'He was full of worms' - Woman's warning after falling victim to puppy farm scam
PUBLISHED: 18:55 26 June 2019 | UPDATED: 19:17 26 June 2019
It's supposed to be a happy occasion for all the family - but within 48 hours of being united with his new owners, Pickles the puppy was rushed to the vets after a suspected seizure.
Alison Pearson, from Woodbridge, paid £400 for her new puppy at what appeared to be a loving family home in June last year.
Little did she know that the tiny "bundle of fluff" that had stolen her heart was not the happy, healthy Jack Russell and Poodle cross she had been promised.
In fact, Pickles had been bred on a prolific puppy farm in Norfolk, where some dogs were kept in sweltering caravans, pitch-dark sheds and cages.
Some were sold infested with worms, parvovirus and in several cases had to be put down, leaving the owners with large vet bills.
Mrs Pearson said she was "already in love" the minute she laid eyes on Pickles, but things quickly went downhill.
'Full of worms'
After spotting the "gorgeous" 'Jackapoo' on Gumtree, Mrs Pearson struck up a conversation with a man named Gary, who later turned out to be puppy farmer Michael Rushmer.
She was told she could meet the dog at 'Gary's' Norfolk home, and made the trip up with her husband, Brian.
"We opened the door and this little bundle of fluff was running round his ankles," she said.
"I was already in love."
Mrs Pearson said the house was "clean and tidy" and 'Gary' seemed like "a normal guy," but a couple of things made her a little suspicious.
"Pickles was advertised as a Jack Russell puppy," she said.
"They brought in a Jack Russell mum and they were playing with each other, and I didn't think anything of it.
"I said: 'Where are all the other puppies?' and he said: 'This one was sold but the guy let me down.'"
In fact, Pickles is not a Jackapoo. DNA tests later revealed he is part Toy Poodle, Lhasa Apso, Shih Tzu and Chihuahua.
Mrs Pearson said it later transpired he was also "full of worms".
'Whole-body muscle spasms'
"Two days later he had a funny episode," she said.
"The puppy ran and fell and went stiff. We then got referred to Cambridge Animal Hospital."
Pickles' "funny episodes" were in fact symptomatic of paroxysmal dyskinesia, also known as involuntary movement disorder.
The little dog suffered whole-body muscle spasms, which would cause him to keel over and lay paralysed for 30 minutes at a time. The spasms were painless, but often "very distressing" to watch.
"I couldn't leave him at home on his own," Mrs Pearson said.
"I didn't have a social life. It was very distressing for me.
"We couldn't walk him. For the first six months of his life he didn't have a puppyhood."
To her dismay, Mrs Pearson discovered the insurance she had taken out when she bought Pickles did not cover any health problems that emerged in the two weeks after he came home. This meant the couple would have to pay for the poorly puppy's treatment out of their own pocket.
Pickles was prescribed a course of medication along with a completely gluten free diet by the vets at Cambridge Animal Hospital, but Mrs Pearson said this "didn't work".
'£135 for one month's medication'
Now at their wit's end, the family decided to embark on a three-hour journey to see a specialist in Hitchin, Hertfordshire.
"He prescribed this medication - it had to be handmade because he was so small," Mrs Pearson said.
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"Each tablet cost £3.75. We had to give him two per day. We already had to pay lots of other bills."
Thankfully, after further consultations with the vet, Pickles was prescribed a cheaper course of treatment - but it still sets the family back £135 on a monthly basis.
When she contacted Mr Rushmer to tell him about Pickles' condition, Mrs Pearson said he seemed "shocked". She then decided to contact the RSPCA.
"That's when I found out it was part of this really big investigation," she said.
"I was livid."
Mrs Pearson said she wants to warn other animal lovers to take care when choosing their pets, and consider rescuing if possible.
If they are keen on a pedigree, she said people should "look at local newspapers for adverts, go to their local vets, and find out if anybody is having puppies locally".
'Buying puppies is a minefield'
Amy Ockelford, from the RSPCA, said people should always consider buying rescue dogs, as puppy farm owners posing as responsible breeders can be "very, very clever" - and will seek to take advantage of animal lovers.
"It is a minefield buying a puppy," she said.
"It's so difficult to give the right advice to people.
"The people who are doing this are very, very clever and they know how to put people at ease.
"These dogs don't have the proper care they need and it means they do suffer from horrible diseases and conditions."
When asked how irresponsible breeding can take its toll on honest families, she added: "We have had cases where thankfully the puppies have survived, but they have had very serious health problems. It's brought in a huge financial cost.
"This is a consumer issue as well. People are having to fork out a lot of money because the puppies aren't healthy.
"There is also the problem of some breeds having genetic issues, health-wise.
"Responsible breeders will be checking and testing for these and making sure they are not breeding dogs with those problems."
In cases where owners are not properly informed about problems associated with their dog's breed, Ms Ockelford said it "makes it difficult to stop these serious issues carrying on down the generations".
RSPCA Inspector Amy Pellegrini, lead investigator, described the farm as a 'puppy factory'.
She added: "Our investigations suggested that multiple litters of puppies were being bred and then advertised for sale. Other litters appear to have been purchased and sold on at profit.
"The way the adverts were worded suggested to prospective purchasers that these were litters of home-bred puppies in good health and were well-socialised.
"The reality, sadly, was far from it and the sellers were running a commercial, unlicensed puppy farm on an industrial scale. Unfortunately, many buyers ended up with very sick puppies."
'The fight goes on'
Mrs Pearson was one of dozens who complained to the RSPCA about buying puppies from a family at White Horse Farm in Thurlton, and a house in Norton Subcourse.
The families were told their new pets were from a loving home and had been micro-chipped and vaccinated.
But when the RSPCA raided the south Norfolk farm they found more than 60 puppies and dogs, some of which were kept in horrific conditions, Norwich Crown Court heard.
Michael Rushmer, 27, of Low Road, Thurlton, Norfolk, his sister Zoe Rushmer, 26, of no fixed address, and her partner Jacob Murphy, 27, of The Street, Norton Subcourse, all admitted conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation between June 1, 2016 and June 18, 2018.
Michael Rushmer admitted continuing the offending while on bail for the offence, pleading guilty to a further count of conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation between July 15, 2018 and March 16, 2019.
Michael Rushmer and Murphy were both jailed for three years and six months.
Zoe Rushmer was given a two-year prison sentence suspended for two years and ordered to complete 250 hours of unpaid work.
Michael Rushmer also admitted 10 animal welfare offences, and operating a pet shop and breeding establishment without a licence.
Zoe Rushmer admitted four animal welfare offences and Murphy admitted three.
Reflecting on Michael Rushmer and Jacob Murphy's sentences, Mrs Pearson said: "I'm glad that they have been put in prison. I hope it is a lesson, but the fight goes on."