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Puppy farming: New Zealand's secret dog-breeding shame

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New Zealand has an unregulated puppy-breeding industry where unscrupulous operators can flourish, so why aren’t we following the lead of overseas governments?

He was curled up around a tiny plastic rugby ball, one of two eight-week-old pomeranian puppies in a Christchurch pet shop window. Cute as a button with heart-melting eyes, he had no pedigree papers but both parents, I was told, were registered purebreds – and he could be mine for a cool $1590. Five days later, both he and his brother had been sold.

Online, the pre-Christmas puppy trade was far more brisk. In mid-December, 274 puppies were for sale on Trade Me. The most common breeds were terriers, labradors and bulldogs and the prices were high: a female schnoodle, a cross between a miniature schnauzer and a toy poodle, would have put me back $2000; a pug puppy $2300; a purebred Italian mastiff puppy with full pedigree papers $4000. On the NzBuySell website, there were 1460 dog listings, including french bulldog puppies selling for $3000 and a shih tzu-bichon cross for $1150.

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Ours is a country of dog lovers and we are particularly smitten by those lap-sized balls of adoring fluff and fur. Figures from the New Zealand Companion Animal Council report a national population of 683,000 companion dogs. In just over a quarter of all households there are pet dogs demanding walks.

But the demand, particularly for certain breeds and crossbreeds, is fuelling an industry that is neither cute nor loving. The sale of cats and dogs in pet shops, the boom in online trading platforms and the popularity of so-called designer crossbreeds have paved the way for a rash of commercial breeders feeding the market with litter after litter born to bitches being used purely as breeding machines.

Advertised as “family-bred” puppies and often photographed with a couple of children, they are put on the market with minimum concern for their welfare and an eye for maximum profit. Says Lesley Butler from the PAWS Animal Shelter in Feilding, “They are sold like a commodity, as if you are going to a dairy to buy a pint of milk.”

Puppy farming in the US has prompted big investigations.

Butler has visited properties where 70-80 female dogs are raised in kennels or cages and bred every six months. When they are no longer producing, they are flicked off to another puppy farmer who might try to get one more litter out of them.

Butler will not name names. She has worked for 12 years to earn the trust of breeders so she can at least take ex-breeding females to the shelter for rehoming. But even this process is not easy. She describes west highland and yorkshire terriers – smaller dogs are popular breeders because they are cheaper to feed, take up less space and retain the “cute factor” for longer – having to be rehabilitated before being sent to a new home.

“They are six, seven, eight years old and all they have done is live in a small kennel and breed. They are friendly enough, but they have no social skills. They are not house-trained; if you put them in a home environment with a TV, radio, kids, they’re terrified.”

Rochelle Ferguson of the New Zealand Veterinary Association. Photo/Mike Heydon

Multiple pregnancies also take a physical toll. If managed correctly, says Rochelle Ferguson, companion animal veterinary operations manager with the New Zealand Veterinary Association (NZVA), the risks are minimal. “But if they are not well cared for and they are not in good body condition, that extra stress does compromise their health. It draws on their reserve, their muscles, the minerals in their bones and reduces their immunity, so they are susceptible to infection.” As dogs get older, she says, their reproductive performance declines and interventions such as caesarean sections are more likely.

Often, too, the puppies themselves are not flourishing. A few years ago, Ferguson was called on to inspect puppies from a central North Island breeder, who was selling about 100 litters a year. She found them thin and infested with worms, their coats dull – everything she would have expected from dogs kept in large numbers in one understaffed facility.

These physical problems can usually be addressed, but much more difficult are the psychological and behavioural outcomes of poor socialisation, when puppies are not given the opportunity to interact with other animals, owners and children.

“There’s a critical period in puppies, between three and 12 weeks, when they are very accepting of new experiences, so you want to lay down as many new experiences during that time as you can and that helps them grow into more well-balanced dogs. We’re seeing puppies that have been kept in isolation, then thrown into new homes before they are self-sufficient and able to cope.”

Actor Peter Egan is the patron of London charity All Dogs Matter. Photo/Getty Images

Tip of the iceberg

Such issues are the small visible tip of a massive animal-welfare iceberg that is becoming apparent in countries around the world. Recent reports of puppy mills or puppy farms – large-scale operations feeding the domestic pet market with little regard for animal welfare or breeding standards – have appalled readers and welfare organisations in the US and UK.

