Pets: How to avoid the pitfalls of puppy mills

September 23, 2011

Getting a family pet can be a wonderful experience — adding what amounts to another family member for the next 10 to 20 years. But those who choose their pet on impulse could find themselves with the unanticipated financial and emotional burden of dealing with a sickly animal or one with congenital defects.

Such is the risk of the so-called puppy mill pets: Dogs raised in large-scale, unsanitary, profit-focused breeding operations often are sick when they are sold. They may be blind, unable to lift their legs to go to the bathroom, or be suffering from heart defects or other ailments that will shorten their lives.

“What happens in those cases is you end up with enormous vet bills,” says Cori Menkin, who heads the ASPCA’s campaign against puppy mills. “It’s really unfortunate. Those are all things that are avoidable through responsible breeding.”

Most animal rights activists assocate pet stores with puppy mills, and say online sales operations are springing up, too. But The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, a trade group, says that it’s unfair to assume that all pet store animals come from the mills. “Pet stores are a legitimate source for puppies,” the group says. “As in any community, there are some transgressors who choose not to adhere to acceptable standards.”

Wherever you find them, getting a sick pet can be a heartbreak, and a budget buster.

The average cost to care for a small to medium healthy dog over its lifetime is between about $7,000 and $13,000 just for routine costs, from food to regular veterinary care, according to the Best Friends Animal Society. When an animal is sick, the costs can be that much of more.

Just ask David Mero, who adopted his dog from a shelter 14 years ago.  When Casey developed cancer two years later,  Mero was told she had one month to live. Like many pet owners, Mero was committed to doing whatever he could to help his dog survive her illnesses. That commitment – which he doesn’t regret – ended up costing more than $10,000, as Casey went through eight different surgeries over the last decade, surviving until recently.  “She was part of the family,” he said.

When it comes to puppy mill dogs, the odds are a lot higher that the owners will suffer along with their pets. Puppy mill dogs endure often deplorable conditions before they arrive, puppy cute, in homes across the country.

Jodi LaFleur vividly remembers going to the cargo section of Boston’ s Logan International Airport to pick up crates full of puppies delivered from Illinois to the Massachusetts pet store chain she was working for.

“We brought them back to the store and we started opening the kennels, and there are puppies having seizures — so dehydrated and so stressed they were going out of their minds,” she recalls.

She cared for the puppies at the store and cleaned them up when someone paid to buy one. But she said the image of that trip to the airport for the delivery from the distant puppy mill haunted her and led her to become a dog groomer. At the Dog Dayz Grooming Salon in Worcester, Massachusetts, she sees examples every day of puppy mill-bred dogs who have suffered and even had her own once — a dog that died by age two.

LaFleur says she understands the dilemma faced by people who actually are aware there are issues with dogs from puppy mills.

“People say they are rescuing them,” she says. “You’re not rescuing them,you’re making a spot for another one.”

Menkin says puppy mills simply place making money ahead of the health of the dogs and that hurts both the animals and their future owners.

“Female dogs are bred continuously until they physically can no longer produce puppies at which point they are likely killed,” says Molly Stretten, director of adoption programs for the Found Animals Foundation, which supports adopting from shelters. “Because of the squalid living conditions with little or no human contact, puppies from mills often display shy or fearful behavior and a bevy of illnesses such as distemper, pneumonia, heartworm, heart and kidney disease”

Consumers in search of pets have a lot of options to avoid the puppy mills, from breeders to breed rescue groups to shelters. Thanks to sites including and it’s easy to search for the type of pet you’re interested in or just see what’s out there.

Animal care experts note that going to a reputable breeder is another option that can often cost about the same as going through a disreputable one. Breeders can be found through the American Kennel Club or, for those interested in specific breeds, at sanctioned dog shows. When those with show dogs breed, they’re looking for the best example of the breed and will often sell the rest of the litter as pets.

Here is some advice from those in the know on how to avoid the pitfalls of puppy mills:

When dealing with a good breeder, prepare to wait, says dog trainer Colleen Safford, owner of New York Walk & Train.

“If you are into the idea of a puppy from a reputable breeder — be prepared to wait for their next litter — which may be a year away,” she says.

Expect to be asked a lot of questions about how you’ll care for the dog and whether you’re able to provide the environment it will need. You might even be required to neuter the animal.

Shelters are also going to ask for a fair amount of information and possibly check your references. Both a good breeder and a good shelter will ask you to sign a contract that says if you can no longer take care of the animal they’ll take it back.

Mychelle Blake, executive director of The Association of Pet Dog Trainers, says it really pays to do your homework about the type of animal that will fit your family’s lifestyle and time commitment to the pet. She cited a survey that found more than one in three dog owners said one of the biggest mistakes they made was underestimating how much time it takes to care for a dog.

“Once you have an idea of what the ideal dog would be for your home, visit the shelter and look for dogs that fit that lifestyle,” Blake says. “Too often people go by breeds or looks or age — everyone wants the cute puppy — but those are not the best parameters for choosing a dog. If you live in a very active household, you want a dog that can handle the activity and the visitors with aplomb and who will be friendly and outgoing. Likewise if you’re a more sedate person or household, look for a dog that is older and calmer and whose exercise and other needs will mesh well with your energy level.”

She adds, “If you have young children in the home, I would strongly suggest you consider an older dog. Many older dogs in shelters have already lived in a home and you can get a good idea of what their personality is going to be like and whether or not they enjoy children. They may even already have some training. Puppies bring many challenges that can be daunting for a home with small children, such as normal puppy mouthing/nipping and consistency in training and housetraining among family members, among others.”

Take your time selecting the right dog for your family, Blake says, and be leery of animals that hide from you (not just show shyness), show aggression or are extremely hyperactive.

Dog behaviorist Jonathan Klein, who runs the I Said Sit! School for Dogs in Los Angeles, urges humans to resist the urge to get the dog you see at the pet shop and instead find the right dog for you at a shelter.

“Take a pass through the shelter and note the dogs that fall under your criterion. Then go back and spend a little time with each dog to get a general feeling of their personality,” he says. “Don’t let a dog’s initial shyness play too big a role in your decision. They’re in a stressful environment and will probably come around in time once trust is established and proper training undertaken.”

Then be sure to spend alone time with the dog to see if you can bond before you decide to adopt.

“When spending time alone with the dog check to see if it respond to treats, put it on a leash and see how it acts, notice if it’s introverted, extroverted, noisy or calm,” Klein says.

As with any purchase, and consider this one has emotional roots and can be with you a long time, do your homework and make an informed decision rather than an impulsive one that can cost you dearly later.

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