WHEN a Wigan mum posted on Facebook about her new puppy falling ill, she had no idea of the response she would get.
Within a few days Sheralee Webb had been inundated by people contacting her with similar stories about pets purchased from Leigh Cats and Dogs Home along with others accusing the home of selling or putting down dogs found as strays before their owners were sought.
People began to share stories online with many accusing the shelter of operating as a puppy farm, with the same three breeds of puppies being on sale every few months, with no papers available, with the home claiming they were abandoned litters.
Some people claiming to be former members of staff also came forward and told stories of callous employees putting healthy dogs down if they showed the slightest signs of diarrhoea or other illnesses.
Yet many people who have received animals from the home said they have fallen ill with parvovirus, kennel cough and other contagious conditions that proved fatal in some cases.
The social media attention prompted those concerned about the shelter to come together and organise a meeting to discuss the alleged issues some of them had experienced with the shelter.
From the meeting was born a campaign group Justice for Leigh Animals which says its objectives are “to expose decades of animal welfare abuse at the hands of Leigh Cats and Dogs Home (LCDH) and see that the home is answerable for these atrocities”.
But the home denies any wrongdoing and claims it has not received any complaints in an official capacity, despite Wigan Council and the RSPCA both confirming they have. Reporter Sophie Arnold visited the home unannounced and unexpected by the staff. This was what she found.
“I am not really sure what I was expecting from my visit to Leigh Cats and Dogs Home given some of the stories I had heard.
I knew I was unlikely to find any concrete evidence just lying around but I thought at the very least I would have a better idea of how the home operates if I saw it for myself.
By no means am I any expert on the way animals should be kept but from what I could see all the dogs and cats up for adoption were kept in clean, well equipped kennels.
This does not mean that the allegations against the home can’t be true, but that on the face of it the animals it cares for a well looked after.
There were no puppies at the home at the time, but again this proves nothing either way. But there were no signs of any dogs suffering from parvovirus or kennel cough and the home seemed to have procedures in place asking staff to sterilize their shoes and wash their hands when moving about.
The dogs appeared to be well fed and the few that had health issues seemed happy enough and their treatment was documented on their kennels, along with information including their name, why they were at the home and where they had come from.
It is sad, of course, that any of them have to be there in the first place. One poor chocolate labrador called BJ looked so forlorn I was very close to taking him home with me, but wouldn’t you be upset if you were trapped in a cage?
Some of the dogs did hide at the back of their cages but it appeared that the information sheets at the front of their cages were honest.
Many of the notices explained that the dogs were there because they had behavioural problems, they were too much for their owner to handle or they were strays brought to the home by one of five local authorities that use the home.
I understand that dogs’ personalities can change as they get older, but it was obvious that many of the animals housed in the centre were the ‘boisterous’ breeds that are more prone to behavioural issues.
I couldn’t help thinking that if people were a little more mindful when buying a dog in the first place there would be less need for places like this.
No matter how they treat the animals themselves, places like LCDH are no place for a pet to live.”
LCDH say they rehomed 1,637 dogs and 487 cats last year and according to Wigan Council only two dogs in their care have had to be euthanized between April and August this year. This is likely to be more, however, as five councils have contracts with the home.
But Justice for Leigh Animals campaign group believe it is, or at least was, for a time common practice for the home to put down healthy dogs, or animals who showed the slightest sign of illness.
They recently attended a silent vigil held outside the home “to commemorate animals entrusted into the care of LDCH but were put to sleep, inhumanely and unnecessary”.
A spokesman for the group said: “J4LA and its supporters were invited to attend a peaceful silent vigil, where a one minute silence was held.
“Above all else we are here to remember the animals who have suffered at the hands of this establishment.
“J4LA have received numerous testimonies which prove that this home has acted unscrupulously over the decades resulting in the abuse and death of hundreds of dogs and cats, so above all we wanted to show our support for the animals and members of the community who have been affected.”
Many of the members say when they have approached the home to raise their concerns they have been ignored or told it is no longer the home’s problem.
Others have complained that they were promised two weeks free insurance when they purchased a pet, but when their puppy fell ill, the insurance was found to be invalid.
A spokesman for the home said: “Last year we rehomed 1,637 dogs and 487 cats, all of which were unwanted by their owners.
“We feel that in so doing we are providing a valuable contribution to animal welfare and a service to the community as a whole.
“We are very disappointed that individuals choose to make allegations and spurious comments on social media which we do not feel is an appropriate medium for such discussions.
“We have not been contacted in a more suitable fashion by any individual and accordingly it makes it extremely difficult to respond and investigate any allegation that lacks factual detail.”
One of the allegations Justice for Leigh Animals wants clearing up is whether the shelter is operating as a puppy farms.
In a statement issued soon after its creation a spokesman said it wanted to know “how many pedigree puppies have been sold to the public with serious medical conditions?”
It also questioned whether the home was operating as a not-for profit organisation, as it is supposed to, which is something Wigan Council has been investigating.
The timing coincides with a campaign and petition launched by the RSPCA calling for a change on the law to end the puppy trade.
As part of the campaign, the RSPCA revealed that calls reporting suspected puppy farms had risen dramatically in the last five years with the second highest number coming from Greater Manchester.
In 2014, the RSPCA received 209 calls about puppy farms in Greater Manchester, compared to 262 in London.
So far this year they have received 3,232 calls - a 122 per cent increase from five years ago.
These shocking figures mean that on average the charity receives more than one call about puppy farms and dealers every three hours.
Assistant director of public affairs David Bowles said as the problem grows the need to bring in regulations surrounding the sale of puppies is all the more urgent.
He said: “These people are gambling with the lives of not just these puppies - but the dogs they are bred from too and they are playing with the emotions of people and families who take them on as pets.
“We want to see tougher regulations in place around the sale of puppies. In 2013 the UK Government brought in new laws to tackle the criminal scrap metal trade in England. But now it’s puppies who are being traded like scrap with no regard for their welfare, or even if they live or die.
“It’s far too easy to sell puppies and current laws are failing puppies and their parents.”