Over 16 years of practice, I’ve learned to put up a bit of an emotional wall to protect myself from bringing sadness home with me. There are a lot of sad stories every day in a veterinary practice, although, fortunately, most of them are when a spoiled pet is nearing the end of its life. Seeing our clients weep and demonstrate true sadness upon a terminal diagnosis or the loss of a pet is always a tough moment. However, for the pet who has lived a great life and who has known comfort and love from its owners, it becomes easy to put this in perspective and move on so we can be emotionally healthy and continue helping other people.
Sometimes there are cases that break through my wall, though: the dogs and cats who never got the chance to feel comfort and love before they met their end—the strays, the neglected, and the unlucky. To know that a dog or cat has lived a hard life of suffering, and then died, is deeply bothersome. We all wish there was a fix to these problems in life, but sadly, I’m not sure there is one.
“Sasha” broke through my wall this past week. She was an 8-week old “Husky” who was just recently purchased by a very nice new pet owner. This was this man’s first dog and I could tell by my conversations with him that he was so excited to get this new puppy and was going to give her an amazing life. He brought Sasha to us within a day of bringing her home though because he could tell she was not well. She had been vomiting and having bad diarrhea since she came home, and she was indeed a very sick puppy.
On exam, Sasha was very depressed. She had a fever and was very dehydrated. She continued to vomit and strain to defecate and her condition worsened throughout the day. I could also see that she was extremely underweight—under all of her puppy fluff there was very little Sasha. It became clear that Sasha was malnourished because she was loaded with parasites. This led to a severe intestinal problem that required emergency surgery. I can’t go into all of the details, but as I write this on a Sunday night, I am wondering and worrying if Sasha has made it through the weekend.
After speaking with the owner and doing some of our own research, it became clear that Sasha came from a terrible puppy mill out of state. To the owner’s defense, he just didn’t really know about puppy mills, and this particular puppy mill has a nice website. On the surface the kennel presents itself as a reputable place to get a puppy. But upon deeper researching of this particular kennel, a reputation as a low-quality puppy mill surfaced, complete with prior run-ins with the law and animal rights groups. Sasha’s owner wanted a new best friend, but sadly got a very sick pup who likely never had a good life.
So, what is a puppy mill and why are they still around? The best definition I’ve read is this:
Puppy mills are large-scale commercial dog breeding operations where profit is placed above the wellbeing of animals.
Sadly, some people out there are doing this—breeding dogs for money. Now I’m not against someone breeding dogs and making some money, but when financial gain is placed above the health and wellbeing of the pets, I think we can call it a puppy mill.
Plenty of food? Sounds expensive!
Vaccines and vet visits and care for the momma dog? Boy, that really will cut into our profits.
Enough space for all the pups? That would require money to upgrade our facilities.
Good hygiene and close care and monitoring of all the animals? What, do you want us to hire someone for that?
What has broken through my emotional wall is picturing little Sasha, from birth to 8 weeks of age, living in a dirty facility with chronic diarrhea, never feeling good, and never with enough food. She survived in less than ideal conditions because puppies are actually pretty tough. But if she dies, hers is a truly sad story and I’m okay taking a little bit of that home.
Fortunately, the vast majority of breeders are fantastic. They love their dogs. They spoil the moms, and they spoil the puppies, and they ensure only good people take them home. These 8-week-old puppies come to me healthy, fat, and happy and get the opportunity to live a good life.
What can we do about puppy mills? The best way to make them go away is to not give them any business. Here are a few tips when considering purchasing a new dog.
Consider getting a dog from the SPCA or a rescue organization—there are tons of dogs in need of a home!
Be a discerning customer. Don’t be paranoid that every dog breeder is a puppy mill – that’s definitely not true. But be wary of the following signs that you may be dealing with a puppy mill:
You can’t meet or see the parents. Most reputable breeders are happy to share pictures and even have you meet and see the parents. This also gives you an idea of the environment and care the pups will grow up in.
They have lots of puppies from many different breeds. Most quality breeders only have one, maybe two breeding females. Someone with 30 puppies and 6 different breeds is probably someone to avoid.
Out of state. Be cautious when purchasing a puppy out of state. You can’t really get a personal look at the mom or pups beforehand.
Your “shady” alarm goes off. If you are just getting a bad feeling about the person you are talking to about a new puppy, go somewhere else–you usually have plenty of options! A puppy isn’t something to rush into. Take your time finding the right one.
Although Sasha’s is a sad story, she has at least had a few days of being doted on and loved by her new owner and our staff. At the very least, she can teach us that life is precious and that we should cherish it.
Editors note: An update from Dr. Andersen just before publishing finds that Sasha has made a miraculous recovery and seems to be on her way to enjoying life.