17/11/2017 08:52 GMT | Updated 17/11/2017 08:52 GMT

When Did UK Dogs Become The Poor Neighbours Of Their International Counterparts?

Dogs and cats are lifetime companions, not fashion accessories, and surely not status symbols. They should be chosen with great care and love, and by people who have taken the time to plan their arrival and ensure that they are truly offering the very best home possible to a much deserving and wonderful new family member.

Without doubt, one of the greatest joys of working at any UK rescue centre is seeing a happy dog heading out the gates with their new two-legged companion, both ready to start an exciting new chapter in their lives together. For 157 years Battersea Dogs & Cats Home has been finding homes for dogs that, for whatever reason, have been rejected or abandoned. And for these new owners, their 'Heinz 57' rescue dog with a mix of many breeds, has long been a great source of pride.

But whilst there are plenty dogs of all shapes and sizes in rescue centres across the UK, all longing for their second chance in life, we're starting to observe a worrying new trend, as increasingly people are looking overseas for their new family pet. By-passing the pleading eyes of Britain's canine homeless, they prefer to rescue a dog from a life on the streets of Bucharest not Bath, or Larnaca instead of London, telling their friends how they've helped save the animal from a tragic fate.

Many of these owners will no doubt be trying to do the right thing, perhaps even going through animal charities who work tirelessly to help stray animals overseas by rehoming them in the UK. But for every new owner who does try to go through the right channels, there are countless more who will be duped into thinking they're helping, when actually they're making unscrupulous breeders richer and fuelling the growing puppy farming trade in 'designer' breed dogs.

Just recently, The Times writer Lucy Cavendish described the process she had gone through to get a new puppy for her family, waiting in a service station car park, "At 9.10am a Transit van ...pulls into the car park. About 20 or so people emerge from various cars into the parking area. It turns out that we have all come to collect dogs, all of which have come from Greece...and it isn't just our Transit that is in the car park. There is at least one more, surrounded by people waiting for dogs."

At Battersea we're all too aware that rehoming dogs out of a van in a service station is precisely the way in which some unscrupulous breeders will line their pockets, but how many other well-meaning new owners will fall into this trap? Only a few will have seen TV footage of profiteers being pulled over in their vans for importing puppies from the EU, exposed by the RSPCA, Dogs Trust and the Police. This type of breeder knows they can make thousands of pounds from selling on French Bulldogs and Pugs, and sadly, animal welfare isn't given a second thought.

The happy, eager families waiting to have a wriggling puppy thrust into their arms, will for the most part have no idea that they're proliferating a barbaric trade where sometimes hundreds of breeding bitches of every type, are kept in squalid conditions to be bred from time and time again. Often starved of natural light, exercise, and company, these frequently sick dogs are left to crawl over one another in excrement-filled cages while their puppies are taken from them at too early an age and transported hundreds if not thousands of miles in crates and boxes, without food and water to be touted on a service station car park or through an online dealer with a smart looking website, purporting to be a home breeder.

Furthermore, these adoring new owners will often know very little about the medical history of their dog, with forged vaccination records and passports all too commonplace. Puppies transported and sold in this way are often sick, weak, and poorly bred and face years of problems, if they make it past six months and all too many kind and decent owners, are left heartbroken and thousands of pounds poorer.

This is a real crisis, and it is being brought into the UK every day. Just this week, 100 puppies were seized at the border in Kent and found to be in an appalling state - in feeble health, covered in vomit and faeces, and having been smuggled into the country in cramped conditions without air conditioning.

Charities like Battersea take in thousands of dogs every year. Last year Battersea received over 22,000 calls for help from dog owners alone. At any one time our own three centres will have almost 300 wonderful dogs desperately looking for new homes. These are simply unlucky dogs, sometimes unwanted; too big, too small, too boisterous, too quiet, or just too inconvenient. Sadly, there will also be the ones whose previous owner may have moved to a new home where landlords don't allow animals, or illness, divorce or even owner's death has meant there's no place for these pets to go but to a shelter.

And the sad reality is that it's the UK rescues who will also pick up the pieces when the so-called 'quality puppies' referred to in Ms Cavendish's article lose their initial appeal, when their medical or behavioural issues become too difficult or expensive for the well-intentioned new owner to bear.

At Battersea we're taking in many more animals with foreign microchips, and we're increasingly coming to the rescue of owners who have rehomed their dog from overseas. These dogs come from many different countries, and because they're often strays, we know nothing about their medical history and whether they are carrying any diseases. So, our vets have no choice but to put them into quarantine until we can do all the essential medical checks to establish they're safe and well enough to rehome.

Battersea is a member of the EU Dog & Cat Alliance, a group of animal welfare organisations who are working to protect dog and cat welfare throughout Europe. They say international rehoming for dogs and cats is simply not sustainable in the long term as it only provides stop gap measures, rather than addressing the root causes of companion animals living in shelters or being homeless.

In short, rehoming a dog from abroad may help that one dog but not the thousands more who still suffer. The Alliance cites the very real risk of spreading diseases such as rabies across borders, including to the UK, and the fact that such dogs are much more likely to experience problems when contained in a home environment.

Which brings us back to the many dogs languishing in UK rescue centres, desperate to find a new home and a fresh start. These dogs deserve a second chance just as much as any other. By choosing to rescue from a UK shelter you'll have the peace of mind to know that your new pet has been medically and behaviourally assessed, vaccinated, and of course matched to you and your specific lifestyle needs. Most will come with four weeks free insurance and access to long-term aftercare support and advice. Yes, those wanting a Cockapoo, or a French Bulldog for their Instagram account might not find what they want quite as easily, but surely that's a good thing.

Dogs and cats are lifetime companions, not fashion accessories, and surely not status symbols. They should be chosen with great care and love, and by people who have taken the time to plan their arrival and ensure that they are truly offering the very best home possible to a much deserving and wonderful new family member.