Buyer beware: Ottawa fails to track thousands of puppies, some carrying diseases, imported to Canada each year
'Easier to bring in a dog than a case of beer,’ says veterinary researcher
The federal government fails to maintain a central database to track the thousands of puppies imported to Canada every year, CBC's Marketplace has learned, an issue experts have for years warned threatens animal welfare and can transport zoonotic diseases into Canada.
Ottawa has not taken definitive action to crack down on the virtually unregulated industry. Not only does the federal government not electronically track how many puppies have arrived — it also doesn't know where they end up.
Top Canadian veterinary researcher Dr. Scott Weese, the Ontario Veterinary College's chief of infection control, said the business of commercially importing dogs lacks adequate regulation.
"It's easier to bring in a dog than a case of beer," he said.
While the business is opaque, websites, especially in eastern Europe, offer litters of puppies for export to brokers based in Canada. Weese and animal rights advocates Marketplace spoke to worry the source of the animals are, in fact, puppy mills where mothers are kept constantly pregnant and raised in poor conditions, which has led to infections, disease and medical conditions from poor breeding.
Once purchased — for anywhere from $50 to $200 each — the dogs are flown to Canada, collected by the brokers and sold online, often at markups of 10 to 20 times the purchase price.
Marketplace has found puppies from Ukraine, for example, can be sold online for between $3,000 and $6,000 each.
Recommendations for change not adopted
Weese made recommendations to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), which regulates animal imports, as early as 2016 through the Canadian National Canine Importation Working Group report.
The report laid out that "a large but unquantified number of companion animals (particularly dogs) are imported into Canada every year," and that "there is currently no monitoring and minimal control of companion animal movement into and within Canada."
WATCH | Inside the world of imported puppy sales online:
Representatives from the CFIA and other government departments were both members and advisers for that working group, which made a range of recommendations from staffing CFIA officers at major border crossings, to instituting fines and more detailed record-keeping.
But Weese said recommendations were not implemented and the problem is as rampant as ever, with flights of imported puppies landing at Canada's major airports multiple times a week.
Even as COVID-19 has restricted air travel, the cargo terminal at Toronto's Pearson International Airport has been buzzing with newly arrived puppies — some reportedly just eight weeks old.
Sometimes hundreds of them arrive on a single flight, stuffed two or more to a crate, at the end of a confined international journey that began a day earlier in eastern Europe.
It's a scene that has repeated itself at least several times a month, for many months, part of a multimillion-dollar import scheme which, Weese and veterinary experts said, links overseas puppy mills to unsuspecting Canadian buyers.
While similar imports are banned — or heavily regulated — in other countries, it's quite legal in Canada. So routine, in fact, the dogs are often being sold within days of their arrival.
'Like they're just picking up bulk mail'
Following the death of nearly 40 dogs in a shipment of more than 500 puppies from Ukraine in June, Marketplace began staking out the cargo terminal, watching as a Turkish Airlines flight, bringing dogs from Kyiv via Istanbul, unloaded dozens of puppies.
WATCH | Marketplace's full episode:
Soon after landing, seven cars pulled into the cargo terminal, ranging from a Mercedes and Lexus with deeply tinted windows to a minivan. The occupants, believed to be importers, filled out paperwork inside, took minutes to clear the dogs with the CFIA, and then loaded multiple crates into their vehicles.
"They walk in and they just hand in their import permit to the cargo workers … like they're just picking up bulk mail," professional dog handler Abby Lorenzen told Marketplace.
It's a legal process, but happening at a scale that concerns animal welfare advocates.
"These mass importations of animals for resale for nothing but the almighty dollar — that has to stop," said Lorenzen.
She said she's witnessed multiple puppy import flights landing in Toronto, picked up by small groups of individuals.
"You'll see them on Kijiji and some other third-party website," as early as the morning after they arrive, said Lorenzen.
With the imports come viruses — and that's not all
Adam Harper purchased a French bulldog on Kijiji for $3,500. The seller, he said, never asked about his suitability to take on a puppy. Six hours after responding to the ad, his new best friend, Titus, was in Adam's car on the way to his new home.
