Veterinarians Get the Puppy Mill Blues

A vet’s-eye view of the new-puppy appointment
By Karen Louis DVM, MS, January 2018

Many people think that veterinarians have a dream job. Snuggling adorable puppies and kittens—what’s not to love? Fortunately, the public is beginning to understand that our job can also be quite grueling, with life-and-death decisions being made on a daily basis.

So, with such a stressful job, a new-puppy appointment should be a ray of sunshine, right? For many veterinarians, this may be the case, but not for me. Mostly, I hate these appointments; I find them more depressing than a scheduled euthanasia.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not the puppy who’s upsetting me, it’s where the puppy is likely to have come from. A dog lover wanted a dog, went to a pet store or found a breeder online, and bought a puppy. It may  be a purebred or some made-up “breed”—say, a Chi-Pom-Poo—a mutt sold as an overpriced “designer dog.”

The person sitting in the exam room with the new puppy on her lap is a dog lover. She’s the first one to sign a petition to stop puppy mills. She’ll spay or neuter this dog, keep the dog on heartworm preventive, do all the things we vets recommend. She’s intelligent, a good pet owner and a good person. She has a good heart, and if she had known she was supporting the puppy mill industry, she would never have done it. She’s also the reason puppy mills are thriving.

I once worked for a large humane organization that busted puppy mills. Before that, I personally rescued dogs from these horrible places. Instead of fawning over this cute puppy, I fight back tears, remembering what I’ve seen and can never un-see: dogs in tiny  wire cages with bleeding feet and nowhere flat to lie; fur so matted they can barely move; missing eyes, missing teeth, open wounds.

Some are kept in sheds and barns and never see grass or the sun. Ever. Others are in outdoor pens, exposed to the elements year-round. They are born there and they die there. They never leave the cage, never see a toy, or  a bed. Many never know a day without fear or pain. The worst part is the emotional abuse. These breeding dogs have never had a positive experience with a human.

The handful fortunate enough to be rescued often take months, sometimes years, to learn to trust people enough to be petted.

The only way to stop this abuse is for people to stop buying dogs from these sources.

I gently point out the red flags to the owner, starting with where the puppy came from: a pet store (the overwhelming majority of puppies in pet stores are from puppy mills), or a breeder in one of the notorious puppy mill states (Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania). If it’s an online breeder with a lovely web page, not seeing the puppy’s parents and meeting the breeder somewhere other than the kennel site is a huge red flag (“We’ll save you some driving …”). Finally, sire and dam registered in a non-AKC registry signal puppy mill; some AKC and virtually all non-AKC dogs are products of these commercial breeders.

I’m not telling this proud new puppy owner she’s stupid. I’m not trying to make her feel guilty. I’m trying to educate one more person in this fight to stop the abuse. She walks out of the exam room not smiling nearly as much as when she came in. And because she’s a dog lover, she’s sad.

Dog lovers are almost universally opposed to puppy mills. Yet, petitions and laws have no effect on the industry. It’s simply supply and demand. We need education. Yes, it’s a hard conversation to have. No one wants to hear they supported a puppy mill. There is unavoidable guilt, but that’s not the point. We must equip pet owners with information to make better decisions in the future, even if that process can be uncomfortable at times. That is what this fight needs.

To those who’ve inadvertently purchased a dog from a puppy mill, here’s my advice: Love these dogs and give them the life their poor parents will never know. And make an effort to tell your friends not to buy from pet shops or online breeders, no matter what the website says. Share your experience and knowledge on social media. Learn the red flags.

Only when people stop buying these puppies will the suffering of thousands of dogs end. 

How can you find a puppy without promoting puppy mills? Start with tips from the HSUS: thebark.us/2z3quGC

Karen Louis, DVM, MS, owns MetroEast Home Vet Care of O’Fallon, Ill., and blogs at VetChick.com.

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