Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Pet Stores and Puppy Mills, Part 3

I was still on iChat over the computer when the pet store owner called my family member. I had already pointed out to him that one dog seemed sick, that they had come from the top puppy mill state, that their papers were from a sham registry, and he’d likely be overwhelmed by training 2 dogs at once. I could see he was starting to have regrets, and he put her on speakerphone so I could hear both ends of the conversation.

When he inquired about the registry, the woman told him all registries are the same and one isn’t better than another. This is completely untrue. The AKC and UKC certainly have their shortcomings and their papers aren’t a guarantee of quality, but they’re universally recognized as the most legitimate organizations with goals of improving breed standards through performance and conformation events. The others pretty much exist just to take your cash by entering your dog into their computer.

When he said he was getting doubtful about the origin of his puppies, the store owner actually got angry. She claimed she would NEVER use a puppy mill, and that she carefully screens all breeders first. She said they only have one litter at a time, they sleep in the breeder’s laundry room, and the dogs are hand raised as a member of the family before they arrive at her store. It then took her 10 minutes to locate the breeder’s number when he asked for it. She ended the conversation by saying all sales are final, and the only reason she takes a dog back is if it’s sick.

Two days later he got a phone call from the vet with the fecal results: both puppies had coccidia and giardia. When he called the store owner to complain the dogs were sick, she told him that as far as their return policy is concerned, that “coccidia and giardia are normal, common occurrences in dogs, and don’t qualify as being sold sick animals.” While these parasites are common in pet store and puppy mill dogs, they are not normal occurrences with a responsible breeder using healthy animals. He also discovered one of his puppies was a poop eater. This is common with pet store puppies that are forced to live for weeks or months in the same small area they eliminate in. It can be a difficult habit to break, and since giardia is spread through feces, the puppy could continue to reinfect herself with the parasite.

After two weeks of caring for the dogs, he was stressed out and frustrated. Since he works from home and his wife commutes, he was doing the majority of the work and he was exhausted. He was getting up at 3am and 6am to housetrain them, and could only leave the house for 2-3 hours at a time. He wasn’t used to being so tied to home, and everything cost double, including vet visits, parasite medication, vaccinations, supplies, and double spay operations. He was having real doubts about his decision, and acknowledged he was overwhelmed with the time commitment they needed. He even contacted a local SPCA to inquire if they’d be able to find homes for one or both of the puppies if they decided to give them up.

Check back for the conclusion of this story, including my conversations with the breeder and store owner.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Pets as Presents

With Christmas fast approaching, I felt we should do a preemptory blog about pets as presents. We see it in the movies and on tv, the family gets a new puppy for the holidays and everyone is happy. Unfortunately, these holiday surprises rarely work out this well. Usually, the children who have been begging for a new puppy or kitten grow tired of it by January. By June, the cute little puppy is now a large puppy with no manners and ends up spending it's life in the backyard, if it's lucky. Or, it winds up one of the 3-5 million dogs and cats abandoned in our shelter system every year. It doesn't have to be this way, though. With some research, planning ahead and commitment, a pet can be a wonderful addition to your family.

If the animal is being given to another adult, it's important the recipient is involved in the selection process. Consider surprising your significant other with a gift card covering the adoption fee from your local shelter, or wrap up some pet supplies. Then both of you can go through the process of selecting the perfect pet together. Sadly, many of the animals purchased as a surprise wind up being re-homed within a few months because the recipient either wasn't ready for the commitment or it wasn't a good match.

If the pet is going to be a surprise for your children, ask yourself the following questions to determine if your family is ready to take on the responsibility of caring for a pet:

How old are your kids? Different pets are appropriate for different ages. Just because your child begs for the pet, doesn't mean they need to have it. Your 5 year-old who is pleading for a puppy is not capable of taking on the responsibility. The primary responsibility will fall on your shoulders. If you aren't ready for all the work, you might consider a pet that is easier to care for.

