MORE than 300 animals were taken away from their owners amid cruelty investigations in Scotland last year.

The figure, revealed by the Scottish SPCA is a new record and a near-50 per cent increase on the previous 12 months. Almost half of the animals seized were victims of the illegal puppy trade.

Prosecutions resulted in bans on owning animals for more than 50 people. Calls to the the charity’s helpline resulted in frontline staff being sent out to more than 89,500 incidents.

Chief executive Kirsteen Campbell said the time taken for cases to reach court exacerbated animal suffering and cut into the organisation’s finances. Calling for cases involving seized animals to be expedited, she said: “Animal cruelty cases can often take years to be heard in court.

“This is a real issue and the reason why we had more than 1000 animals in our care in 2017 with no home to go to because their owners had not yet faced trial.

“This not good for animal welfare. It is also entirely at our expense and we would like to see these types of cases being heard in court sooner.

“Our dedicated and expert animal rescue and rehoming staff ensure all the animals in our care receive the love, attention and veterinary treatment they need while they await their forever homes.”

The illicit puppy trade sees dogs kept in often cramped, unsuitable and inhumane conditions. Animals – often from in-demand or rare breeds – are sold on despite serious or life-threatening health problems. Many of those sold in Scotland are trafficked into the country from Ireland, Northern Ireland and Europe through the port at Cairnryan in Dumfries and Galloway. Dealers use a range of methods to hide the truth from buyers, who can face large veterinary bills for pets.

Cross-border work to disrupt unlicensed breeders involved in the big-money business is under way. South of Scotland MSP Emma Harper is among those campaigning for change.

Campbell said: “Overall, 52 people were banned from owning animals last year following Scottish SPCA investigations. That’s an average of one every week, with many of these animals having suffered in the most appalling conditions.

“The illegal puppy trade remains a major concern, with 143 of the record 302 animals seized by our inspectors and undercover special investigations unit last year rescued from dealers who treat dogs as nothing more than commodities.

“We prevented an additional 75 puppies that formed part of illegal puppy trade entering Scotland via Cairnryan Port from Ireland. We work closely with our sister organisation the Irish SPCA to ensure these pups receive the highest possible care and are happily rehomed in Ireland.”

Campbell went on: “This situation simply cannot be allowed to continue, which is why we have welcomed the Scottish Government’s commitment to increase potential penalties for animal welfare offences, to tackle illegal puppy dealing and license animal sanctuaries.”