Chapter 39

Chapter 39

The Tale of Liberty and the Dog Factory

Puppy mills do not exist. As a practicing clinician who sees puppies every week for health checks, I can tell you in all honesty: puppy mills do not exist. If they did exist, then every new puppy owner I have interacted with in the last decade has inadvertently lied to me. How could that be?

In my practice, every new puppy exam starts with the same question: “How long have you had your puppy, and where did it come from?” The reason I ask is to get some background on the mental and emotional, as well as the physical, health of the puppy.

Naturally, a puppy found emaciated and comatose on the side of the road, or in a dumpster, will have a different start in life than a purebred puppy with papers in tow from a reputable breeder to attest to the genetic health of the parents. As you might imagine, the “dumped” puppy is very likely to have a gut crowded with undesirable worms, and minimal socialization. When I ask about the origin of a puppy, not once has an owner ever said, “From a puppy mill, what do you think?”

The answers typically include “from an advert online,” “from a pet store,” “from a friend who has a farm,” “from a rescue group,” or even “from a guy selling them out of the back of his pickup in the mall parking lot.” Not once has anyone uttered, with either pride or shame, “From a puppy mill in Missouri!”

If puppy mills actually exist, then where are all the puppies they produce? In truth, those puppies could be anywhere; they can potentially be found anytime a new owner acquires a puppy without having seen the breeding facility or the puppy’s parents, especially the lactating bitch. Where does your puppy come from? Most dog owners who have adopted a puppy never suspect that their adorable new pet might have originated from a puppy mill. The reason for this is disturbingly simple: most prospective puppy owners have taken no precautions, and done little or no research, to ensure that the puppy they are about to purchase did not come from a dog factory farm or puppy mill (these terms are used interchangeably).

What exactly is a “puppy mill”? Simply put, a puppy mill (or dog factory) is an economic entity that specializes in dog breeding to produce and sell dogs for profit. As for any business venture, greater profit is realized when less money is spent on producing the goods (in this case, maintaining breeding stock and puppies). The focal point for widespread public outrage over puppy mills is the substandard care provided to factory dogs, especially the breeding stock that will never leave the farm (unlike the puppies, which are intended to be sold off), in order to create a greater profit for the owner. With monetary gain as the sole goal, business parameters set out for producing puppies reflect “the lowest cost possible” mindset in all production guidelines:

food (cheapest versus most nutritious), health care (absence of disease prevention via vaccines and dewormers, lack of genetic testing, etc.), housing (small kennel areas, with minimal flooring and roofing), grooming (absence of), and socialization of puppies (absence of). A profit can be generated more quickly and easily when dog factories provide only the minimum requirements to keep dogs alive and able to breed. If you wish to learn more about the short and miserable lives of dogs in puppy mills, a quick Google search for “puppy mill” will reveal plenty of information. But if you are faint-hearted or sensitive, beware: do not do a thorough search, and skip the photos.

Dog factories do exist, absolutely, but no one – including pet store owners – will admit that they are in possession of puppies originating from these mass-production facilities. What, you might ask, is the harm in acquiring a puppy from a factory farm? After all, those puppies need good homes too, don’t they? To find out, let’s follow Liberty and her beleaguered, nameless mother (we’ll call her “no name mother,” or NNM) on their life journeys. Originally, NNM was a bouncy Pug, and like all Pugs, she endeavored to distribute as many face-washes as she could with her curled-up tongue to any human that came close to her. She came from a reputable breeder, who unknowingly sold her, at two months of age, to a broker with plans to ship the little Pug to a puppy mill in Quebec, Canada. Upon arrival at the mill, NNM started her new life in a cage barely 1.2 by 1.2 metres. She received none of the lavish attention that most new puppies get from a loving family, nor was she ever taken for walks, let out for playtime, or allowed more than minimal interactions with humans or other dogs. The only physical contact she had with a warm body was at mealtimes, when food was deposited in her kennel, and during kennel cleanings, when an attendant came in briefly to swab the floor.

NNM started her professional life early: at six months of age, when she came into heat, she was placed into a larger kennel for four days with a stud Pug, to be impregnated. Her “teenage” pregnancy, two months in duration, went by uneventfully back in her four-footsquare kennel, and ended with the birth of four tiny puppies, one of which was found dead in the kennel. Given how cramped her small kennel was after the arrival of her litter, it is likely that she accidentally rolled over the puppy and suffocated it.