Do your kids really want a pet? Your son may love to play with your parents older lab when you visit them because he's known the dog for years, but that doesn't mean he is ready or even wants to have a dog fulltime himself. Not every child needs or wants a dog. A new pet, especially a puppy, isn't going to have the same personality. Shelter workers often see parents getting a dog "for the children" even though the child clearly isn't comfortable interacting with the animal.

Have you thought about the cost? Most people don't think past the initial fee for the dog or cat. A healthy cat can cost around $400 a year while a healthy dog can cost $1200. If the pet gets sick or hurt, this cost quickly rises.

Are you committed? Pets should not be viewed as an item that can simply be returned if it doesn't work out. They're a lifetime commitment. Cats can live 15-20 years. Dogs can live 14-20 years. If your child is 10 years old, that pet is going to be your responsibility when they leave for college 8 years later.

Do you know what is involved in caring for an animal? Accidents happen. Dogs vomit. Cats get hairballs. Litter has to be scooped and the backyard has to be picked up. Dogs are social animals and need lots of family time. If they are relegated to the backyard, they will bark, dig and chew. They need daily walks even when you are sick. Having a pet takes time and effort. You have to be prepared to give your pet the time, attention and exercise that they need. The animal is the one who suffers if your child forgets to feed it, so pets should not be used as a lesson in responsibility.

If you have thought it through and you feel your whole family is ready for the commitment, why not draw out the surprise? Instead of picking out a pet ahead of time, buy a stuffed animal that you can wrap and put under your tree. You could even put it in a carrier and wrap that so it isn't as obvious. When your children open the package, tell them part of their Christmas present will be researching a breed together online and then going to the shelter together to pick out their dog or cat. The whole family can be involved in deciding what type, size and breed of animal will be right for your lifestyle. You can check out books at the library or peruse books in the bookstore to read up on breed characteristics so you find the right fit.

Once you've got an idea what you're looking for, you can find that pet on Petfinder (http://www.petfinder.com). Petfinder has a wide variety of pets for adoption in your area. Logging on to their site allows you to search more than 4000 different shelters by breed, location, size and more for animals up for adoption. The whole family can get involved in the search, looking at pictures and profiles. Getting a pet at a shelter saves a life. The cost is low, they come with their shots and are already spayed/neutered. If you go with a foster based rescue, the puppy or adult dog has already been in a home. Most of the work is done for you. The pet often comes housebroken. The foster parents know the dog well - they are good with kids, good with other dogs, don't like cats, etc. Done the right way, your children have fun picking out their new family member and it will be a permanent match.

The ASPCA recommends using the following guidelines when picking out a pet for your family and children:

Under 3 – Focus on introducing Baby to your current pets. It's not appropriate to bring in a new pet at this point.

3 to 5 – Guinea pigs are a good choice, as they like to be held, seldom bite and will whistle when excited or happy. Your child can help fill the water bottle or food dish. Keep in mind, with proper care they live 8 years.

5 to 10 – Choose shelf pets like mice, rats or fish. Kids can help clean cages with adult help, though you should always check to ensure that pets have food and water and cages are secured.

10 to 13 – Your child is now ready for the responsibility of a dog, cat or rabbit. Your child can help feed the pet, walk the dog, clean the rabbit cage and clean the cat litter, but you should always check to be sure pets have everything they need. Participation in dog training classes is an excellent learning opportunity for children.

14 to 17 – Your child may have more activities competing for his time and less time to spend with a pet. Birds or aquariums are a good choice. Remember, you will have the pet once they leave to go to college.

Monday, November 23, 2009

An Unexpected Lesson in Kindness

We've all heard the sayings "practice what you preach" and "actions speak louder than words". This is something that Meredith and I always try to live by. You will see us herding chickens down a city street to the safety of their own yard, racing in front of cars to stop traffic and save a puppy/kitten/dog/cat/child and stopping during our dog walking to offer advice to other dog owners. Actually, I don't think we try. Yoda always said "Try not. Do or do not. There is no try." We will do things without thinking because it's second nature to us. Afterwards, we may think to ourselves that it wasn't the smartest move running in front of the city bus to grab the poodle that everyone was simply watching skitter in and out and around cars or confront the large, tatooed man for hitting his German Shepherd repeatedly until it urinates because it walked in front of him while he was on his cell phone and it tripped him. At the time, we simply act. Kindness is second nature to us. Some people may say it's first nature. As educators, we are always looking for the lesson in each situation. Sometimes, the lesson escapes us. I had an experience last month that spoke volumes to me and I feel everyone can learn from.

