Finding the right puppy to become part of your family is an important decision, and for lots of us, the search starts online. But many puppies advertised online are being sold by illegal puppy dealers – and without knowing the warning signs, you could end up being tricked into buying from a puppy farm. The result can be devastating for both you and your puppy: 1 in 4 puppies bought online die before their fifth birthday and 1 in 3 get sick or die within the first year.

Unfortunately, you’re more likely to buy an illegally bred puppy than you think. Puppy farmers go to great lengths to deceive potential buyers, from renting fake houses to sell the puppies from, to producing counterfeit paperwork. But there are a number of signs you can spot which indicate that a puppy may have come from a puppy farm. So, if you’re thinking of buying a puppy, read our guide below to ensure yours is a healthy animal from a happy home.

H2 Risk of buying an illegally bred puppy

Having been born and brought up in stressful and unhygienic conditions, with no traceable family history, puppies originating from illegal puppy farms are more likely to have health problems, diseases and behavioural issues. These might not be obvious straight away but could develop after you bring the puppy home. Here are some of the potential consequences:

Early death

Most illegally bred puppies are sold online through social media or small ad sites, and 1 in 4 of those pups bought online die before their fifth birthday whilst 1 in 3 get sick or die in the first year. When you take the puppy home, it could develop severe illness straight away due to infection and the lack of vaccinations at puppy farms.


If your puppy survives past 6 months old, it may still develop a serious disease later in life, which could prove very expensive and, in some cases, terminal. Brachycephalic (short-nosed) dogs, such as pugs, bulldogs and boxers, are particularly at risk of breathing difficulties, while other breeds can inherit a number of other genetic defects.

Increased vet bills

The cost of buying a dog from a puppy farm can rack up over its lifetime. 1 in 5 owners of illegally bred puppies have to spend between £500 and £1,000 on vet bills before their dog has even reached 6 months old. Lack of vaccinations, filthy conditions and inherited conditions add to these unavoidable costs. On average, owners who buy from an Assured Breeder spend nearly 20% less in vet bills during their dog’s lifetime compared to those with dogs from puppy farms.

Behaviour issues

Puppies from puppy farms are more likely to exhibit aggression, anxiety or symptoms of trauma. This is as a result of being brought up in a stressful environment by puppy dealers. Unfortunately, these issues may never go away – they cannot always be solved through training or by a loving and caring home environment.

Fuelling the trade

Although it is a natural instinct to want to rescue a puppy from a dubious situation, buying from an illegal dealer only helps fuel a lucrative criminal industry that breeds dogs for profit, with no care for the welfare of the mum or puppy. This leads to further suffering in the long run.

The best thing to do if something doesn’t seem right is walk away and report your concerns to the Scottish SPCA animal helpline on 03000 999 999.

Report your concerns
H2 Warning Signs of an illegally bred puppy

When you’re searching online

Many dealers are running huge operations, selling multiple litters at the same time, or even smuggling dogs to the UK from abroad. Look out for these signs online that can reveal if the advert has been posted by an illegal seller.

Phone numbers

Many unlicensed dealers have several adverts on websites at any given time and are selling puppies directly from an illegal puppy farm. If they provide a phone number, copy and paste it into your search engine to see if any other adverts appear in the results. If they do, the advert is likely to belong to somebody dealing illegally bred puppies.

Stolen descriptions

Illegal dealers often copy and paste advert descriptions, and re-use them for selling multiple litters. To find out if the description of the puppy you’re thinking of buying is real or not, copy and paste it into your search engine. Again, if various adverts come up, your advert hasn’t been written by a verified seller.


If your puppy is advertised as having its own passport, this could be a sign that the puppy has been farmed overseas and brought to the UK to be sold.


Puppies can’t be vaccinated until they are over 4 weeks old. If the advert claims the puppies have been vaccinated already and they are said to be younger than 4 weeks old, this claim is untrue.

Multiple litters

If your seller is advertising multiple litters from different breeds of dog, this is a giveaway that they are operating a puppy farm on a large scale. Verified sellers will mostly only trade in one breed of dog.

