ANIMAL charity the RSPCA has warned that a record number of puppies could be imported in coming weeks to meet demand for Christmas present pets.

Since March 23, when the country was placed into lockdown, the charity has received one report of “puppy trading” in Wiltshire. There were 41 reports across the south west.

The RSPCA has called for tougher regulations to tackle what they say are welfare concerns surrounding the importation of dogs.

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A picture of a puppy farm Picture: RSPCA HANDOUT

Chief executive Chris Sherwood said: “Every year we see a spike in online searches and adverts for puppies in the run-up to Christmas and with lockdown continuing to drive up demand for dogs, we expect this year could see more families looking for puppies than ever before.

“While some of these families will take on loving rescue dogs or buy happy, healthy puppies from responsible breeders, we know that many will unknowingly fall victim to illicit and underground puppy breeders and sellers who prioritise profit over the health and welfare of their dogs.

“Some people may unwittingly buy a puppy who has been bred in poor conditions in a cold, dark barn or warehouse without having access to the proper food, veterinary care and early life experiences that are so important for them to grow into happy and healthy dogs. Others may well have been born in appalling conditions on puppy farms abroad, taken from their mothers at just a few weeks old and illegally smuggled into the country to be sold on to innocent buyers.”

The number of puppies imported into the UK since the lockdown has soared. Government figures show an 87 per cent rise in the number of dog importation licences issued to traders. The RSPCA said more dogs could be being imported illegally.