Thursday, December 16, 2010

Looking for a new furry family member? How to be prepared. Pt 3 - Buying from a Breeder

It's been a while since my last installment of this series.  I've been thinking a lot about how I can write this piece responsibly.  And honestly, it's been a little hard.  On the one hand, I believe very firmly in a person's right to choose a path they want to take, so I am not going to just omit this post as I would kind of like to do. On the other hand, I would never ever recommend that someone buy a puppy or kitten, and the more I learn about the small animal business, I'm actually reluctant to recommend purchasing a small animal from a store as well.

The reality is that none of the pets sold in a store come from responsible breeders.  There are a very small hand full of stores who work with small mom and pop breeding operations, but they are rare.  Actually, the pet you purchase is more likely to have been bred in a large scale operation and have been warehoused inhumanely at least once.  And if an animal is known to have been inhumanely housed at least once, it is not an overreaction to assume it may have been inhumanely housed for most of its life or that it may have serious health problems.  Many of us thought this only happened with puppy and kitten mills, but the raid of a North Texas exotic animal warehouse in 2009 showed the rest of us the light.

Though all of this said, I cannot go all the way out on a limb and say that ALL breeders are irresponsible as PETA and other animal welfare groups believe.  I do believe that there are a handful of breeders out there who produce healthy, well cared for litters with all the veterinary care that should be given before sale.  While I hope that everyone will stop purchasing pets and only adopt so we can keep our pet population down, if you're bound and determined to purchase a "pure bred" from a breeder, these small, honest operations are the way to go.

By now I hope you have gone over the pros and cons of adoption vs. purchase and if you have still decided that you must purchase from a breeder, do not purchase unless you have done the following things:
  • Visit the breeding facility.  Responsible breeders will allow you to see their facility and will allow you to see the mother of the litter.  If the father of the litter is on site, they will allow that also.  It is important for you to see the stock your pet comes from so you can anticipate any problems.  If the breeder will not allow this, walk away.  This should be an absolute 100% deal breaker.  But if you are allowed a visit, you should: 
    • Look for a clean facility.  A dirty kennel or home where the puppies are raised could be a sign of neglect and possible ill health.  This is not to say that farmers who raise their puppies outside are neglectful of their litters.  The point is you need to look for how waste is disposed of and signs of being removed in a timely manner.  You don't have to expect the care takers to pick up after every stool, but if there is a large pile of excrement left unattended for what looks like more than a day, you could have problems.  Any sign of neglect of cleanliness and care should be a deal breaker.
    • Discern the age and health of the parents.  It is cruel to allow animals to continue producing litters when they are past their prime.  Breeding into old age endangers their health and increases the risk of something going wrong. You are looking for a responsible breeder and thus someone who has the presence of mind to only breed when the adults are in good health and of a prime age.  This is the sign of someone who truly wants to do the right thing by their animals.  Signs of forcing older, less healthy animals into breeding should be a deal breaker.
    • Watch the behavior of the parents.  Sometimes there are behavioral issues which are inherited.  This is not to say that all animals inherit their parents' behavior.  That's just not true.  But occasionally, they will.  I speak about this from experience.  I grew up with a beautiful Labrador Retriever who my mom described as "squirrely".  In layman's terms, he was afraid of a lot of things and that fear could sometimes manifest into undesirable behavior.  Apparently his mother also had the very same "squirrely" personality.  Actually, she was a bit worse.  Had my mother realized the behavior would be passed down, she would never have brought home our dog.  She would have chosen another breeder.  In addition, signs of aggression and fear in the parents could also point to neglect and mishandling.  Neglect and mishandling can also lead to large vet and training bills when you find out you can't handle the issues.  Though our dog was loved and adored and we worked with his issues, a family with little knowledge of these kinds of quirks may have grown frustrated and given him up.  The point here, is to make sure the pet you choose is with you for its whole life, so choose well.  
  • Ask for references.  A good breeder will have happy customers, so it should not be a problem for them to have at least one or two of those happy customers vouch for them.  Many exclusive show breeders have no qualms asking you for your references, so do not feel as if you can't be proactive yourself and ask for theirs.
  • Ask if you can attend a vet visit.  A good breeder will only offer healthy puppies and kittens.  They'll have begun administering their vaccinations and will have had them checked over by a vet in the process of getting those vaccinations.  If the breeder isn't comfortable with you attending the visit for the litter, offer to meet them at your vet for the single kitten/puppy to have a check-up.  If you are paying for a pet, you have the right to know if it is healthy.  Having a breeder balk at this isn't as much of a deal breaker as the refusal to allow a site visit, but gauge the reaction to your asking.  If they are appalled, you may want to find another breeder.  I would take an absolute refusal with no reason as a sign that they have something to hide.  If they are very forthcoming with the medical records and have a decent reason, use your own judgement.
  • Ask what happens if the pet ends up being sickly.  If you get home and, for example, your puppy ends up with parvo.  What happens?  Are you refunded the money you paid?  Will the breeder pay for the vet care?  Will they demand the pet back?  These are all questions you should ask.  Returning the pet isn't always the best idea.  Especially if you begin to have second thoughts about the breeder.  The most important thing is getting the pet the proper care.  Sending it back may not be the avenue for proper care.
And after all of this pre-purchase preparation, you should still expect to take the pet to your own vet for a first check up with someone you trust, unless you really hit the gold mine and the breeder let you do that in the first place.

Purchasing a pet responsibly is not an impulse event.  It takes time and research.  It takes even more such time and research since you can't trust people anymore to do right by the pets they are selling.  And I have to say that makes me angry.  Even if I wasn't an animal rescuer, as a potential customer, it makes me angry that I could be sold a sick animal who could break me financially because a breeder was neglectful and a vendor was a liar about where the pet came from.  Make no mistake, even though large scale breeding operations who supply pets to pet stores are USDA licensed, they are not regulated very well at all.  The facility may receive warnings for issues, but it could be years before the USDA follows up on those issues.  In the mean time, hundreds of pets have been bred and sold.  Some states are putting forth new laws to regulate these breeders.  In Texas, we have the Texas Humane Legislation Network trying to get legislation passed for us.  Missouri was successful in passing their own legislation this year.

Here is a good FAQ from the Humane Society of the United States that addresses questions like "what states have puppy mill laws?"; "I bought a puppy and she got sick. What can I do?"; "Isn't it against the law to sell a sick puppy?"  The more you know about this issue, the better prepared you are for making your decision.