Last year, Rolling Stone magazine featured a rescue by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) in which dozens of yorkie, maltese and poodle mix puppies were found living in deplorable conditions before being sold off in pet shops and on websites. The parent dogs were “in desperate shape”, the magazine reported, with cataracts, matted fur, rotten teeth, feeble limbs and paws scalded by urine. “If you buy a puppy from a pet store,” HSUS campaign director John Goodwin told Rolling Stone, “this is what you’re paying for and nothing else: a dog raised in puppy-mill evil.”

Campaigns have earned celebrity endorsement from the likes of comedian Ricky Gervais and actor Peter Egan, who are both outspoken dog advocates. Gervais regularly tweets about rescue dogs and Egan is patron of a London charity called All Dogs Matter. Sometimes, a celeb’s devotion to dogs goes too far. Johnny Depp and former wife Amber Heard so adored their teacup yorkshire terriers they flouted Australia’s biosecurity laws and brought them into Queensland on a private jet in 2015, earning a mountain of criticism on social media and a fine.

In the UK last year, the RSPCA reported a 132% rise over five years in the number of complaints it received about the country’s £100 million back-street puppy sales industry. Over that time, the charity rescued more than 1200 pups from puppy farms. In a press release, RSPCA chief inspector Ian Briggs blamed the increasing prevalence of inhumane puppy-breeding practices on the growing popularity of certain breeds – most commonly french bulldogs, labradors, jack russells, pugs and german shepherds.

Comedian Ricky Gervais, left, has urged his Twitter followers to adopt rescue dogs. Photo/Getty Images

“As responsible breeders struggle to keep up with demand, underground breeders and traders are filling the gap in the market and are offering puppies at cheaper prices and without waiting lists – often with disastrous consequences.”

Just how widespread such large-scale operations are here is hard to gauge. Many kennels are in the countryside, out of earshot of neighbours whose complaints about barking might attract the attention of local councils. Dog-welfare organisations and veterinary staff will talk off the record about inhumane treatment, repeated caesareans, puppies kept in bathtubs or never welcomed into a home environment, but they still want to keep onside with breeders to ensure they will be called on when needed. Concerns were raised a few years ago about puppy mill-type enterprises in Manawatu and Horowhenua, says Ferguson, but they seem to have subsided.

“The issue now is not so much the puppy mills as the gazillions of backyard breeders who are just in it for a few litters, a quick buck, who are not passionate about the breed, who are not well versed in what the problems of a particular breed are. They’re doing just as much damage. On a large scale or a small scale, you are still compromising their welfare.”

Carolyn Press-McKenzie, founder of the Huha animal shelter and sanctuary in Otaki, north of Wellington, describes an “epidemic” of unsafe and irresponsible puppy-breeding: as well as a raft of new “foo-foo” breeds for sale on online platforms and Facebook, backyard operators are selling puppies to mates with no understanding of proper puppy healthcare and desexing responsibilities, and farm-dog puppies deemed untrainable or simply not given adequate training are being flicked on.

Companion-animal and professional organisations have regulations to protect the welfare of dogs and puppies. Dogs New Zealand (formerly the New Zealand Kennel Club) has a breeder code of ethics that restricts to six the number of times members can breed a bitch over her lifetime. The female dog should not be younger than 12 months or older than eight when she conceives and she can’t have more than three litters within an 18-month period (the NZVA recommends bitches be bred each season from their second season to a maximum of three litters, then spayed and rehomed). All parent dogs are tested for inheritable disorders and puppies are kept with their mothers for at least eight weeks.

Huha founder Carolyn Press-McKenzie.

No doggie in the window

Commercial operators are also trying to rein in irresponsible breeding. Pet-shop chain Animates no longer sells puppies or kittens; instead, it works with the SPCA to rehome unwanted cats and dogs. National brand manager Jacqui Baigent says it focuses on supporting rescue shelters and desexing to prevent unwanted animals.

Since 2015, Trade Me* has taken steps to curb irresponsible breeders. Potential dog buyers are now reminded of the responsibility of taking a dog on; owners and animal-welfare organisations can list a dog for adoption for free (or a minimal cost to cover expenses); and sellers have the option of ticking a voluntary Code of Animal Welfare. Under this code, sellers attest that both the puppy and mother have been cared for in accordance with legal requirements; that at the time of conception, the mother was in good health; that the puppy has been examined by a vet and has had the required vaccinations and worm and flea treatments; that it is not the progeny of individuals related within two generations; and that it will not be released to a buyer before it is eight weeks old.

