Puppy imports

Spaniel running
Alice Loder © / The Kennel Club

Importing young puppies into the UK raises a number of important concerns regarding animal welfare and exploitation, including transporting conditions, puppy farming, and illegal smuggling. Breeders in the United Kingdom (UK) have been unable to meet skyrocketing levels of UK demand, with recent legislative changes not helping the situation further and importers rushing to fill this gap.

Current regulations

Non-commercial importation of dogs into the UK

Prior to 2021, the non-commercial movement of dogs, cats and ferrets into UK was regulated by the European Union (EU) under the Pet Travel Scheme (PETS), which required puppies to be a minimum of 15 weeks of age upon importation. Unfortunately, it is widely acknowledged that commercial importers were illegitimately using PETS as a route to import puppies under the age limit, raising serious implications for both the welfare of puppies and the risk of diseases.

Following 1 January 2021, the UK Government now possesses the ability to set import rules into Great Britain (GB), although these are currently the same as the requirements that were in place prior to the end of the transition period.

As a result of the Northern Ireland (NI) Protocol, NI remains fully within the EU PETS system. Therefore, at present, the rules for importing a dog into GB and NI from outside of the UK remain aligned. The following rules apply to dogs being imported into GB from outside of the UK*, and for import into NI (including from GB**):

All pets must be microchipped and vaccinated against rabies. Vets will require proof that the pet is at least 12 weeks of age upon vaccination, and travellers from the EU and certain other countries (including GB for import into NI) will be required to wait 21 days after the primary vaccination before travel – puppies from these countries will have to be at least 15 weeks of age before importation. Pets entering from a ‘non-listed’ third country must pass a blood test 30 days after their initial vaccination, followed by a three month wait. Depending on the country of origin, dogs must also receive tapeworm treatment no more than five days before travelling.

*There are no paperwork or health requirements to transport dogs from Northern Ireland into GB.

**Checks on movements of dogs from GB into Northern Ireland have been suspended indefinitely. The Windsor Framework, announced in February 2023, if implemented will remove requirements for health preparations and burdensome paperwork requirements. Please see our Brexit page for further details.

Commercial importation of dogs into the UK

Commercial movements of animals are covered by the principles of the Balai Directive, a piece of EU law which the UK has retained following the transition period. The Balai Directive covers, for example, when a puppy is imported for onward sale and requires puppies to be a minimum of 15 weeks of age and to meet national pet travel rules. Under the Balai Directive, dogs must come from a registered holding and are subject to a clinical examination of pet and health certificates by a veterinarian. As well as this, importers must ensure notice of their shipment is provided to the Animal and Plant Health Agency alongside a declaration of their onward destination to allow for future traceability and follow up checks.

These rules must also be followed if there are more than five pets per traveller within a party or when a pet is being moved and can’t be joined by its owner within five days. However, if an individual is travelling with more than five animals for the purpose of a competition, show or training for an event, a Declaration can be completed which provides an exemption from the requirements for commercial movements. Given that exhibitors are unlikely to be competing with puppies under six months of age, this exemption is only likely be applied to a consignment of five or more adult dogs.

Under the Balai Directive, 39,997 dogs were commercially imported to the UK in 2017. The number of dogs imported under this legislation increased to 44,563 in 2019.

The Kennel Club’s view

There are legitimate concerns regarding the importation of puppies which must be addressed holistically in order to take into account those currently importing puppies or travelling legitimately. Any solution must recognise that, in order to halt the importation of puppies, the supply of domestically bred puppies needs to generally meet the levels of demand. As long as the domestic puppy supply is unable to meet the demand, there will be a gap for importers to fill.

In light of the significant suffering of puppies caught up in the illegal import trade, and the potential disease risks which they pose, it is clear that existing importation regulations do not provide adequate protection for dogs, both those being imported and the existing native population.

Protection of legitimate movement

A blanket ban on the importation of all dogs under the age of six months, whilst appealing, would cause undue impact on a significant number of people who legitimately enter the UK with their puppies under the age of six months.

Such a measure would enable border officials to easily identify whether a puppy met the age restrictions and thus could effectively restrict the ability of puppy smugglers to import puppies at around the 8-10 weeks mark; however, it would also impact those relocating for work purposes or breeders seeking to import a single puppy with a view to diversifying or improving the genetic line within their dog breed, and thereby improving breed health.

Our proposals

Reduce numbers of imported puppies

Existing rules are insufficient in preventing importers from illegally importing puppies for onwards sale. Reducing the number of puppies that can be imported – to one or two puppies per vehicle – would subsequently decrease the financial viability for those seeking to abuse importation regulations to commercially import puppies.

For example, under PETS, an individual is able to import five puppies; in theory, this would allow four individuals in a single vehicle to import twenty puppies with minimal border checks, which would then be sold onto UK puppy buyers at a huge profit. Unfortunately, these puppies are often bred and reared in appalling conditions, subjected to extremely long journeys with no thought to their welfare during these journeys across Europe.

Tougher penalties

Tougher financial penalties for those that violate importation regulations would serve to increase the risk for those willingly abusing it and remove the financial incentive to continue. We propose heavier fines for those found exploiting importation rules and even tougher punishment for those found to be in repeated violation.

Review of domestic breeding regulations

Alongside reviewing legislation governing the importation of puppies into the UK, the Government must also review the impact of recent legislation regarding domestic supply. As long as domestic supply is unable to meet domestic demand, there will be a gap in the market for importers to fill. We are calling on the Westminster Government to review the impact of the Animals Activities (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals (England) Regulations 2018 in relation to dog breeding.