AN undercover investigation is preparing to move in on members of the illegal puppy trade as demand soars before Christmas, The National can reveal.

The illicit market is worth millions of pounds, with rare and new breeds reared in unsafe, unhealthy and unethical conditions selling for anything from £50-£1000 a time. Rogue dealers bring the animals in from industrial scale puppy farms in Ireland or import rare breeds from Eastern Europe and Russia.

The head of the Scottish SPCA’s special investigations unit, who cannot be named due to the nature of his work, says the black market is akin to the drugs trade and is used to launder cash by organised crime gangs.

Buyers are often left with pets with serious or deadly health problems and behavioural issues and have no avenues for redress as dealers change their contact details after selling on each litter. Many such dogs suffer short lives, with the Scottish SPCA left caring for others when their owners are unable to handle high vet bills or aggressive tendencies caused by a lack of care before sale.

The charity’s undercover team is now “gearing up to take increased enforcement action” as the public’s “unquenchable” appetite for puppies ramps up before Christmas.

The source said: “Results will be made public quite soon.

“The public generally are educated not to buy their eggs from battery farms. Whey then do they choose to buy puppies from battery farms?

“We are working to slow this conveyor belt of dogs down.”

The comments come after the national agency met with counterparts in the UK and Ireland in an “unprecedented” move to coordinate action against the “cruel trade”. Operation Delphin, pioneered by Scots agents, will also see HMRC, Police Scotland and the Stena Line ferry company work together to target the cross-border criminality.

Kirsteen Campbell, chief executive of the Scottish SPCA, said: “The illegal puppy trade is a multimillion pound industry that puts profit ahead of animal welfare. Puppies are brought illegally to Scotland from Ireland and they are often incredibly ill, have been removed from their mothers too young, and kept in cramped and dirty conditions.

“With Christmas round the corner, we are all concerned about a rising demand for puppies. We will always encourage people to rescue a pet where possible, but when considering buying a puppy we urge the public to do so responsibly.”

The undercover agent said: “This intensive industry is built on the foundations of compromising the welfare of breeding bitches and puppies because of profit. They will sell any dog, regardless of condition.

“When they come to us, some of the dogs are simply not able to be rehomed. The puppy trade is most certainly serious organised crime. Sales are carried out in cash and traceability is a big problem. It’s a cat and mouse game for us – every time we employ a tactic against them, they counter that by deploying another one, like getting round microchipping laws by having the animals vaccinated in different countries to make it look like they have originated there.”

The six-person unit is stretched as it deals with 40 calls per month. The source said: “We are only scratching the surface. We can’t deal with this on our own.

“A huge proportion of this issue falls at the feet of the consumer. The public has to make responsible and ethical choices and use reputable breeders.”

To report animal welfare concerns, call the Scottish SPCA animal helpline on 03000 999 999.