MORE than 50 dogs were seized and six people arrested after homes and farms were targeted in raids on suspected unlicensed puppy farms.
The RSPCA launched the inquiry after reports people had bought puppies which died or suffered from serious illness.
In some cases they had bought the pets through car windows, with some buyers travelling from across the country to collect their new pets after finding out about the dogs online.
Five men and one woman have been arrested on suspicion of offences under the Animal Welfare Act.
Another woman made arrangements with officers to voluntarily attend a police station.
The RSPCA expects some of the bitches seized will give birth to litters, leading them to expect around 100 dogs to be involved in the operation in time.
The raids were carried out at Bracken Hill Livery Stables, in Shotton Lane, and Swan Castle Farm, off Salter’s Lane, both Shotton Colliery, as well as homes in Kier Hardie Terrace, Bruce Glazier Terrace and Bracken Ridge in the village and Windsor Terrace in Haswell.
Fifty police officers, 26 RSPCA officers and three vets worked together on the searches shortly before 7am yesterday.
The dogs are classed as teacup breeds and include Jack Russells, Chihuahuas and crosse. They have not been signed over, so remain the property of the owners, which means new homes are not being sought.
RSPCA chief inspector Mark Gent said post mortem examinations had been carried out on the dead dogs, with investigations continuing into why they had become unwell.
Other complaints included buyers who said they had chosen a breed or a sex of dog, only to find it differed to their request when they got home.
Insp Gent added: “This sends out a clear message to members of the public.
“This investigation has been going on for a year and we have been building up information and intelligence for a number of months, which has cumulated in these raids.
“Breeding is massively responsibility and there are massive costs.”
Durham Constabulary joined forces with the RSPCA as part of Operation Waxbill.
Acting inspector Jim Peel said: “Our concerns were not only for the welfare of the dogs, but the welfare of buyers.”
Anyone who would like to pass on information to the RSPCA is asked to call its cruelty line on 0300 1234999.