“In the absence of the Government doing anything, we stood up and did it ourselves,” says Trade Me trust and safety team leader James Ryan. “We don’t want [puppy-farm-type] behaviour on our site and now we are pretty confident the code has instilled a sense of Trade Me as a place to get an animal from a good home, rather than one that has been put through the mill.”

James Ryan of Trade Me.

But the code remains voluntary. Anyone can tick the box – there is no auditing process – so buyers have no idea what sort of environment the sweet-looking pup in the photo came from. Arnja Dale, chief scientific officer for the SPCA, applauds Trade Me’s actions but says “it doesn’t stop the significant issues and welfare compromises we see in puppies that are the progeny of unhealthy parents. If [a dog] has bad hips or bad elbows, you should not breed from that dog, because it will result in direct suffering of the offspring. You must be a responsible breeder and select those that don’t have physical or behavioural health issues.”

Ryan says making Trade Me’s animal welfare code compulsory for sellers would immediately stop the rehoming of dogs from inadequate or unknown backgrounds. “We have to give people room to breed; to add anything else on to that is too onerous – it is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”

Dogs NZ is the first to admit not all its breeders are squeaky clean, but the 218 breeds registered with the association, representing 15-18% of the total number of dogs in the country, will all have had health tests and new owners will receive ongoing advice for their pups. Dogs NZ-registered puppies are for sale on Trade Me, but there are many more puppies, crosses and purebreeds advertised without such reassurance, often with a similar or even higher price tag. Many will be listed by caring and responsible owners breeding their dogs with all due care and attention to genetic risks and proper welfare. But within our legal framework, there is no guarantee.

Under the 2010 Animal Welfare Code for dogs, breeding provisions focus largely on measures to be taken to ensure that genetic diseases and disorders are not passed on. Other provisions require puppies to be in good health, be well socialised, have warm and dry shelter, have a nutritious diet and have access to clean water. Dogs must not be contained or tethered in a way that causes them injury or distress and must receive daily exercise “sufficient to maintain their health and well-being”.

Trade Me is banning the sale of pugs, British bulldogs and French bulldogs as a result of growing concern over the welfare of these breeds.

Photos from the Huha files over the past two years: dead puppies given to Huha by a disgruntled pet shop worker. Photo/Huha

Just within the law

Failure to meet the minimum standard in the code can result in prosecution under the Animal Welfare Act, but as Butler says, even the more unscrupulous breeders tend to work within the law – just. Dogs are registered with the local council and meet minimum welfare requirements.

“It is all very borderline,” she says. “When you are looking after 50 dogs, the dogs are on newspaper, they have food and water, of course – they are not going to breed if you don’t feed them – but what they provide is just enough to meet the conditions under the Animal Welfare Act.”

All in all, says Dale, dog-breeding in this country is essentially an unregulated industry. “There is no law to protect the welfare of these vulnerable dogs: they can literally be bred until they drop dead. The public don’t know what they are getting themselves into and our shelters are the ones that end up with all these unwanted animals.”

The state of Victoria in Australia took steps to control the puppy-farming industry after more than 70 adult dogs and puppies were seized from filthy conditions in puppy- breeding facilities. New laws passed last month will ban operations with more than 10 breeding females (Government-approved commercial breeders will be exempt from this provision, but they will have to undergo regular audits). Pet shops will be prohibited from selling dogs or cats except those that come from a pound, shelter or registered foster carer and a new pet exchange register will be set up so all dogs can be traced back to the breeder.

Poodle crosses Tiffany and Serena were surrendered to Huha in “terrible condition”. Photo/Huha

Despite some fears the changes may encourage smaller-scale backyard breeders operating below public scrutiny, other states are now looking to follow Victoria’s anti-puppy-farming laws.

New regulations in this country focus on tail docking, the removal of dew claws (the claw on a dog’s lower leg analogous to a human thumb), collars and tethering, and caring for dogs in vehicles. They have been described by the SPCA as a “win for animal welfare in New Zealand”, but animal advocates here are now calling for the licensing of all dog breeders.

They argue that this would not only reduce the inhumane treatment of dogs and puppies through stricter regulations and regular checks, but also prevent the continuation of inheritable diseases and disorders, reduce the prevalence of seemingly untreatable behavioural issues (temperament and misbehaviour are the main reasons for putting a dog down prematurely) and protect new puppy owners from a costly future.