It happened at one of the schools I was teaching at. After my first class, I happened upon a pigeon sitting on the asphalt inbetween classrooms. The pigeons around the schoolyards seem very brave so I thought nothing of the fact that it didn't move as I approached it. When I was almost on top it, the bird tried to hop feebly away from me. I noticed that it's leg was horribly bent at an odd angle and it had one wing that was clearly broken as it flopped uselessly at its side. When I got to my next class, I asked the teacher for a box to put the bird in so that I could take it somewhere to get it help. I was astounded when the teacher acknowledged that the bird had been there "for days". The kids had been picking the bird up when they were out on breaks and at lunch. Other than making the kids wash their hands to prevent the spread of some disease they didn't know the name of but were sure the bird had, no one had done anything to help this poor pigeon who was obviously suffering. Not only was the bird in pain, it also was suffering at the hands of curious children. The kids didn't mean any harm. They were excited that a bird was letting them pick it up. The pigeon, though, was clearly trying to get away so I'm sure it was traumatic for it as giant hands scooped it up and loud voices squeeled in delight. To a pigeon, even children seem huge. The teacher was kind enough to let me leave the box and bird in her classroom until my long break when I could get the bird help. The best part of this was that my next class was a 2nd grade class - our Kindness presentation. What better lesson than the bird? All the children had seen the bird in the yard for days now. When I mentioned the bird to the classs, they all nodded their heads vigorously with a few offering "he's been there all week!" I told the class that I had caught the bird and it was now resting safely in a box until I could take it for help. Children are very caring. I'm not sure when we stop learning to care about the little creatures that surround us. I am very lucky that I get to work with young children who still have that empathy. I asked the class how they would feel if a giant was scooping them off the ground while they had a broken leg and arm and couldn't get away? The class was quiet. One of the children offered softly, "I would be really scared." My lesson had hit home. I was able to use the pigeon as an example for the rest of the week.

When I had a break in the schedule, I called the local wildlife rescue. They were extremely friendly, giving me many options on where to take the hurt bird. I opted for the local ASPCA as it was closest. Unfortunately, the bird was too injured to save. They humanely euthanized him. This was a much better end than suffering on the playground until a stray animal got ahold of him or he starved to death. I don't think that the teachers at that school didn't act because they were unkind. I think they simply didn't realize how easy it was to help in this situation. I didn't know how easy it was either until I jumped in to do it. I have never rescued a bird before. I didn't know what it entailed. However, I wasn't going to simply leave the pigeon suffering in the yard because I lacked the knowledge. I was going to get the bird out of the situation and figure out to help it. My kind act cost me a total of thirty minutes of my day, including my phone calls, but it was priceless to that poor, hurting animal.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Pet Stores and Puppy Mills, Part II

He wanted to show me the puppies, so we got on the computer to iChat over the cameras. The dogs were certainly cute – one was a Bichon Frise and the other a Maltipoo (a Maltese/Poodle hybrid). They were both 13 weeks old. He held one in each arm, and while one seemed alert and interested, the other seemed dull and lethargic. I immediately pointed out it looked like one of them might be sick. He said he was taking them both for a check up that evening and he’d talk to the vet about it.

I asked why he had gotten both when he had never mentioned any interest in having 2 dogs. In his words, “I wasn’t planning on it, but the store suckered me into it because they said the dogs have bonded to one another.” While I’m sure the puppies had legitimately bonded, they had only lived together for 5 weeks. These weren’t 12 year-old siblings! They would have easily recovered from the separation, and pushing for both dogs to go home together was the first sign of a store-owner simply trying to maximize profit.