When you go to meet the puppy

The scam doesn’t stop online. Criminal puppy dealers have been known to rent properties which can look like a family home, but in reality act as storefronts for the illegal puppy trade. Here are the things you should keep in mind before visiting a puppy:

Meet the mother

Meeting the puppy’s mother is the most important step in buying a puppy. The mother should be healthy and interacting with her puppy. If the seller tells you that the puppy’s mother is unavailable – out for a walk, at the vets, groomers, friend’s house or elsewhere, this is a huge warning sign. A genuine seller will always let you meet the mother.

A stand-in mother

Puppies from puppy farms are separated from their mothers, who are often stressed and traumatised by intensive breeding. The dealer may introduce you to a dog who they claim is the puppy’s mother - a sure sign of this is a dog which doesn’t interact with the puppies, or which doesn’t watch you playing with the puppies. If this happens, it’s not the puppy's mother.

Age and health

Puppies should never be taken away from their mother to go to their new home until they are at least 8 weeks old. They need to stay with their mother long enough to be reared, learn behaviours, and socialise. Check that the puppy looks healthy with bright eyes and shiny fur. Any concerns you raise about the puppy's health should not be swept aside and classed as 'normal for the breed'.

Puppy paperwork

Illegal breeders won’t produce paperwork or certificates to prove the puppy has had their vaccinations, microchipping (which is a legal requirement), anti-worming medication and check-ups. Some dealers may produce fake paperwork, so beware of documentation which doesn’t look right and which doesn’t have the name, number and address of a real veterinary practice.

If you're not sure

If you haven’t been shown the puppy’s documents, or think that the documents might be counterfeit, ask the breeder for the name and number of their veterinary practice. Search online for the vet practice to confirm that it’s real and, to be certain, you can also phone the practice to verify them.

Breeders documents

Verified and safe breeders will be able to produce a local authority license, and / or evidence that they are a member of the Kennel Club Assured Breeder scheme.

Meeting places

Always go and visit the puppy in the house where they have been born and reared. Sometimes dealers will propose meeting you halfway, at the side of a road or in a car park. They might get you to agree to do this by giving you a postcode or address that is difficult to find, then offer to meet you elsewhere. Legitimate sellers will never do this. It’s important to
visit the puppy in a safe family home, and to see it interacting naturally with its siblings, mother and owners.

Take your time

Legitimate sellers won’t mind you visiting the puppy more than once so you can be sure that it’s the right one for you, and that you are right for their puppy. They won’t rush you into parting with your cash or making a decision. Illegal sellers on the other hand might pressure you to buy a puppy straight away or rush you and not ask about your home situation.

No mum. No paperwork. Walk away.

H2 Physical signs to check for

It can be hard to tell the difference between a healthy puppy, and one that might develop conditions or become ill once you’ve brought them home. Click below to read about some of the physical signs and symptoms the Scottish SPCA advise you to look out for when visiting your puppy.

Signs of a healthy puppy
H2 Rehoming from abroad

Many shelters based in Europe and abroad launch appeals online and on social networks for homes in the UK to adopt orphaned dogs and puppies. While the ‘adopt don’t shop’ approach is a responsible way of buying a dog, rehoming one from abroad can carry a number of hidden risks.


Young puppies carrying diseases can be transported into the UK for sale and rehoming - often by
illegal operations running commercial puppy farms abroad. These animals’ passports can contain
false information, carrying fake test results and fraudulent microchip numbers.

Vets in the UK have identified an increased number of cases of dogs rehomed or bought from abroad displaying signs of mistreatment, diseases and parasites. These diseases and conditions can worsen over time, causing long-term health issues and even premature death.


The transportation process can be extremely stressful for animals, with dogs brought over from abroad often being deprived of human contact or other dogs’ company. This can result in trauma and the dogs can show symptoms of anxiety, fear and aggression afterwards. The transportation and rearing environments of these dogs is often dirty too, leaving them with illnesses, ticks or mites.

H2 Adopting in the UK

Remember, there are lots of healthy dogs in the UK looking for a new home. Visit the Scottish SPCA website to find a shelter or a dog home near you:

Find a dog shelter
H2 Reporting your concerns

Do you think your puppy, or a puppy you have visited may be from a puppy farm? Or do you think you might have come into contact with an illegal puppy dealer? If so, you can report them to the Scottish SPCA below and help stop puppy farming for good.

Report Now
H2 Stakeholder toolkit

We would love you to support our campaign and spread the message of how to buy a puppy safely even further. Get involved by clicking below and accessing our toolkit where you can download various assets including films and images.

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