DOZENS of dogs and puppies were rescued following a series of dawn raids in a crackdown against suspected illegal 'puppy farms' today.
In a joint operation involving 70 police officers, 26 RSPCA officers and several vets, officers searched six addresses in the Shotton Colliery area, near Peterlee, County Durham.
Police arrested five men and one woman under the Animal Welfare Act, while a seventh man volunteered to attend the police station later.
Forty three dogs and 12 puppies were seized.
Durham Constabulary Acting Inspector Jim Peel said: "Today's operation is the result of two months planning by ourselves and the RSPCA.
"Our concerns were not only for the welfare of the dogs but the welfare of buyers, who bought these animals in good faith only to discover they had underlying medical issues or missing documentation.
Police officers break down the entrance to a property during the raids. Picture: Gavin Engelbrecht
One of the puppies seized during the operation. Picture: ITV Tyne Tees
"This caused financial problems for the unsuspecting buyers and, in many cases, personal distress.
"Durham Constabulary has an ongoing commitment to tackle organised crime, which can come in many forms.
"The resources we deployed today demonstrates how seriously we take this issue, which has been a major cause of public concern."
The RSPCA are leading the investigation and anyone with any information should contact the RSPCA cruelty line on 0300 1234 999.
Police officers are briefed ahead of the raids. Picture: Gavin Engelbrecht
An officer during the raids this morning. Picture: Gavin Engelbrecht
Gavin Engelbrecht joined Police and RSPCA officers as they raided properties in a crackdown on suspected illegal puppy farms.
Spearheaded by police officers in protective gear with battering rams, it was like many other pre-dawn raids.
Dozens of patrol cars and vans fanned out to six addresses in the Shotton Colliery area, near Peterlee, County Durham, in co-ordinated strikes today.
But rather than targeting drug dealers or money launderers, the targets this time were members of a suspected organised crime gang involved in an illegal puppy farm operation.
The Northern Echo accompanied officers to Bracken Hill Livery Farm, where sturdy metal gates were forced and two adult dogs were found - along with one puppy cowering by itself in a cage.
At Swan Castle Farm yet more dogs and puppies were found in cages, while more evidence was gathered at three more residential addresses in Shotton Colliery and another in nearby Haswell.
RSPCA Chief Inspector Mark Gent said: "The RSPCA has had lots of calls from people concerned about poorly puppies being sold in the area, some of which have gone on to die as a result, and the conditions those puppies were living in.
"Forty three adult dogs, some of them breeding bitches, and 12 puppies, some of them very, very, young, have been seized this morning and are now being checked over by vets.
"Where there is evidence that animals are suffering we will take appropriate action against those responsible."
The puppies seized include popular breeds like Jack Russells, chihuahuas and Jack Russell/chihuahua crosses, known as Jackhuahuas.
They have not been signed over and remain the property of the owners, so new homes are not being sought at present, he added.
Chief Insp Gent claimed sellers used generic websites, such as Gumtree, to advertise the puppies.
He said: "Sellers say they have the mother and father available to be seen but often come up with an excuse not to show them to buyers.
"A lot of these puppies are being sold from a car window. Why people would ever buy them like that? But there are hundreds of people who have bought puppies like this.
"What is happening is people, not having seen the mother or father of the puppies, are paying cash up front and they have got no identification showing where these pups have come from."
He said: "We have been building up information for quite a number of months now.
"We are expecting a number of people who have bought puppies from these people to call. We are interested to know if they have survived or had any problems - so we can build up a bigger picture of what has been going on."
Chief Insp Gent said some sellers were using the economic climate as a way of making easy cash.
He said: "What they don't understand is that having an animal and specially breeding from it is a massive responsibility and a cost.
"These people are not in it for the welfare, but for making money."
He added: "Our message to those involved is "watch out we are building information and it could be your door next".
"And to members of the public who are buying these puppies they need to be extremely careful who they are buying off.
"Because these people are literally making lots and lots of money from this and there is a good chance that the puppies they are buying will be sick and potentially may die."