There is a commonly mistaken belief that 2 puppies aren’t much more work than one. But the reality is that the time and energy it takes to train them both properly simultaneously is often too overwhelming for the average person. If the owner isn’t careful, the dogs bond more to each other than to their owner, which makes training even more difficult. When the dogs are full grown and their bad behavior is no longer cute, owners often get rid of one or both of the dogs, or banish them to the backyard away from the family.

The store insisted they only used reputable breeders when he inquired if the dogs came from puppy mills. However, when I asked for the breeders’ info from their papers there was only a name listed along with a town in Missouri. This was a giant red flag. While puppy mills can be found in any state in the U.S., there are 7 states that produce the lion’s share. Missouri is number one.

The store noted that the dogs came with “papers” from the United All Breed Registry. Registration papers don’t amount to much, but in the U.S. if they’re not from the AKC or UKC they’re worth even less. There are around a dozen sham registries that have been created as a money-maker for commercial breeders, and this is one of them. Regardless of the registry, papers are never an indication of quality health, temperament, or soundness in a dog. They’re simply a record of lineage to help breeders avoid mating dogs that are too closely related. Even then, registries rely almost entirely on the honor system, so there’s no way of truly knowing who the parents actually are, if they were inbred, or if the animal is even purebred.

During our conversation over iChat, he received a call from the owner of the store. He spoke to her over speaker-phone so I could hear both sides of the conversation. My next post will continue with the conversation they had.

The following video is an HSUS undercover investigation of a pet store n LA in which employees are instructed on the common practice of denying puppies are sick.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Pet Stores and Puppy Mills, Part 1

Two weeks ago my very own family member had the unfortunate experience of becoming a textbook pet-store-puppy cautionary tale. The following is a true story that I’m sharing with the hope that someone else will learn from this experience without having to live it.

A family member had been talking about getting a dog off and on for about 2 years. At various times he has sought my advice and we’d had many conversations about his options. I had told him that pet stores use puppy mills, and that buying a dog from a store was the worst place to get one. He knew I was willing to help him find a responsible breeder, or preferably a good match through a rescue group when he felt the timing was right.

So this past August the same family member and his wife casually mentioned some adorable puppies they fell in love with at a local pet store. They told me they really wanted to buy them, but the timing just wasn’t right. I was shocked it had even been a consideration. I told them both immediately once again what a terrible idea that would have been to buy from a store. I spared them all the gory details of the videos I’ve seen of the living conditions these poor dogs endure at mills, and the countless horror stories I’ve heard firsthand from those who have bought pet store puppies, simply because I’m aware that my family doesn’t share my passion for lengthy animal conversations. I thought it was enough to keep my opinion simple, yet clear: puppy mills are cruel and they produce unhealthy dogs, so NO PET STORES. I realize now, too late, that I made a huge mistake. It’s only when people actually learn about the gory details of puppy mills that they finally understand why buying a pet store puppy isn’t as harmless as it seems.

Now it’s November, and I get a phone call from the same family member with “exciting” news – they had bought two puppies. He hadn’t brought the subject up since August, so I was surprised by the news. He said he wanted to move the timing up from December as a surprise to his wife and so it all happened rather quickly. First he had contacted 2 breeders but neither had any puppies available. Then he looked at a rescue dog but didn’t like it. He wanted one NOW, so finally he went to a store. I was even more dismayed when he told me, “But I didn’t go to a regular pet store like a Petco. It was a high-end boutique that promised me they don’t get their dogs from puppy mills.” It had truly never occurred to me that someone might not consider a high-end boutique to be the same as a regular pet store. And he hadn’t just bought A puppy, he had bought TWO puppies. The Cardinal Rule is “No pet stores.” Rule #2 is “Only get ONE puppy at a time.” This was off to a very bad start.

This family member is an intelligent, responsible adult with a college degree and he had been forewarned about pet stores. If he can be duped into supporting the puppy mill industry, I know there are thousands of others capable of doing the same despite good intentions. We’ll be blogging more about what happened with these dogs in the upcoming days. If everyone takes a moment to “paws” and learn about pet stores and puppy mills, we can finally put an end to this incredibly inhumane industry.

Monday, September 28, 2009


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