The illegal movement of pets not only impacts the health and welfare of pet animals and public health, but also affects consumers and causes economic damage in tax evasion and undeclared revenues.
Unfair commercial practices
Tax evasion and undeclared revenues
Impact on the health and welfare of pet animals
Risk for public health
Do you really know where your pet comes from?
In 2021, it was estimated that EU citizens owned 72.7 million dogs and 83.6 million cats. The annual demand across the EU for dogs-only may exceed 8 million animals per year. Although part of this demand is met by licensed breeders as well as by legal importation, an important part of these animals comes from illegal trade and unregistered transportation from non-EU countries. Additionally, in recent years, pets are increasingly advertised through popular online platforms and social media. Many of these adverts offer animals not from honest breeders but from illegal sources of unacceptable breeding conditions.
Why is it worth to be an aware pet-buyer?
Illegally traded pets are often taken from their mothers too early, without fully developed immune systems. They tend to be transported for long distances in poor conditions and they often die very early. If they arrive at the destination, their health might be compromised, and they are prone to develop behavioural difficulties. For the new owner it creates emotional distress and economic losses, which adopting families have not foreseen and might not be equipped to deal with. Ultimately, the burden of treatment and care of these animals will fall into the hands of legitimate shelters, further stretching their limited resources.
The main responsible parties identified in cases are breeders, veterinarians, and carriers, who are regularly transporting pets through the borders. Those animals are often unregistered and accompanied by falsified documents: illegally issued EU passports and health certificates, providing false information on the age and origin, or forged rabies anti-body laboratory results. The latter is a concern particularly for animals coming from countries where rabies is still widespread.
How much does it cost us?
Finally, it is important to keep in mind that the main economic gain for fraudsters comes from tax evasion (revenue and VAT). The economic activities of the illegal dealers and puppy traders' businesses are not properly declared and create an unfair competition and economic advantage for those selling too young pets and omitting legal sanitary obligations.
A puppy bred in non-EU countries or some EU Member States can be bought cheaper, for approx. 30-50 euros, by a trader who can then resell the animal to a pet shop for 10 times more or ultimately to the final consumer for more than 1000 euros. Considering that 8 million puppies, representing a total value of €1 billion, are estimated to be required annually to satisfy the European market, substantial amounts of revenue can be reclaimed in the EU from puppy traffickers.
EU enforcement action
Following increasing suspicions of fraud in this sector reported by Member States, the European Commission and the EU/EFTA countries have agreed to launch an EU enforcement action to tackle the illegal trade of pets on 1st July 2022.
The control action will last until beginning of 2023 and will be coordinated by EU Agri-Food Fraud Network. Its objective aims at:
- Protecting the health of pet animals and public health (rabies, leptospirosis, echinococcosis etc.) by detecting irregularities and falsification of the official documents (passports, rabies test reports and health certificates).
- Identifying animal trade (commercial movements) disguised as non-commercial movement, both at borders and later within the EU.
- Deterring fraudsters involved (breeders, transporters, veterinarians, dealers).
The following traceability map shows a cross-border investigation involving EU and non-EU countries. It was created based on intelligence collected from relevant databases (i.e. TRACES), pet microchip registrars and official documents (e.g. health certificates). Presented cases were anonymised.
The diagram perfectly illustrates the complexity of investigations into networks akin to organised crime. This is why this operation is joint with police forces within the framework of the EMPACT Envicrime cooperation to fight organised crime at an EU level.
Different elements involved in the illegal pet trade
A substantial portion of the pet trade has now moved online, with many online shops and platforms posting ads of cute “home-bred” puppies, some even offering world-wide delivery. Many of these dealers are not registered breeders but import the pets very cheaply from foreign puppy farms and resell the animals for a huge profit, deceiving the consumer in the process. These animals are often bred in extremely poor conditions, with no regard to animal health or welfare, before being prematurely separated from their mothers and enduring a long trip to their destination.
Beware of rescue associations fraudulently moving companion animals for rehoming purposes under the guise of rescuing pets. These “rescue companies” often do not declare their transports of pets to the competent authorities, thus bypassing proper checks for animal health and welfare. A “symbolic fee”, explained as the alleged cost of transport or care, is usually required to acquire the pet. As the movements are not declared as commercial, this fee, and the economic gain made from the transaction, will go unnoticed by authorities and allow for tax evasion on the side of these fraudulent associations.
Illegal, unregistered movement from non-EU countries is of big concern for European countries protecting animal and public health against zoonotic diseases and trying to deter fraudsters involved in these activities. It is difficult to ensure traceability of all the pets crossing EU borders as pet dealers abuse the EU’s pet movement legislation, which allows “owners of animals” to travel with up to five pets under specific conditions, without having to record it in TRACES or presenting imported animals at Border Control Posts (BCP). In practice, the “owner” would travel with several animals through travellers' points of entry and after arriving in their destination, transfer the ownership of the animal directly to the buyer. Puppies are often purchased for a low price in some third countries and then transported and sold for very high profits to EU countries, where the market for such exists.
Another popular modus operandi is unregistered trade disguised as non-commercial movement within the EU/ EFTA countries. The lack of registration of animal health certificates in Intra EU documents in TRACES, although mandatory, leads to a lack of traceability of the origin/destination of the animal. Puppies are often purchased for a low price in some Member States and then transported to and sold for very high profits to other EU countries, where the market for such exists.
Tail docking and ear cropping are elective surgeries performed on many purebreds such as Dobermanns, Schnauzers and Boxers to only mention a few. Tail docking entails removing part of the tail and ear cropping involves removing part of the ears of the dog. These procedures are very controversial as they are usually performed for cosmetic reasons on very young puppies. The European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals, ratified by 24 states as of June 2020, prohibits such practices.
Although it is illegal, organised dogfighting still takes place in many parts of Europe. It is difficult to estimate its scale as with many other underground activities, but dogfighting generates revenue from stud fees, entrance fees and gambling. There are many breeds of dogs traded and used for fighting – including Tosa Inu, American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Rottweiler, Fila Brasileiro, Dogo Argentino, Presa Canario, Neapolitan Mastiff.