Written by: Erin Harty, Staff Writer - VetCentric.com
It’s hard to think about economics, genetics, politics, or pet overpopulation when you’re looking at a soft, wet puppy nose pressed up against the glass in the pet store window. Most likely, the only thought your brain can muster is: "Awww."
If those kind, brown eyes win your heart and you walk out of the mall with a new best friend under your arm, be prepared’you’ve just made a very politically incorrect decision. "Don’t you know where pet store puppies come from?" your tree-hugging friends are likely to exclaim. "How can you support those horrible puppy mills?"
You’ve seen the humane society pamphlets and the television exposés, and you know what the term "puppy mill" represents: a facility where animals are bred for quantity, not quality, live in deplorable conditions, and are doomed to suffer health and behavior problems because of their delinquent upbringing. Is the fluffball that’s your new best friend a product of this kind of environment?
It’s almost impossible to know, and that’s the problem.
Only six percent of puppies in the United States originate from pet stores, according to Marshall Meyers, executive vice president and general counsel for the Pet Information Bureau. The vast majority of pet owners procure their puppies from newspaper ads, shelters, or hobby breeders.
But 90 percent of the puppies sold in pet stores do come from commercial puppy breeders, according to Dug Hanbicki, issues specialist for companion animals at the Humane Society of the United States.
Whether this is a bad thing depends on who you ask.
Opponents argue that commercial puppy breeders are the equivalent of fast food restaurants: the focus is on maximizing profit by producing large quantities of puppies for minimum cost, rather than producing quality puppies. Therefore, the end result is a sub-standard puppy, according to critics.
"Because of mass-breeding, the puppies are not properly socialized. They’re separated from their mothers and their litters at eight weeks of age, they don’t socialize with their siblings, and they don’t get much socialization with humans," Ms. Hanbicki said. "You get a dog that doesn’t know how he’s supposed to interact with other animals and humans."
Detractors also say that puppies from commercial breeders are harder to housebreak, more likely to have health problems, and more likely to suffer from genetic disorders that have been propagated by irresponsible breeders.
"One of the big issues is the quality of life for the breeding bitches. They’re kept in one cage for their entire lives. From their first heat cycle, they’re bred every single heat cycle for four or five years, until their production goes down. Then they’re disposed of," said Ms. Hanbicki.
But the thoughts that really jump to mind when the words "puppy mill" are mentioned are of the graphic photos of malnourished and injured animals, inadequate and overcrowded housing, and outright abuse that have been the subject of the television exposés and humane society campaigns.
"By the very nature of them, because they’re large commercial breeders, it’s pretty typical to see bad conditions at all of them," Ms. Hanbicki said. "There’s no way to properly care for that number of animals."
Much of the public’s perception of so-called puppy mills is due to the Humane Society of the United States’ campaign against them, which began in the 1990s. The Humane Society led a nationwide boycott of puppies from the seven "worst puppy mill states"’Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania’that captured a great deal of national media attention.
"The basis of our campaign is to educate the public about the connection between puppy mills and pet stores," Ms. Hanbicki said. "If people put their money into pet stores, they’re supporting the puppy mill industry. We’ll continue to spread that message."
A few bad apples?
There’s no question that there have been horrible cases of abuse and neglect at commercial breeding facilities. But should all such facilities be painted with the same brush?
"Just like anything else, the media tends to focus on the worst facilities and characterize them as representative of the whole industry. There are indeed some good kennels," said Dr. Ron De Haven, DVM, deputy administrator for the Animal Care division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
According to a policy statement from the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, not all commercial breeders should be considered "puppy mills." The term is used to denote substandard facilities, where breeders fail to follow acceptable standards of breeding; fail to provide veterinary care, socialization, safe housing and sanitary facilities; fail to transport puppies in a humane and safe manner; or knowingly breed adult dogs with hereditary or genetic defects.
The statement recognizes that such operations do exist, but stresses that they are exceptions, not the norm. "PIJAC strongly opposes the production of animals by irresponsible breeders and supports rational legislation that would ensure acceptable animal husbandry standards and also support the commercial breeding of animals in kennels that comply with veterinary endorsed standards," according to the statement.
Mr. Meyers stands by the statement that puppies from commercial breeders are just as good as puppies from any other source. "It does not mean that there aren’t a few bad apples out there. There are," he said.
But he added that much of the concern about the conditions at commercial breeding facilities is a matter of perception.
"Urban America’s perception of a dog’s life probably doesn’t match a dog’s perception of a dog’s life," said Mr. Meyers.
Just because a kennel doesn’t look like Eden doesn’t mean that it’s not a perfectly good facility, he explained. "I’ve been to facilities in the Midwest where you can eat off the floor, but they needed a paint job," Mr. Meyers said.
"Many of these [commercial breeders] are farmers who found it hard to make a living on a small farm. As an alternate source of income, they’ve gone to breeding dogs," said Dr. De Haven.
Although the dogs may be treated perfectly well, they’re usually not treated as pets. And owners who may share their own beds with their pets often find it difficult to see other animals treated more like livestock.
But the idea that all puppies from commercial breeding establishments are inferior is a myth, according to Mr. Meyers.
"There’s a knee-jerk reaction that, just because a puppy is from a pet store, it’s a poor quality animal and it’s sick," he said. "Some of these facilities provide good quality pets. Being commercial breeders, they have to be one step above what’s expected of everyone else."
Puppies that come through commercial channels usually have more veterinary inspections than animals from other sources, according to Mr. Meyers. A veterinarian must inspect them before they’re shipped across state lines, and most pet stores also have puppies checked by a veterinarian before they’re offered for sale.
Mr. Meyers cited a 1994 study, conducted by researchers from Cornell University and SmithKline Beecham, that compared the risk of serious disease in puppies acquired from pet stores, shelters, private owners, and hobby breeders. The risk was less than four percent in all categories, and although pet store puppies were more likely to have some signs of illness, particularly "kennel cough," they were less likely to have intestinal tract parasites or fleas.
The Council’s policy statement also claims that DVM/Veterinary Pet Insurance, the largest provider of animal health insurance, reduced its premiums for pet store puppies as much as 22 percent, compared to premiums for animals from other sources.
"The pet stores of today are an entire new breed, as compared to stores 10 or 15 years ago," Mr. Meyers said. "The public expects a higher degree of responsibility from a pet store than they do from a shelter."
More questions than answers
For prospective puppy owners, there are few clear-cut answers. Hobby breeders, who can often offer their puppies the most individualized attention, are hard to find if you don’t know where to look. (The American Kennel Club offers a breeder locator service.) Dogs from shelters can be unknown entities, although the vast majority is composed of young, healthy animals free of behavior problems.
An established commercial outlet like a pet store often seems like a consumer’s safest bet, but it’s a definite gamble.
"A large percentage of puppies in retail pet stores are coming from commercial breeders in the Midwest," Dr. De Haven said. "Because they run the gamut from not good to very good, you run the risk because you just don’t know."
Consumers can always ask a pet store where their puppies come from. "But whether or not a pet store would be forthcoming with the information is up to the pet store. They have no legal obligation," Dr. De Haven said.
If a pet store is willing to provide the name of the kennel where a puppy was bred, the USDA will furnish copies of that kennel’s inspection reports. But the process takes two weeks, at best. And by the time a prospective pet buyer has the paperwork in hand, the puppy he or she was researching has probably gone home with someone else.
In the end, if a consumer wants to be absolutely certain that the puppy he or she chooses didn’t come from a puppy mill, buying from a pet store that uses commercial breeders isn’t the way to go.
Article republished here with permission from VetCentric.com
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