The Truth Behind that Puppy in the Window

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The Truth Behind that Puppy in the Window

By Stephanie Banfield

Inside a small glass enclosure, a tiny ball of light brown fur with pointed ears and a black, whiskered muzzle nips at the tail of the rambunctious littermate with whom he shares a cage. The puppies bite each other’s ears, chew each other’s toys, and snuggle up together to lay down for a nap. This is the scene at a typical American pet store. This is Petland in Iowa City, Iowa. The puppies behind the glass range in breed from Shiba Inu to Shih-Tzu, from Dachshund to Golden Retriever. The price to take home one of these eight-week-old bundles of fur ranges from $500 to $1299. But what owners of pet stores like Petland don’t want their customers to know is that the true cost of that puppy in the window is more than you might think.

Less than 75 miles away, in a small Iowa town near the Missouri border, the pet store puppies’ parents spend every day of their lives within cramped metal cages upon wire floors strewn with dog hair and feces in a mass-breeding facility with little or no access to food, shelter, or veterinary care. Nearly 4,000 facilities like this one, known as “puppy mills,” are scattered across the United States and supply pet stores and Internet websites with over 500,000 puppies each year.

Forced to live in such horrendous living conditions, breeder dogs are often crammed into cages for years at a time, without any socialization or exercise. Females are bred as frequently as possible, often every six months, until they are no longer capable of producing large enough litters and are disposed of. Many puppy mill dogs are debarked by a metal rod shoved down their throats to rupture the vocal chords in order to keep mass-breeding facilities quiet. At five to eight weeks of age, puppies are taken from their mother, packed into crates, and shipped to pet stores across the country. Without adequate food, water, or ventilation, many puppies don’t survive the trip.

The plight of the pet store puppy is not new. Animal rights activists have fought the inhumane treatment of puppies raised in puppy mills for decades by boycotting stores that purchase their puppies from such deplorable conditions and willingly sell them to the unknowing public.

Lobbyists have been successful in their push for better legislation: in 1966, the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) was adopted as a federal law to regulate the handling, treatment, and transportation of animals in a variety of situations, including puppy mills. So why are so many pet store puppies growing ill or even dying just days after they’re brought home from pet stores that claim they only purchase animals from “reputable, local breeders?”

According to Deborah Howard, President of the Companion Animal Protection Society (CAPS) http://www.caps-web.org, a non-profit organization whose foremost concern is the abuse and suffering of pet shop and puppy mill dogs, “90 percent of pet shops obtain their puppies from puppy mills,” which completely disregard the mental, physical, and emotional well-being of the animals they mass produce each year.

"Puppy mills exist solely for profit, with the dogs treated like puppy-producing machines that turn feed into puppies, much like factory-farmed hens are treated like egg-producing machines,” said Pete Smith, an undercover investigator for CAPS whose name has been changed to protect his identity. “In both examples, the animals are often treated with a minimal standard of care with little or no concern for their well-being. The value of the dogs is not their worth as a companion, but as a means to profit.”

Despite the horrendous conditions and numerous violations of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) found in such facilities, most puppy mills continue to operate without consequence. Howard argues this is a result of a lack of enforcement by the USDA, whose implementation of the Animal Welfare Act has been “grievously insufficient.”

“The USDA has been extremely negligent over the years in its enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act as it pertains to commercial dog breeders and brokers,” said Howard. “We have been investigating this problem since 1995 and, in some instances, we have investigated facilities the day after or before a USDA inspector found no violations. CAPS investigators found numerous non-compliant items. Falsifying an inspection report is a federal felony.”

In addition to the horrors suffered by puppies born within the confines of puppy mills, the majority of these dogs are plagued by diseases and congenital defects that result from unscrupulous breeding practices and the lack of health and genetic screenings performed on breeding stock. According to CAPS, it is not uncommon for pet shop puppies to be treated for upper respiratory infections, ear and eye infections, mange, coccidia, giardia, or even parvo once they arrive at the store or in their new home. Other problems, such as luxating patellas and hip dysplasia, often develop later in these puppies’ lives—sometimes years after they were purchased.

Larissa Kosarych knows these problems all too well. She purchased Sampson, a pug puppy, from Pittsburg Robinson Town Centre Petland in Pennsylvania on January 9, 2005. Growing attached to the dog, she took him home where he “quickly became the love of my life.” However, shortly after arriving in his new home, Kosarych’s veterinarian examined the paperwork provided by Petland and immediately determined he was bred at a puppy mill, despite the fact that Petland “fervently denied it.” According to her vet, Sampson was most likely inbred and would suffer genetic problems such as seizures that would not appear for the next several years. Kosarych was devastated.

"I cried all the way home at the thought of not having a healthy, happy puppy,” she said.

Less than five months from the visit to her vet, Kosarych’s fears were realized when Sampson began to limp.

“I hoped that my puppy, only six months old at that time, had just bumped his leg and that the limp would go away in a couple days,” she said.