As it is, the average dog-owning household spends an annual $1686 in dog-related costs. Problems with heart, teeth, knees and hips can result from poor inter-breeding, and even birth can be a challenge: almost every french bulldog, says Ferguson, needs to be delivered by a caesarean “because they are not well put together for life generally, let alone to be able to breed”. These factors all push the costs higher and can reduce a dog’s lifespan.

Becky Murphy from Dogs New Zealand.

Buyer beware

In the meantime, without further legal controls, it is a matter of buyer beware. Becky Murphy, canine health and welfare officer at Dogs NZ, urges prospective owners to do their homework by researching the breeds they are interested in. A huntaway will not enjoy apartment life, she says, and your elderly parents will not enjoy a garrulous beagle.

She advises people to check with Dogs NZ for the requirements and health risks for particular breeds. Once a breed has been selected, she says, it is important to visit the puppies in their home environment: are the mother and father in good condition? Are they happy? Friendly? Do the puppies interact with other puppies? Have they had the opportunity to mix with the family?

It is a tall order if you live in Auckland and the puppy is in Christchurch. “But this is a 15-year investment,” says Murphy. “Fly down, visit the parents, make sure the puppies for the first eight weeks of their lives have been raised properly, have had exposure to kids if you have a family, are used to being inside, are used to people.”

If the breeder has an issue with a buyer going on to the property, they are generally hiding something and you should walk away, she says. “They can seem like genuine people and they might have good excuses, like they’re going away or they’ll meet you somewhere else, but if they won’t let you on to their property to meet the parents, then no – big warning signs.”

Photos from the Huha files: Benjo, bred by a backyard pig-dog breeder, had genetic deformities caused by inbreeding. Photo/Huha

Murphy agrees that anyone with a heart, would want to rescue a puppy from what is clearly an inadequate and uncaring environment. “But you have to look away from the individual to the entire population. If you pull that puppy out of a pet shop, it will be replaced by another one. You are creating a demand for it. It sounds horrible when you are looking at those big sad eyes in the cage, but we have to look at the whole population and what we are doing by paying these horrendous amounts of money.”

As we hold a finger over the “Buy Now” button, or loiter a little longer outside the pet-shop window, says Ferguson, we should also consider the huge number of homeless dogs in the care of the dog pound, the SPCA, the animal shelter. A lot of the puppies for sale online or in the local pet store are “super cute. I absolutely get that. But given there are so many dogs euthanised each year, why are we breeding? Demand is being created, fuelled by social media and advertising. But just as we ethically source our food and our clothes, we should also look at ethically sourcing our puppies.”

Unfortunately, Ferguson has had this conversation before, many times. The argument is strong, but so too is the appeal of the ever-so-sweet pomeranian, the rowdy bulldog, the bumptious labradoodle, the impulsive purchase of the lone german shepherd in the pet-shop window.

“We can talk till we are blue in the face about the welfare of these breeds, then Leonardo DiCaprio puts out a picture of himself with this french bulldog and you have two million followers – all our pamphlets in the world aren’t going to change that.”

Photo/Getty Images

Oodles of labradoodles

A list of new designer-bred dogs reads like the inventory of an Edward Lear menagerie: goldendoodles, schnoodles, cavoodles, roodles (rottweiler crossed with poodle), yorkiepoos (yorkshire terrier/poodle), shihpoos (shih tzu/poodle) and poochons (bichon frise/poodle).

All can be traced back to the 1980s, when Wally Conron, puppy-breeding manager for the Royal Guide Dog Association of Australia, was asked to find a non-allergenic guide dog for a blind woman in Hawaii. The poodle part of the equation was easy – they are working dogs; they don’t shed hair. But it took three years to find the right mate, the trusted and trainable labrador retriever. The resulting litter of lab-poodle crosses seemed to hit the mark, but there was a snag – those who usually fostered guide dog puppies before they underwent training did not want to look after a “mongrel”. They wanted a purebred.

In desperation, Conron came up with a new name, announcing to the media the arrival of the new labradoodle. Demand soared. But as he later complained to University of British Columbia psychology professor Stanley Coren, the clever marketing tool opened the way for a new species of backyard breeders keen to cross any kind of dog with a poodle without even checking the health of the dogs’ parents. There are undoubtedly some ethical breeders of poodle mixes, he said, “but I released a Frankenstein. So many people are just breeding for the money … I’ve done so much harm to pure breeding and made so many charlatans quite rich.”

This article was first published in the January 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.