Liberty was one of the three remaining live puppies, and at six weeks of age, barely weaned, she and her littermates were taken away from NNM. The little pups were packed into a shipping kennel along with many others from the dog factory farm, and loaded onto a truck to be shipped across the country. They had just been sold to a broker, who in turn would unload the puppies at different points of sale, always where the dog breeder and breeding stocks were conveniently nowhere to be seen. This alone – the absence of the dog breeder and, more importantly, the bitch – should send up an instant and very serious red flag for anyone looking for a puppy. Pugs are considered a “hot” breed and easily sell for over $1000 apiece. Up to this point, everyone had gained financially and encountered few, if any, challenges along the way. The money was changing hands as fast as Liberty and her littermates did – from the initial breeder who unknowingly sold NNM to a broker, to the factory farm breeder who then sold her three tiny puppies to another broker, to the broker who quickly unloaded the three puppies to a pet store and, finally, to the pet store owner who promptly sold all three puppies to unsuspecting buyers, along with dog food, bowls, leashes, collars, grooming kits, dog coats, house-training pads, and a series of puppy obedience classes.

Was Liberty a sound puppy to purchase as a pet? That depends entirely on your criteria. NNM had not received any preventive medical care, so Liberty came loaded with Coccidia, protozoan parasites that inhabit the gut and cause profuse liquid diarrhea. So guess who made money next? The veterinarian did! He did so by performing several fecal analyses, by transferring isotonic fluids to Liberty’s little body because, at seven weeks of age, runny diarrhea is cause for rapid dehydration and, finally, by writing Liberty’s new owner a prescription to eradicate the Coccidia parasites.

In hindsight, the protocol Liberty’s adopter should have followed was to call the puppy’s breeder to inquire if there were any problems with her littermates, and learn from that. Unfortunately, there was no identified breeder to call; that trail had already gone cold. With puppy mill puppies, cash in the bank means an end to all prior interactions – and an absence of any medical history that could benefit new puppy owners.

Who was the next one to make money from Liberty? Turns out it was the veterinarian again, as the little Pug was now losing fur, becoming bald around her paws and face. A few skin scrapings confirmed that Liberty was infested with Demodex mites, microscopic, cigar-shaped parasites embedded in her skin. She came to her new home with those crawling visitors already clinging to her small body. Demodex mites are normally transferred from mother to offspring through physical contact in the first few days of life. Most dogs grow up unaffected by the mites, and never show any of the clinical signs of their presence, such as baldness, bleeding or irritation of the skin. However, if the puppy becomes immunosuppressed (whereby its immune system becomes deficient) due to some physiological stress – such as the presence of other diseases or poor nutrition – or genetic weakness, the mites will proliferate and cause serious inflammation of the skin.

Since the presence of these mites often suggests a deficiency of the immune system, it is not at all surprising that the young Pug was infected, considering her first rough six weeks of life. In all likelihood, her littermates that had gone to other homes were also experiencing the same health problems as Liberty. Demodex is not an easy parasite to eradicate, and Liberty, despite appropriate medical  treatment, was destined to host them for an entire year. This certainly made her less huggable, even though the mites do not spread to humans. Poor Liberty was half-bald by then, and nobody thought she was “cute” anymore. Due to Liberty’s tender age and her previous bout of Coccidia diarrhea, as well as her obvious infection with Demodex, no vaccines were present in her system to ward off viral invaders. Unfortunately for the small Pug, that was exactly what prompted the next very expensive visit to the emergency animal hospital late one evening.

Prior to that visit, Liberty had been taken to the dog park at the edge of town, where coyotes roam. This was definitely not a prudent decision on the part of her owner, to take an unvaccinated dog to an area frequented by many canines. Little Liberty showed up at the emergency hospital totally listless and unable to lift her head, with profuse smelly, bloody diarrhea oozing from her anus. Needless to say, there was no tail wagging from the distressed puppy. Liberty had contracted parvovirus, for which there is no specific treatment, only  supportive therapy necessary to sustain life. Parvovirus was barely known before the 1970s, when it became a major and catastrophic cause of death in dogs. Currently, vaccinations against the parvovirus are very effective and protective against the disease in young dogs. Prevention is, of course, much preferable to dealing with a disease for which there is no specific cure. In the experience of many clinicians who have treated such afflicted animals, if a parvovirus-infected puppy does not improve by the fourth day of supportive therapy, chances of survival are slim.

