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Think twice before buying a puppy from a car boot this Christmas

However, the barking present should not cost a fortune, leading to a surge in illegal canine trafficking.

A quick search of online pet sites and in the ads sections of local newspapers unearths a deluge of offers for "cute Pinschers, wonderful Golden Retrievers, Pugs, cheap, private breeding".

"People want to have a pure-bred dog, but are loathe to spend a lot of money," Eva Persy of Vienna’s animal welfare office said.

Authorities and activists were concerned about the sharp increase in puppy-boot sales and discount pets available via the internet, affecting not only Austria but also Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Far from being reared by experienced breeders, those animals originated from dog-factories in Eastern Europe, Katja Wolf from Austria’s cynology association warned.

"Dogs are bred under circumstances unimaginable to any serious breeder," Wolf said. "The dealers regard the animals just as merchandise. It is dirty and the animals contract all sorts of illnesses. If a bitch cannot have any more offspring or there are complications, they are simply killed."

Up to 30 puppies a time are ferried across the border in car boots by the dog-mafia to be sold in the parking lots of shopping centres, often for one-tenth of the price charged by registered breeders.

"You can get a Golden Retriever puppy for about 150 euros, normally a Golden would set you back 1,500 or 2,000," Wolf said.

Animal rights’ activists estimate that around 30 carloads of illegal puppies without papers and the EU-wide mandatory vaccinations and microchips reach Austria every day. "And it will get a lot worse when the Schengen borders fall on December 21," they said.

Reacting to those alarming tendencies, Austria amended its animal protection legislation in mid December, banning the sale of animals in public places without prior authorization from January 2008, but one disillusioned government vet fears the law will not be enough.

"Everything happens on the internet. There is not much you can do," said the vet, who works for Vienna’s municipal government.

Prospective pet owners are warned against the dangers of buying bargain pets from parking-lot breeders.

"These young animals are often very ill and suffer greatly due to early separation from their mothers, long transport and poor keeping," officials said.

Even worse, "left-over" pups were often abandoned or killed by the dealers. "The dog is only worthwhile for them as long as it is small and cute – and that lasts only a few weeks after birth," Wolf said. Often the dealers would appeal to people to buy the puppy out of pity or they would kill it.

If someone really has their heart set on a dog for Christmas, they should make sure they buy from a registered breeder or get an animal from a shelter, Austria’s puppy protectors said.

Those pets must be vaccinated and microchipped, giving the owner some protection in the event of problems.

"Serious breeders never have animals ‘in stock’, the choice of breeds is limited," a brochure issued by Vienna’s municipal authorities said.

Prospective dog owners were advised to visit the litter several times to get a proper impression of their prospective pet. The bitch and the pups should show friendly behaviour and look healthy and clean. Puppies should be at least eight weeks old before they are separated from their mothers.

"Never buy a puppy out of pity," the brochure warned. "Always try to sleep over your decision."

"It is sad how little common sense people employ when buying a dog," Phillip Strohm, spokesman of the animal rights organization for Four Paws said.

Treating those unhealthy dogs often costs more than buying a healthy dog from a registered breeder, a government vet warned. "But, I don’t feel sorry for those people. It’s their own fault."

Blame had to be laid not only at doorstep of the "gypsy breeders", the vet added: "This is a buyer’s market. If there are no buyers, there would be no-one there for them to do business with."

Many of the discount puppies barely escaped a sorry fate in the car boot and will soon end up in shelters or on the street when some of the recipients tire of their "new best friend" shortly after Christmas. dpa