Ministers are launching a consultation, seeking people’s views, on proposals to make it illegal to bring into the country animals bred for sale, with little regard for their welfare.
Importing dogs with cropped ears or docked tails will also be outlawed, and the minimum age for importing a puppy will also be raised from 15 weeks to six months.
Celebrities have driven a craze in recent months and years for owning dogs and puppies whose ears and tails have been cruelly cut short.
Experts say the craze – together with higher demand for pets during lockdown – has driven a rise in imports of pets bred in cruel ways and in puppy smuggling, all of which prompted the changes that were outlined in the government’s animal-welfare action plan this year.
Ministers also want people’s views on new penalties for breaching the new laws and whether they should include cats and ferrets.
Puppies that are imported too young face a significantly higher risk of developing illnesses and of death.
Raising the minimum age for bringing puppies into the UK should mean they are not separated from their mothers too early, allowing them to mature before being taken on potentially long and stressful journeys.
The RSPCA this year reported a 620 per cent rise in reports of dogs with ears that have been cropped - a painful process designed to make the animal look more aggressive. The surgery, which is illegal in the UK, can hinder their ability to communicate with other dogs and people.
Thousands of puppies and dogs are brought into Britain each year, with last year’s figure standing at more than 66,000, official statistics show.
Numbers of young puppies found by border officials not meeting the UK’s pet import rules shot up by 160 per cent between 2019 and last year – from 324 to 843.
But animal-welfare charities have lobbied hard for a crackdown on puppy smuggling and pet mutilations.
Owen Sharp, chief executive of Dogs Trust, which has a scheme helping discover illegally imported puppies at UK ports, said the consultation could bring the UK a step closer to ending the “abhorrent” puppy-smuggling trade.
“Since setting up our Puppy Pilot in 2015, we have cared for more than 2,000 puppies which were seized at UK borders, often in horrendous conditions,” he said.
“We have seen puppies as young as four weeks old being smuggled into the country and dogs with open wounds from ear cropping, as well as heavily pregnant dogs close to giving birth.”
Only a handful of cases have ever been prosecuted and existing penalties are no deterrent, he said.
Last year the Dogs Trust warned the public against buying dogs online after rescuing six underage puppies illegally imported from Romania that were covered in sticky oil and suffering diarrhoea. They had to be shaved to remove the oil.
Animal-welfare minister Lord Goldsmith said: “Raising the minimum import age for puppies will help protect thousands of animals that are brought into the country each year and stop criminals looking to profit from the rise in demand for pets.”
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies