Saturday, January 2, 2010

It’s not a puppy mill — but that doesn’t matter

My local paper recently ran a story about someone who bought a puppy from a pet store. The puppy became sick. The pet store won’t pay for the puppy’s medical expenses, though they will take the puppy back and offer a full refund. The article asks the questions: Is the store doing wrong? Should this operation be called a “puppy mill”?

Well, what is a puppy mill? Sort of like porn, it can be awfully hard to define. Wiktionary gives it a go with “a farm that breeds dogs for profit, often in squalid conditions.” There are some establishments that are clearly puppy mills: places which stack dogs on top of each other in piled cages and provide unarguably substandard medical care. Horror stories about dogs rescued from places like these abound on the internet.

The pet store in question here doesn’t breed its own dogs, so maybe we should be asking “is it supplied by puppy mills”? For the sake of argument, let’s stipulate that all the breeders which supply this operation take good care of their animals. Let’s say that their dogs are fed appropriate amounts of nutritious dog food, are given sufficient space to move around (according to USDA standards, possibly even exceeding them), and receive regular veterinary care. Are they puppy mills?

According to that Wiktionary definition, yes: the dogs are bred for profit. A “mill” is a “place of business for making articles of manufacture.” There’s nothing ethically wrong with breeding dogs for profit (at least I’m not going to argue that there is), so why insist on the derogatory term “puppy mill” for an establishment that is breeding them in humane living conditions?

There’s nothing wrong with it in theory, but in practice it appears to be impossible to do all the things necessary in order to reliably produce healthy, well-adjusted purebred dogs and still make money off of the transaction. Purebreds should have genetic screening to make sure that the babies aren’t getting a double dose of some undesirable gene (like a predisposition to develop cancer — something that, by the way, isn’t very likely to appear in time to return the dog before the one year guarantee offered by this particular store expires). That can cost hundreds of dollars. Mom and dad should also have been given a chance to prove that they have good dispositions, by living in a home environment and interacting with children, men in uniform, strange dogs, cats, etc. And the puppies should be well socialized at a young age — before they are old enough to leave their mom; before they are old enough to go home. Socialization is an incredibly time-consuming process. At the very least, puppies should have some understanding of what it is like to live in a home, but they also should be exposed to all sorts of people, animals, and objects at that important formative time in their lives when their brains are developing and learning what is normal. (Gina Spadafori of PetConnection has a post about one day in the life of raising the puppies she bred.) Responsible breeders breed because they want to improve their breed, not because they want to make money. They actually lose money with each litter.

The HSUS has a pamphlet about how to identify a responsible breeder. Responsible breeders should encourage you to interact with the puppies’ parents, let you see where the dogs are raised, and breed puppies from only one or two breeds, so that they can understand each breed in depth. Moreover, they insist that you return the dog to them if you ever cannot keep the dog (for personal problems or because of health problems that the dog has). On the other hand, pet stores like the ones in this article act as brokers between breeders and customers, so the customer has no chance to meet the puppy’s parents, or see where it spent those important formative weeks. The rooms at this particular store where dogs are kept are “off-limits” to customers, according to the article. The customer cannot interact with the puppy’s breeder at all, to learn about the idiosyncracies of the breed, be they psychological (some breeds need extra socialization because they can become “protective” of their owners) or medical (what medical predispositions should the new owner be watching out for?).

The news article was written when a discontented customer accused the pet store of selling him a sick puppy. Would a responsible breeder be less likely to produce a sick puppy? As the owner of this pet store admits, “It's like a day care. There will be respiratory infections going around.” If you ship puppies from multiple locations to one place and keep them in large groups, they will expose each other to pathogens. The store appears to take precautions, but perhaps the best precaution of all would be to not mix dozens of puppies from various sources together in the first place.

Would a responsible breeder be more likely to pay for a sick puppy’s medical expenses? I think the store’s owner was right on when he said that he wasn’t comfortable paying the medical expenses for someone else’s dog — that he was willing to take the dog back and treat it, but not to pay for the treatment that someone else chose. Veterinary medical decisions can be difficult ones, and can incur hefty bills. This is one case in which I don’t think a puppy owner’s experience will differ much if the puppy comes from a store versus a responsible breeder. I do have to wonder how the relationship between the new owner and the breeder might differ, however. The ideal relationship is a friendly one, with the breeder offering advice and sympathy in a way that a store owner rarely can. Perhaps a puppy owner might not feel as angry at a breeder’s refusal to pay for veterinary expenses.

It’s easy for pet stores to argue that they are good businesses, that they have few complaints through the Better Business Bureau, that they adhere to USDA regulations, and that all their puppies come from loving homes. But the BBB operates in a world in which a well run business promptly replaces defective merchandise; most people are a lot less likely to ask to have a sick puppy exchanged for a healthy one than they are to ask for a replacement shoe when the first one ripped. The USDA regulates basic good husbandry practices, but it is not and should not be the place of the USDA to define good socialization practices for puppies. And no truly loving and responsible breeder would sell a puppy to a broker, losing the chance to check out any potential home and make sure it is appropriate. No matter how hard they try (and I do believe many of them try), pet stores cannot be appropriate venues for placing puppies. The kennel described in this story should not have particular measures taken against it, at least not given the information provided in the story; however, people should be educated that their chances of acquiring a healthy puppy are hugely greater when buying from a responsible breeder than from a store. Is it or isn’t it a puppy mill? It doesn’t matter. It’s not a good place to get a puppy.

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