water or exercise.

Nine-week-old Maltese terriers Roky, Betty and Botty endured a similar ordeal so criminals could sell them here for a huge profit.

Shaking with fear and cold inside a tiny cage, and covered in their own faeces and urine, they weighed less than a kilo each when found under a pile of boxes in a car boot.

Betty later died of parvovirus. All these underaged, poorly pups were intercepted by border officers at Dover and handed to the Dogs Trust.

They are some of the tens of thousands smuggled each year and – with people willing to pay up to £5,000 for a pup – the problem is getting worse.

Dogs Trust says puppies are “the new drugs” for gangs after recording a 66% increase in the number it rescued from criminals last year.

Paula Boyden, the charity’s veterinary director, said: “With everyone stuck at home in lockdown there has been a huge increase in demand.

“As a result we have seen the age of puppies brought in drop to as young as four weeks, as well as a deterioration in their conditions.

“Many of these puppies are advertised online and unsuspecting UK buyers will buy a puppy that has
significant health issues, is underage, or has lifelong behavioural problems and they might end up paying emotionally or financially.”

Thanks to celebrity owners and their Instagram-appeal, dachshunds are the most popular breed being brought in, followed by French bulldogs, English boxers and, for larger dogs, chow chows.

Among the dachshunds rescued by the trust are Millie, Mollie, Sadie and Maddie – eight weeks old when seized at Dover in February.

They had been driven over from Hungary hidden under a car seat and were found in an emaciated state with diarrhoea.

Among them was Lady, a two-year-old that the Dogs Trust suspects was placed as a fake mum to fool prospective buyers. Lady turned out to be pregnant and has since had a litter.

Paula said: “Since we launched our Puppy Pilot scheme in 2015, 41 very pregnant mums have come into our care although it’s illegal to transport a dog in the last 10% of her pregnancy. Many of their puppies die, possibly from the impact of the long journey.”

By law, puppies must be at least 15 weeks old to travel across European borders.

But unvaccinated animals as young as four weeks, raised in squalid puppy farms in central and eastern Europe, are being seized at ports and the Eurotunnel.

Criminals, using fake pet passports, often get around the rules by ­scanning their own animals’ microchips at borders without enforcement officers seeing the dogs.

Once in the UK the animals can then be microchipped and passed off as home bred.

During the pandemic, a record number of health certificates for the commercial shipments of puppies were registered online – a sure sign smugglers were exploiting stripped-back border checks by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA).

Many certificates are faked.

Paula explained: “In the puppy farms, unscrupulous vets are being paid to falsify rabies certificates and lie about the pup’s age.

“Conditions at the farms are basic and unhygienic, there is no attempt to socialise the puppies with other dogs or keep them with their mums until eight weeks old.

“Then they are subjected to these horrifically long journeys, with no rest, no toilet breaks, no food or water before they even get to the distribution networks in the UK.”

Despite such cruelty, there have been only two prosecutions in the past five years, with only small fines and no jail time.

“To prosecute you need hard evidence and unfortunately APHA and Trading Standards resources are limited,” said Paula. “The maximum punishment for smuggling a puppy is 12 months in prison but you get up to seven years for smuggling cigarettes. Puppies are an easy way to make money and it is a risk worth taking for a small fine.”

Once the puppies are seized at the ports and found to be underage, they are taken into quarantine centres, given a rabies jab at 12 weeks and kept another three weeks, to comply with pet travel laws.

Dogs Trust helps the quarantine centres socialise pups before moving them to charity centres for rehoming.

But if there is insufficient evidence against them, smugglers can simply pay the puppies’ quarantine fees and then reclaim them once they are 15 weeks old and go on to sell them as planned for thousands of pounds.

“If the importers refuse to pay, then puppies are classed as abandoned and are taken in by Dogs Trust,” said Paula.

“However, puppy smuggling has become so lucrative during lockdown, that fewer are being abandoned.

“Puppies are the new drugs.” The main problem is that pet passport laws were relaxed in 2012 to harmonise our laws with the EU – meaning the minimum legal age fell from 10 months to 15 weeks. This led to a 61% increase in the number of dogs entering the country in the first year.

Dogs coming in from Hungary and Lithuania shot up by 600% to 700%.

Post-Brexit, animal rights charities want the Government to introduce much tougher penalties, increase funding for APHA checks and resources at the ports, and raise the legal minimum age for puppy travel to six months to make the dogs less desirable to buyers.

One of 80 MPs backing a law change is Labour’s Plymouth MP Luke Pollard, who said: “Now the UK has left the EU, the Government must take action to end this abhorrent trade and act on its manifesto promise without delay and crack down on it.”

But a recent Dogs Trust poll revealed that one in three purchasers would turn a blind eye if they suspected the dog they wanted may have been illegally smuggled.

Paula said: “It’s an emotional purchase of a new family member so people ignore the red flags. But buyer beware. The sellers are incredibly clever and try every trick in the book to scam you.

“They will get in a stooge mum, a female of the same breed to pass her off as mum, or rent a nice house in a nice part of town to pretend the pups were bred in the UK.

“So always watch how the mum interacts with the pup, ask plenty of questions about its origins and health, be prepared to be asked lots of questions if it’s a legitimate breeder, and don’t ever meet a breeder somewhere like a service station to buy a puppy.

“We want people to understand the huge implications of buying an illegally smuggled pet, both for the pup and the mum.” The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it was considering a range of recommendations from animal welfare bodies.

A spokesman said: “We take puppy smuggling and other illegal importations of pets very seriously.

“It is an abhorrent trade which causes suffering to animals and puts the health of pets and people in the UK at risk.

“We have one of the most rigorous and robust pet travel border checking regimes in Europe.

“Now the EU transition period has ended, we have the opportunity to look at even tighter measures to tackle puppy smuggling.”

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