SEVEN people arrested in connection with raids on suspected illegal puppy farms have been released on bail.
The five men and two women, who are aged between 25 and 54, were questioned on Thursday on suspicion of offences under the Animal Welfare Act.
Six were arrested during the raids, and the second woman attended a police station voluntarily.
They have been bailed until early May as inquiries continue.
Their arrests were made as part of searches which were carried out that morning on two farms and four houses in East Durham after a year-long inquiry into the sale of dogs.
The RSPCA launched investigations after owners reported puppies they had bought suffered from serious conditions or had died, with post-mortem examination results awaited as the charity tries to find out what caused their death. Some had bought their new pets after spotting adverts online and had travelled across the country to pick up the animals.
With the support of Durham Constabulary, which took part in the raids under its Operation Sledgehammer campaign to target organised criminals, 43 dogs and 12 puppies were seized and checked by vets.
They have not been signed over to the RSPCA, but they will remain in its care until the investigation has come to a close.
After the raids, RSPCA chief inspector Mark Gent said: “There are two messages here, one to the breeders and, very importantly, one to members of the public.
“These people wouldn’t be in business if it wasn’t for people buying from them.
“Please, rehome a dog from an animal welfare organisation where possible, but if you must buy a puppy make sure you see the puppy with its mother, in the place where it has been living.
“Never, ever arrange to meet the breeder in places like car parks.”
The raids took place at Bracken Hill Livery Stables in Shotton Lane and Swan Castle Farm off Salter’s Lane and on homes in Bracken Ridge, Kier Hardie Terrace and Bruce Glazier Terrace, all Shotton Colliery, and Windsor Terrace in Haswell.
The RSPCA, which drafted in 26 of its inspectors to work on the searches and were backed by 50 police officers, has asked anyone with information to call its cruelty line on 0300 1234 999.
More information about buying a puppy can be found at www.getpuppysmart.com.