Durban - Children as young as 12 are being used to scout residential areas and steal powerful pedigree dogs that are then used for illegal dog fighting.

These fights, which can rake in more than R100000 in bets, have become a growing phenomenon, attracting the likes of doctors, lawyers and businessmen.

Marc Chetty, project leader of Animal Rescue KZN, said the animal shelter had been inundated with calls from dog owners across the province whose pets had been stolen.

They believe a syndicate is behind the thefts.

“There are four parts to dog fighting. First, those running the syndicate look for power pedigree dogs, which are your pit bulls, bull terriers, boerboel, bull mastiff, ridgeback and staffies.

“The second group of dogs is the bait dogs and they can be of any breed."

"The bait dogs are used to get the power pedigree dogs to come forward in the ring,” explained Chetty.

Third, the bait dogs are then used for sparring and to build up the aggression of the power pedigree dogs to get them to fight.

“The fourth aspect is the breeding."

"The female power pedigree dogs are normally kept for breeding in order to continue the vicious cycle as these dogs are very expensive to buy."

"Here we advise owners to have their female dogs spayed.”

Chetty said in KZN, dog fighting was popular in uMlazi, Inanda, Ntuzuma, Amaoti and KwaMashu.

“The stakes in terms of betting are high and these fights attract wealthy businessmen, lawyers and doctors.

“Those attending are not allowed to take pictures and the venues of these fights never remain the same and are constantly moving within the townships.”

He said children as young as 12 have been seen in communities scouting the area for these dogs.

“One resident in Phoenix reported that three boys between the ages of 12 and 15 entered his property and stole his dog."

"They either befriend the dogs or they drug them using chloroform, a chemical used to render the pet unconscious.”

Describing the fights as brutal, Chetty said an informer had told him the dogs were placed inside a ring made of wood with the spectators around them, and made to fight.

“These dogs are kept in unhygienic conditions without food or water."

"Their wounds from the fights are not even treated properly."

“On a few occasions when we found dogs that were a part of a ring, they were dehydrated and had contracted infections due to the severity of their wounds.”

Chetty said power pedigree dogs, especially pit bulls, were usually not aggressive.

“It is a misconception that these dogs are violent or aggressive."

"It all depends on how the owner of the dog raises them. However, if a dog is in a dog fighting ring for a long time, the possibility of it remaining aggressive is high. We refer to this as turning.”

Chetty said shutting down the syndicates was a challenge.

“Since they are always moving it is hard for police to track them and stop the fights."

"But if an owner who has a missing dog knows for sure the whereabouts of his pet then he has every right to seek police help because it will be treated as a case of theft.”

Condemning the fighting, Barbara Patterson from the SPCA in Kloof said dog fighting syndicates operated not only in townships but suburbs as well.

“We have done numerous rescues and it is tragic and awful when we find the dogs in the conditions we do."

"Pet owners need to be more vigilant and careful when it comes to their pets.”

Police spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Thulani Zwane said investigations into dog fighting were ongoing and he encouraged residents to come forward with information so that police could work swiftly to shut down the syndicates.