Heartless puppy farmers who sold sick dogs to desperate families spared jail

Heartless puppy farmers who bred and sold sick dogs have avoided jail despite many of their pooches dying shortly after being sold.

Betty Burton, 35, and Jeff McDonagh, 38, conned pet owners out of more than £250,000 over three years, the Manchester Evening News reports.

The pair advertised online and frequently moved properties to avoid being caught by police.

Two puppy farmers who bred and sold sick dogs to families in Greater Manchester have been spared jail.

Betty Burton, 35, and Jeff McDonagh, 38, conned unsuspecting members of the public out of an estimated £250,000.

A court heard that many of the dogs, which included cavapoos, French bulldogs and cocker spaniels, died a short time after being sold.

Out of the 42 puppies which were sold by the pair, fifteen tragically died, and all required veterinary treatment for different illnesses and health problems.

Following a trial at Shrewsbury Crown Court in February 2020, the pair from Telford, Shropshire, were found guilty of conspiracy to commit fraud.

They also pleaded guilty to animal welfare offences including causing unnecessary suffering to a certain animal and failing to meet the needs of animals.

Both Burton and McDonagh were spared jail for their crimes, with McDonagh said to be suffering from mental health issues.

The RSPCA’s Special Operations Unit – a specialist team which investigates serious and organised animal crime – launched an investigation in 2017 after reports were received from people who had bought sick puppies in the Greater Manchester area.

The adverts for the puppies had all appeared on the Pets4Homes website.

RSPCA SOU officer Kirsty Withnall – who led the investigation, said: “All of the adverts suggested that the puppies were the offspring of a family pet, had been born in the home and socialised with the family.

“We spoke to 11 people in connection with the first address – linked to Burton – that came to our attention.

“All of the buyers had been directed to a public phone box to call when they arrived to see the puppies.

“One person refused to buy the puppy when it didn’t resemble the dog she’d been sent a photo of, wasn’t with its mother and appeared scared and whimpering. Others bought cockapoos, cavapoos, dachshunds and pomeranians.”

A second Manchester address was then used and officers spoke to six members of the public who had bought puppies from the property, which is linked to both Burton and McDonagh.

Of these six dogs, three died.

From 25 October 2017, the operation expanded to a third Manchester property and five properties across Telford, all linked to Burton and McDonagh.

Beagles, French bulldogs, cavapoos, dachshunds, cocker spaniels and cavaliers were all sold.

Some payments were made into bank accounts in McDonagh’s name while telephone numbers were linked to Burton.

“These sellers were incredibly professional and clever,” Ms Withnall added.

“They sold puppies from one address and moved onto the next before arousing suspicion. They used different names in adverts and on paperwork, different numbers and false postcodes which were either completely made up or were linked to local fast-food restaurants.

“Vaccination cards were falsified with Tippex so they could be re-used and buyers were misled about the source, breed, age and health of the puppies they were buying.”

The court heard that members of the public also raised concerns about a property in Telford, and the condition the dogs were being kept in.

A warrant was executed by West Mercia Police in November 2019 and 55 dogs and puppies were removed from the property on welfare grounds.

A further 26 puppies were born in RSPCA care, bringing the total number of dogs to 81.

The court heard that the dogs were being kept in inappropriate, dirty conditions.

Some of the animals were underweight and had health problems such as skin issues and untreated eye conditions.

Burton and McDonagh arrived at the property and were subsequently arrested.

Cash, mobile phones and paperwork were seized from the property and officers were also able to identify several items which matched items used in pictures of puppies from the online adverts.

Analysis of the adverts from November 2015 to October 2018 showed that 22 different names were used to advertise 439 puppies with a total sale value of more than £253,885.

RSPCA officers took statements from members of the public who had bought 42 puppies for a total price of £21,580.

Fifteen of those puppies died and all of the dogs needed veterinary treatment for different illnesses and health problems.

McDonagh – who had been identified in a video identification parade by all 11 witnesses who took part – was sentenced to two years custody, suspended for 24 months.

He was also disqualified from owning dogs for life and cannot appeal the ban for five years.

He must also undertake a community order including a mental health treatment requirement and 30 days rehabilitation requirement activity days.

The court heard that since the trial, McDonagh has been mentally unwell and remains seriously ill and in need of treatment, but the treatment would unlikely be available in custody.

Burton was sentenced to six months custody, suspended for 12 months, 30 rehabilitation activity requirements days and ordered to pay a victim surcharge.

She was also banned from keeping animals for life and can not appeal her disqualification for two years.

The dogs were signed over to the RSPCA in December 2019 and have since all been rehomed.

A third person is due to be sentenced for offences in connection with this case later this year.

Following sentencing, Ms Withnall said: “Burton and McDonagh were the brains behind this sophisticated operation which, at its height, had eight associated addresses across Manchester and Telford.

“They used different names and different phone numbers to falsify paperwork, create adverts which wouldn’t rouse suspicion and con potential buyers out of hundreds of pounds for puppies they were claiming were much-loved, family-bred pets.”