Harper was surprised when the seller handed him a Ukrainian dog passport on the way out. It claimed Titus had been vaccinated against rabies. But his veterinarian found the document "didn't make any sense."
A blood analysis later showed that Titus had either never been vaccinated, or was given the rabies shot at such a young age it would not have been effective.
Marketplace has spoken to multiple other buyers whose dogs were imported from eastern Europe and sold on sites like Kijiji. They said the puppies they purchased were found — often within hours of being picked up — to be infested with viruses and parasites like parvo, giardia and cryptosporidium.
The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association warns there is a risk of importing zoonotic diseases not currently found in Canada.
"The CVMA's concern is based not only on hypothetical risks, but on concrete examples of parasitic, viral and bacterial diseases having entered Canada by way of dogs, and directly impacting animal and human health," the association wrote in a July 2020 press release calling for better regulations and more policies for importing dogs.
Erika Erwin's puppy, Mousse, came from a seller who claimed the dog was "100 per cent healthy." But hours after the purchase, she ended up in the veterinary emergency clinic and found to be infected with coccidia and campylobacter. The vet further diagnosed Mousse with severe neurological issues, and she was unable to feel her back legs.
It got worse. Soon after came the first anal prolapse, where a part of the bowel system falls out of the dog.
Pet insurance covered much of the cost, but the veterinary care for Mousse added up to over $13,400.
Numerous other owners of dogs imported from abroad have reported the same problem.
Erwin reported the many health issues to her seller. She said the seller blamed her.
"And if I wanted that money back, I had to sign an agreement basically to keep my mouth shut and not post on social media," Erwin said. "And I just didn't think that was worth it."
Imports both legal and barely regulated
Marketplace tracked brokers believed to be selling imported puppies and met with them, while recording with hidden camera. Some acknowledged the dogs had come from eastern Europe. Others did not.
One seller said her puppies had been cleared by a veterinarian at customs, to affirm their health.
WATCH | Hidden camera footage shows how not to buy a puppy:
But Weese, the veterinary researcher, said there really aren't any rules. "The dog was alive. That's pretty much the bare minimum to get through. We don't have testing requirements for diseases. We don't have quarantine practices."
He's calling for that to change, as is the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association. In a statement following the death of imported dogs at Pearson airport, the association said: "This appears to be a case of large-scale puppy mill importation," and noted that the practices "present serious animal welfare concerns."
In July, the CFIA issued an interim order to halt the importation of puppies under eight months of age from Ukraine. But Weese said importers may be using other countries to mask their origin in transit, or purchasing elsewhere in eastern Europe, and so the imports continue.
"If I can bring in 200 dogs from somewhere and sell them for $5,000, that's a lot of money," said Weese. "So if I build in 10, 20, even 50 dead dogs, if I can still make a profit that doesn't necessarily dissuade me if I'm an unethical importer."
The CFIA said that "significant restrictions" or a complete ban could devastate importers, including rescue operations and dog show operators. It said that stricter import requirements won't eliminate the possibility of genetic defects or parasites that can't be identified at the time of arrival in Canada.
It also said buyers should ask "key questions" to avoid supporting puppy mills both in Canada and abroad.
Meanwhile, Titus has settled into his new life with Adam Harper and, after a fresh round of vaccinations, he has a clean bill of health.
Harper said he will never buy another dog off Kijiji.
"I think that I was poorly informed," he said. "We as Canadians have to look at our role in terms of our laws allowing for [importation] to happen and for the demand of consumers like me that allow for these dogs to then be purchased here in this country."
Tips for purchasing a puppy
For those seeking out a pet from a reputable source, humane societies and veterinary groups have offered several tips and also warnings about suspect behaviour.
If the puppy is three months old or younger, the mother dog should still be present. Potential purchasers should be able to see her, as well as any paperwork associated with the puppy, before putting down a deposit.
Breeders typically have wait lists that extend into months, if not years. A breeder offering a dog for quick sale may not be a reputable operator. When contacting a breeder, try to meet where the litter of puppies is located so the facilities can be seen. Breeders who want to meet at strip malls, parking lots and parks may require additional scrutiny.
As always, humane societies, SPCAs and rescue groups continue to be an alternative, and often more affordable, option for dog adoption.