Fortunately for Liberty, she was back on her paws within four days, although her owner was another $1500 poorer. With life finally showing signs of stabilizing for Liberty and her owner, the Pug was banned from the dog park until her vaccine series was completed. This was done to protect Liberty from contagious diseases, such as the parvovirus she had just survived, and to prevent her from  spreading the virus to other dogs through her excrement. At six months of age, Liberty was spayed; by then she was sporting a full coat of hair, and her Demodex days seemed behind her.

Then something unusual happened. Liberty met another small dog on one of her walks, and although it was all fun and games initially, she suddenly turned vicious, attacking the other dog despite his non-threatening demeanor and proper social greeting. Obviously, Liberty had misunderstood the dog’s body language, probably due to the chaotic nature of her early socialization. Subsequently, she went on to attack other dogs under different circumstances.

Dear astute reader and dog lover, I suspect you can guess who next made a profit from our little Liberty. Indeed, it was the dog trainer whom Liberty tried to bite during the application of a firm correction after an unprovoked growling episode. Liberty’s frustrated owners were at their wits’ end with their misbehaving puppy and, this being a society of disposable pets, finally surrendered her to the local shelter due to her aggression. Liberty then underwent some behavioral testing by a trainer at the shelter, and he deemed her too aggressive to be adopted. After only three days at the shelter, Liberty was given a lethal injection that ended her short and difficult life. Sadly for the little Pug, this particular shelter had a low-kill – rather than a no-kill – policy.

You may wonder what happened to Liberty’s mother, NNM, but that story is even more disturbing. She went on to live her miserable little life in her miserably cramped kennel without any significant contact with humans. The only contact she had with other dogs was restricted to stud dogs every time she came into heat, about every two to six months after weaning a litter, and then her offspring for a brief time. Her puppies were routinely taken away from her at five to six weeks of age, to promote a prompt return to another productive estrous (heat) cycle. As it happened, NNM missed getting pregnant on two subsequent heat cycles, which had dire consequences for her: in business terms, it meant she had been fed for an entire year without any puppies to sell. NNM was no longer profitable, and certainly the cost of investigating her “sterility” was not affordable in the context of a factory farm. The only way to make money from her at that point was to send her to an auction, which is exactly what happened. This is where it pays for a puppy mill owner to be wise and choose the right type of auction, if his aim is to recoup as much money as possible from unwanted dogs.

There are several different types of dog auctions, albeit with some overlap in function and purpose. Generally speaking, the following is what a buyer can expect if in search of factory dogs. A complete kennel dispersal auction is held when a kennel is going out of business and selling off all equipment and dogs. A kennel reduction auction is self-explanatory: the business is downsizing. A complete breed dispersal auction indicates that a kennel operation is disposing of one or more of the breeds that the owner no longer wishes to carry. And a consignment sale is a venue for breeders from all over to rid themselves of unwanted breeding dogs. These dogs are usually the culls or “duds” of a kennel, and are sold to the highest bidder. This type of auction would appear to be a fit for NNM. Finally, there is the “Best of the Best” sale, for which there are restrictions in terms of the health and age of dogs; prices are relatively high in this type of auction, given that top quality breeding stocks are available. For a puppy mill owner, a complete kennel dispersal sale would be the most desirable place to buy dogs at a good price. Sure, there would be some culls in the bunch, but there would likely be some good quality animals too, given that someone is just going out of business. Consignment sales, such as the one for which NNM was listed, are truly the bottom of the barrel, and avoided by most commercial breeders. The quality of dogs at these sales is definitely inferior, and even the most savvy “buyer beware” purchaser will likely make some disastrous acquisitions. However, these are precisely the  auctions where most dogs in need of rescue will be found. This becomes the contentious point: should you attend these auctions and, in the name of humane charity, purchase some of these dogs that  have suffered enough? Or, by doing so, are you now cleaning up the mess left by commercial breeders who will continue to thrive? Remember, dear dog lover, that these dogs have had minimal  socialization and no house training. In all likelihood, many of them would require major dentistry work, as their teeth would be a mess due to longtime neglect and poor nutrition. The rehabilitation of these dogs would likely require solid financial backing, as well as the patience of an angel. From what we know, factory farm-produced dogs have had a difficult start in life: their early experiences, so critical to a normal development, may disrupt any chance of emotional stability later in life – as was possibly the case with Liberty. When a puppy such as Liberty is taken from her mother and littermates early in life, to be available for display at a pet store at her “cutest” stage, the consequences for the unsuspecting puppy adopter can be emotionally deleterious: such cases often end with either the surrender of the dog to a shelter or euthanasia.

