WHAT a difference a year makes.

One year ago the pictures of nine dogs who had been left in a terrible condition shocked the world after they were dumped in the Hampshire countryside.

But 12 months on and the search for the owners who abused them and left them sick, cold and abandoned is still continuing.

And it has also been revealed that probes were launched into more than 4,000 pet owners in Hampshire – with cases involving some of the "most extreme” abuse soaring.

Millions of animal lovers across the globe were heartbroken at the plight of the abandoned dogs found on the outskirts of Winchester - severely underweight with their coats filthy and fur gluing their eyes together - leaving one with a curved spine.

The plight of the animals sparked a Daily Echo campaign to hunt down the owners after pictures of their plight were seen by millions on social media sparking and Winchester City Council was inundated with offers of cash, homes and advice.

Our campaign also raised more than £5,000 towards the RSPCA's bill for looking after the dogs.

Today those deserted poodle crossed are enjoying a new lease of life after finding loving homes at last.

And a kind hearted Hampshire owners welcoming one of the dogs says more needs to be done to punish cruel owners to prevent anything like this happening again.

The owners who dumped them have never been brought to court- with RSPCA chiefs saying they may never be found.

Sally Firth took in the last of the poodles to be rehomed in May last last year - inviting Mavis into her home in Odiham four months after the emaciated dogs had been discovered.

Sally had initially fostered her for a short period after concerns about looking after a bigger breed, but very soon fell in love with her.

The 38-year-old, who works in PR and enjoys hiking with Mavis - now 22 months - said: "She is loving life right now. When I first got her she was very skittish, anxious, insecure and the first few days I couldn't get near her. It took a few weeks for her to come up to me and she barked at everything and wouldn't go near other dogs or people. But I've been patient with her and she has really turned a corner - although if I leave her with a stranger she will soon be howling.

"But she's done really well given the extent of the neglect and she is such a lovely, playful dog. It's very rewarding to see how far she has come."

She added: "“She has a little fanbase in the village and gets lots of love and hugs from everybody.

“She’s even Miss September in this year’s Poodle Rescue Network calendar!”

One of Mavis's sisters, Dusty, was adopted by Patricia Hatton from Winchester.

She said: "She is very sweet and affectionate, she loves going out in the rain, and enjoys running around at the recreation ground.

“When we first got her, she was very frightened of everyone and wouldn’t let anybody pet her, but now she expects it as she’s a bit of a celebrity in the area!”

Figures released today by the RSPCA reveal the charity launched 4,147 investigations into suspected mistreatment of potentially vulnerable and at-risk animals in the county.

The statistics, compiled from last year, were down from 4,713 in 2014, but the most severe cases in which owners face court action have soared in the past year.

More than half (52 per cent) of complaints involved dogs compared to other animals.

It comes as two terrified dogs rescued from appalling conditions in Hampshire, which shocked the world in what inspectors are saying was one of the worst cases they have ever seen, have found happy homes at last.

But their former owners who treated them so badly have never been found and are still at large, with the RSPCA saying it is unlikely they will ever be found.

Now the charity’s chiefs are urging anyone who suspects people are mistreating animals to contact them immediately.

Last year’s total number of investigations led to 21 people being convicted of 41 offences – compared to 16 people being convicted for 31 offences the previous year.

The maximum punishments are six months in prison and or a £20,000 fine and a lifetime ban from keeping any animal.

The probes predominantly centred on dogs, with 2,148 pooches suspected of being mistreated – nearly twice as many as cats, which were the second most abused pets involved in 1,090 cases – compared to 909 other creatures.

RSPCA assistant director for the inspectorate Dermot Murphy said: “People think of dogs as man’s best friend but these statistics tell a different story.

“They are by far the most abused animal in this country and we investigate more complaints about them than any other species.

“The stories in this report show a snapshot of the horrific level of cruelty we have seen in the last year, which have to be some the most extreme cases I have ever heard of.”

The charity rescued and collected 3,730 animals in the region last year – down from 3,860 – but this includes both mistreated creatures saved from terrible conditions where owners have never been found and also covers pets and wildlife found sick and badly injured following road traffic accidents.

Meanwhile the charity’s officers handed out advice and notices on 2,548 cases during 2015.

This is when owners of animals found at risk – such as horses left in fields with insufficient water, or dogs with severe fleas – are served written notices, or told directly to improve conditions and warned they could face further actions if they do not follow the advice.

This was down by 41 on the previous year.

Mr Murphy said: “It is encouraging seeing the numbers of complaints being dealt with by education and advice, as we would always much rather improve animal welfare by giving advice to owners if at all possible.

“Yet even if some of the overall numbers are lower, the level of depravity we have seen in 2015 cases are up there with some of the most extreme we have ever known.”

A charity spokeswoman said: “If anyone is concerned about the welfare of an animal whether it is a household pet or wild animal which has become injured should contact us immediately.”

Cases can be reported by calling 0300 123 4999 or via rspca.org.uk/myrspca.