However, a week went by and the limping persisted, forcing her to return to the vet once more. An x-ray and joint tap of Sampson’s hip provided the unfortunate diagnosis: legg calves perthes disease. Several weeks and a large dent in her checking account later, Kosarych’s puppy was back to normal—or so she thought. A year passed and Sampson’s vet noticed his other hip also had a limited range of movement. Test results confirmed the worst—another case of a legg calves perthes disease. The incidence of the disease occurring in both hips was a strong indication that the condition was hereditary and the result of poor breeding practices. Two years and $4,000 later, Sampson is “almost good as new,” but Kosarych is still not satisfied.

"Spending this much money and putting a young dog through so much was infuriating to me,” she said. “I took it up with Petland on several occasions, who managed to dodge my phone calls and otherwise ignore the problem.”

Consumers like Larissa are not alone. A brief search on RipOffReport  http://www.ripoffreport.com,  Better Business Bureau, and  PetStoreCruelty.com’s “Pet Store Hall of Shame”  http://www.petstorecruelty.com reveal a slew of consumer complaints regarding various pet stores and “breeders” alike across the United States.

For years, animal welfare organizations such as the Companion Animal Protection Society (CAPS) and Last Chance for Animals (LCA) http://www.lcanimal.org have staged undercover investigations of puppy mills in states such as Iowa, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arkansas, Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri. The footage provided by their hidden cameras and recording devices unveil the shocking tales of these puppy mill prisoners whose feet have never felt solid ground and rarely, if ever, get to see the light of day.

“I've seen dogs so covered in matted fur I can't tell what breed they are, and puppies' legs slipping through rusting wire floorings caked in feces,” said Smith. “This, however, may not be as bad as the dozens of times I have walked into a kennel full of flies and the stench of ammonia to see hundreds of dogs spinning in circles and leaping over each other in an attempt to get my attention and have a moment's solace from an entire lifetime of being trapped in a cage.

Hearts United for Animals http://www.hua.org, a national no-kill shelter, sanctuary and animal welfare organization states that as many as 92% of puppies sold in pet stores come from puppy mills seeking to maximize profit. These dogs are not purchased from reputable hobby breeders whose goals include betterment of the breed characteristics, preserving bloodlines, and providing early socialization to the one or two litters they typically produce in a year.

“[Pet stores] just want to make money and don’t care about the home into which their puppies are placed,” said Howard. “Reputable breeders do not sell dogs to pet shops and, in fact, some breed clubs have rules that forbid their members from selling to pet shops.

Although investigations of facilities that sell to Petland reveal the horrendous conditions that characterize puppy mills, the store argues their puppies are only purchased from licensed, reputable “professional and hobby breeders who have years of experience in raising quality family pets.”

And pet store customers, encouraged to act upon impulses to take home that cuddly ball of fur behind the glass, tend to believe them.

“Petland uses impulse buys to sell their animals. They train their employees to do everything they can to close the sale before the customer leaves the store,” says former Petland employee Katie Field. “So many times people enter the store without knowing they are going to walk out an hour later with a puppy. I would consider that an impulse purchase.”

So how do consumers looking to purchase a new member of the family protect themselves from winding up with a puppy plagued by congenital defects and prone to chronic physical, psychological, and behavioral disorders? According to animal activist groups, there’s only one way to ensure you’re getting a healthy dog from a quality breeder—don’t buy your puppy from a pet store.

“Reputable breeders will screen potential buyers,” said Howard. “They will ask many questions about you, your family, including your animals, and your home. They will usually take back a dog for whatever reason, even years later.”

Although it is indeed possible to locate a responsible breeder, most animal welfare organizations advocate rescue dogs.

“In light of the many millions of animals that are killed each year in shelters, we highly recommend that people adopt homeless animals from shelters and animal control facilities,” said Howard. “PetsMart and PetCo often have adoption days for shelters and rescue organizations, and some veterinarians also take in homeless animals.”

Other options available to those looking to purchase a purebred puppy are breed-specific rescue organizations and websites like PetFinder http://www.petfinder.com  which allows prospective owners to search by breed, age, size, and location.

For activists fighting the puppy mill industry, education of consumers seems to be the only way to end the horrific plight of the pet store puppy.

“The most unfortunate thing about the pet store monster is the uneducated consumer,” said Larissa Kosarych. “I was one a couple years ago when I fell in love with the puppy in the window. I didn't know that by buying a dog from Petland, I would only be greasing the puppy mill machine. I know that numerous people, just as naïve as I was about the consequences involved in buying a dog from a pet store, still walk into Petland everyday and allow themselves to be suckered in by the cute faces and cajoling sales people. Virtually every time I meet a purebred dog owner I am sure to tell them how good it was if they got the dog from a responsible breeder and I follow up with the story of my "million-dollar puggy." If the information makes just one person think twice about buying from Petland, it has been worth my time.”


Stephanie Banfield is a senior Journalism major at the University of Iowa. She also works as an undercover investigator of puppy mills for the Companion Animal Protection Society and is passionately devoted to educating others about the link between pet stores and puppy mills as well as the benefits of adopting a homeless pet from rescue organizations and animal shelters. For more information on puppy mills, Companion Animal Protection Society http://www.caps-web.org, Pet Shop Puppies http://www.petshoppuppies.org.   

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