Dear reader, if you have already done a cursory search on the web for puppy mills and dog auctions, you are no doubt aghast at what you have discovered. You may be wondering how it is possible for puppy mills, factory farms for dogs, and commercial breeding operations to thrive in our well-informed and compassionate society. After all, animal cruelty is animal cruelty, and who among us would willingly tolerate such cold-hearted disregard for the health of vulnerable animals?

First of all, the term “puppy mill” is a label that every dog breeder and every pet store owner vehemently denies; none will admit that it applies to them. Second, most prospective dog owners are ignorant to the fact they are about to purchase a dog from a mill. And third, animal shelters and government-run county pounds seem to be the only ones in the loop, since they bear the costs for the care and euthanasia of numerous unwanted dogs, many of which likely originate from puppy mills. Puppy mills are allowed to thrive because current laws to restrict their activities are inadequate and ineffectual. Compare these laws to animal welfare regulations governing other agricultural enterprises raising animals, and the gap becomes evident. A farmer raising pigs to slaughter, for instance, will see his pigs slaughtered at a hundred and eighty days of age; chickens will be slaughtered at forty days of age for their meat; calves are slaughtered at a hundred days for their pale and anemic muscles, which are considered a restaurant delicacy; and lambs are slaughtered at a hundred and fifty days as spring lamb. Puppies raised on factory farms, like other livestock, would normally be destined to live twelve to fifteen years, but these can be miserable years due to either shoddy care or genetic diseases that have not been screened out of the breeding stock. These puppies, unlike livestock destined for a slaughterhouse, are in for the long haul. If lobbyists and politicians with questionable agendas did not interfere, stricter regulations aimed at enhancing the well-being of the dogs could be implemented, and would markedly reduce the profit margin of puppy mills.

For any business transaction to be completed, a product must be produced, and then said product must be sold. In the case of factory farms, the second half of the equation puts responsibility squarely on the buyers of mass-produced puppies. Often, such a transaction is completed because the prospective owner is simply not aware of the origin of the puppy. As mentioned earlier, one way this can be remedied is for the buyer to insist on negotiating with the breeder – not the broker – and visiting the breeding facility to see the lactating bitch with her puppies. Of course, we cannot be so naive as to  think that this alone will solve the whole problem. The unsuspecting breeder who initially sold NNM to a broker honestly thought that NNM was going to a good home, where she would receive a name of her own and the love she deserved. He was later appalled and saddened to find out what had actually become of NNM. Many well-informed breeders address this problem by selling puppies at two months of age, already spayed or neutered.

Currently in our society, we allow and facilitate the unlimited breeding of dogs on factory farms, where they are raised in substandard conditions and then sold to brokers or outlets (such as pet stores) instead of directly to the final owner. By not speaking out against puppy mills, we tolerate the dismal lack of decent attempts to socialize breeding stock and puppies, and accept the continued absence of regulations for animal welfare that already exist in other livestock industries. Why do we, as a society, need to mass-produce dogs, when millions are euthanized every year because there are not enough homes and hearts open to them? Imagine a world where every animal born is wanted, and has a home ready for it, where pets are not abandoned, neglected or mistreated. Imagine a world where dogs  and cats are not routinely killed because they are “surplus.” I ask you, as animal lovers: is that not a world worth striving for?

As a dog lover, you can…

• When adopting a dog, always ask questions about where the dog came from; if you have any doubts or concerns, ask to speak directly to the original owner or breeder, be wary if there is no paper trail.

• When adopting a purebred, be sure to visit the breeding facility to see the dog’s dam and littermates.

• Avoid purchasing puppies that have come – or may have come – from puppy mills (commercial breeders), so beware of internet and pet store buying .

• Speak out against puppy mills, and demand more effective and stringent animal welfare regulations to restrict their operation.