Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Know thy Breed and Breeder....

A while ago, a distant family member of mine found out I was a veterinarian.  He wanted to inquire about breeding Cavalier King Charles Spaniels for money.  A lengthy conversation ensued where I explained the particular health concerns of the breed and the fact that being a good breeder almost always means not making money.

From early on in my veterinary career, I have held strong opinions on good breeders and bad breeders.  Unfortunately, as veterinarians we see more of the progeny of bad breeding because they have all of the problems and horrific sob stories.  I have seen hundreds of dogs from puppy mills, which my definition is any commercial enterprise that favors quantity over quality.  This includes all those "puppy farms" with poor environments where diseases, genetic and infectious, run rampant.
Some of my colleagues are good breeders and there are many good breeders out there, I do not want to paint them all with the same brush.
Some signs of someone being a good breeder would include people who show dogs and are very involved in preserving and upholding breed standards.  They typically breed to continue to produce show dogs and further the breed and sell puppies out of excess- not to make money.  They pass their dogs through rigorous testing through the OFA, to help prevent and lower the incidence of genetic disease.  They love their puppies so much, they are often happy to take them back, no questions asked.  They ask many questions of the new owner (yes, they interview prospective buyers).  They ask for Christmas cards, or annual updates to see how their puppies are doing and to know how the "line" is doing to impact future breeding.

They are normally well-educated in the healthcare needs of their puppies (and kittens) and have a good working relationship with their vet.  They take care of many of their progenies needs but still have a veterinarian regularly examine their animals.

Puppy mill dogs, on the other hand are sold for profit.  They can be sold through pet stores, the Internet, classified ads, parking lots, flea markets, etc.  There are over 10,000 puppy mills in the United States selling approximately 2 million puppies annually.  (The Humane Society of the US. 2012 USDA Breeder and Brokers Figures and Puppy Estimates)

The dogs from puppy mills have significantly elevated levels of fears and phobias, compulsive and repetitive behaviors and heightened sensitivity to touch.  See article Mental Health of dogs formerly used as "breeding stock" in commercial breeding establishments" in Applied Animal Behavior Science 2008;113 (1-3):236-246. McMillan FD, Duffy DL, Serpell JA.  Also see- Differences in behavioral characteristics between dogs obtained as puppies from pet stores and those obtained from no commercial breeders.  McMillan 2013 JAVMA

Anecdotally, I've seen several dogs from puppy mill situations who are difficult to housebreak.  They got so used to living in their own excrement that it was hard to train them that it was no longer "normal".  These dogs also often have parasites, some of which are transmissible to people.

States that are considered to have a larger proportion of puppy mills than others would include; Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Texas.  Puppy mills may exist in all states, but these are the ones we tend to see more "problem cases" from.  When buying from breeders in these states, I wouldn't think of buying one without visiting and seeing the environment and the actual parents.  Both infections (such as respiratory and digestive) as well as drug-resistant parasites run rampant in these environments.  Once, when working in a area where there were tons of pet store puppies, I had to call up an infectious disease professor to get her advice because nothing in my textbooks would kill the Giardia those puppies had. 

I still remember my internship year having to explain to two distraught kids that their puppy wasn't coming home.  Their tears were thick and inside mine were too.  They had gotten the puppy because their goldfish died and their parents said the puppy would be a long-term friend and to teach them responsibility.  He had a severe deadly pneumonia and seizures.  There was no practical way we would be able to save him.  His parents had wanted to tell them that the puppy went to "the farm".  I told them eventually they would probably find out that wasn't true and wonder what else they had lied about.

Often, the puppy mills and wholesalers will advertise "guarantees".  Some states have "lemon laws" that help protect the consumer.  Not every state has lemon laws and there are a lot of lobbyists who work on behalf of the industry as they are considered "big agriculture".  Most of the "guarantees" will say something like "guaranteed" for the first year to get purchase price of the puppy.  This has the following caveat: what person who has a heart would ever want to return a puppy they are bonded to, especially when children are involved?  Who wants to explain to a child why their beloved companion was returned, and what child won't worry that they will be returned next?  I've also known of many situations where the breeder told the owner, "yes, you can return your puppy and get your money back, but if you return it, I will have it euthanized."  Again, what person would ever want to send a puppy back to that?  It's all legal and it does happen.  States with Lemon Laws, such as New Jersey have the right train of mind: they say if a puppy has a defect, the breeder pays up to the purchase price towards treatment of the problem.  Many owners just get frustrated and end up spending thousands of dollars to fix their puppy.  I know of one family who recently paid $6,000 to fix a congenital issue (meaning the puppy was born with the problem) and the breeder paid them nothing for it.  They said they would only take the puppy back, but not provide any financial aid for treatment.  Often times though, I've seen people who spent thousands of dollars on the purchase cost of the puppy and have no money to pay for treatment.  This can end up in terminally ill puppies.  No one thinks about that when they are getting a "guarantee".

Fortunately, a lot of the nefarious pet stores have closed.  Some that used to be disasters had picketers shut down their doors.  Unfortunately the rise of the Internet has just provided another way for marketing these puppies to the public.  The rise of scams where puppies are never even delivered and more money is asked for in "transport" fees and a lack of regulation over the Internet have contributed to a whole new meaning for "Buyer Beware".  I have had countless people tell me they have "rescued" pet store puppies and puppy mill puppies.  Seriously.  "Rescue" does not mean paying thousands of dollars to puppy farms so they can continue to operate.  While they may have taken that particular puppy out of a sad situation, until people stop buying these puppies they will stay in business.
Know thy Breed
There are certain breeds that I would consider great for the "beginner" to having a dog, there are other breeds that I really think only experienced owners should have.  I've actually compiled the following non-exclusive list of breeds that I would put in 3 categories-

  • 1)good for first-time owner
  • 2) good for first time owner who is educated and meets certain compatible criteria    

  • 3) good for well-experienced owners who are familiar with the breed.  All categories assume the prospective buyer does their research so they know what health problems and temperament the breed is known for
Boston Terriers
Golden retrievers
Cavalier King Charles
Pit bulls
French Bulldog
Great Danes
German shepherds
Border Collies
Cattle dogs
Rhodesian ridgebacks

A good solution for finding a good dog for your family would be talking with your veterinarian and working with rescue groups that know their breeds and what types of family they work best with.  It's also good to adopt from a rescue who is willing to take the dog back.  No one wants to "dump" a dog at a shelter, please think before you buy...  
Next week I will discuss more about picking the right dog for your family...

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