A 'puppy farm' may sound like a magical place, where pint-sized moodles, spoodles and cavoodles cavort atop green pastures, but the reality is something very different indeed. Earlier this year, the owners of a Victorian 'puppy farm' pleaded guilty to 240 charges of animal cruelty following a raid of their Pyramid Hill farm.
The RSPCA found 235 dogs living in wire cages on the property, in squalid and overcrowded conditions. Some dogs had died and those still living were underfed and filthy, many with serious health problems. At the time of prosecution it was reported in the media the owners had netted more than $250,000 over two and a half years by selling puppies to pet shops.
This shocking case has helped shine the spotlight on the factory farming of companion animals in Australia, as the RSPCA and other animal welfare groups continue to campaign for setting minimum standards to force the closure of unethical dealers.
What are puppy farms?
Puppy farms, also known as puppy factories or puppy mills, are intense breeding facilities that churn out puppy litters for profit, often at the expense of the health and wellbeing of the animals. Sadly, it's a lucrative business in Australia, and one that raises serious welfare concerns.
According to the RSPCA, a puppy-farming environment where dogs can be caged in conditions similar to those of battery hens, can cause long-term health and behavioural problems in breeding dogs and their puppies, due to:
- extreme confinement – in some cases breeding animals may never be allowed out of their cage to exercise, play, socialise, have companionship or even to go to the toilet
- inadequate veterinary care and general care (grooming and parasite control)
- unhygienic living conditions
- inadequate and overcrowded housing conditions.
Images provided by the RSPCA during a raid on a Queensland puppy farm.
"The most distressing thing is the psychological damage," says Debra Tranter, founder of animal welfare group Oscar's Law. "We've seen dogs spinning in circles or chewing their own tails, or chewing the cage. And a lot of these dogs completely shut down. They can't even make eye contact and refuse to eat and drink."
Tranter says she is aware of around 200 'legal' puppy factories currently operating in Victoria alone – meaning they are licensed and operate under local council permits – while countless others are running Australia-wide without permits, hiding their activities in isolated or remote areas.
Puppy farms produce all types and breeds of dogs, so buying a purebred is no guarantee it comes from a responsible breeder. Farmers also use every available avenue to sell their puppies to the public – including some pet shops. "If you buy a puppy from a pet shop and you don't know who the breeder is, then there's a risk that puppy may have come from a puppy farm," the RSPCA's Dr Jade Norris told CHOICE.
From 1 July, the Victorian Government enforced new regulations on pet shop owners, requiring they keep detailed records on every dog and cat for sale. Restrictions are set to get tighter with pet shops being limited to selling dogs and cats only from registered animal shelters or pounds.
Minister for Agriculture Jaala Pulford says there are further plans to crack down on puppy farms by introducing mandatory pre-mating vet checks, limiting breeding dogs to five litters, and restricting the number of breeding dogs in business to 10 by 2020.
Other state governments are also taking steps in the right direction, with the NSW government calling a parliamentary inquiry in May this year to assess current legislation and the lack of regulation in the industry. But, according to RSPCA's paper End Puppy Farming – the Way Forward, there's still a long way to go. "There are insufficient standards nationwide to provide for the welfare and health of breeding dogs and puppies and ensure that puppies are appropriately reared to be suitable as companion animals," it states.
How to find a responsible breeder
Visiting your local animal rescue group or using the RSPCA's Adoptapet are great ways to find an ideal pet or companion animal. However, if you have your heart set on buying a particular kind of dog, there are steps you need to take to ensure you're dealing with a responsible breeder.
In its comprehensive Smart Puppy and Dog Buyer's Guide, the RSPCA advises: "Requirements for dog breeders vary from state to state, but it's a good idea to call your local council and ask whether breeders have to be registered with them and if there is a code of practice or guidelines that they should be following." If there are requirements in place, it suggests asking the breeder for their registration details and what guidelines they follow.
Dr Norris says it is critical when buying any new puppy to visit the place where it was born – something a puppy farmer generally won't allow you to do. This will give you the chance to check that the conditions are clean, there is enough space for the dogs to move around in and that the mother is happy and healthy. While there, some important questions to ask the breeder are:
- How many pregnancies has the mother had? (Five should be the maximum)
- Are the pets bred to be free of inherited disorders? (see below Health Concerns and inherited diseases)
- Can you provide referees?
- Will you provide a guarantee and take back an unwanted animal within a specified timeframe or as the result of an inherited disease?
- Has the puppy been microchipped, vaccinated and treated for worms and fleas; do you have records of these treatments?
- Can you provide a complete history of the puppy and allow inspection of records and paperwork?
- Are you a registered pedigree breeder (for purebreds)?
Another indication that the breeder is ethical is if they are genuinely concerned about the welfare of their animals. "A responsible breeder will want to know that they are going to the right home and the appropriate home for their breed," says Tranter. "So they'll ask a lot of questions [of] the person that's purchasing the puppy."
Health concerns and inherited diseases
When buying a new pet, it's important to be aware of the inherited diseases and health conditions associated with the breed. The Universities Federation for Animal Welfare provides information on common disorders for a range of breeds. A responsible breeder will be aware of any conditions specific to their breed and exclude any dogs with problems from breeding. Ask to see copies of vet reports and screening tests for confirmation.
Risks with purebred dogs
Inherited health problems are also more likely to surface in inbred animals, so if you're buying a purebred dog, check its pedigree to make sure it has no close relative matings.
There is a particular concern that some purebred breeders irresponsibly mate their animals to make them more aesthetically desirable, which can cause associated health problems. For example, features such as a squished-in face or very short legs may be attractive to some pet-owners, but can cause breathing troubles and spinal problems for your pet. A beautiful dog may not necessarily be a healthy dog and above all, a good breeder will value health, welfare and temperament above current trends.
"There are a lot of long-standing myths," says Dr Norris. "For example, if you just bought a puppy from a champion who has won awards in the show-ring then you might think the puppy is going to be healthy, and that's not necessarily the case."
Risks with crossbred dogs
If you're purchasing a crossbred puppy, the risks of it having inherited diseases are lower, but background checks on its history are still important. Wally Conron, who bred the first labradoodle when working for the Royal Guide Dog Association of Australia in the 1980s, has since claimed he created a 'Frankenstein'. "All these backyard breeders have jumped on the bandwagon and they're crossing any kind of dog with a poodle," he told Psychology Today. "They're selling them for more than a purebred is worth and they're not going into the backgrounds of the parents of the dogs. There are so many poodle-crosses having fits, problems with their eyes, hips and elbows, and a lot have epilepsy. There are a few ethical breeders, but very, very few.''
Choosing to buy your puppy from a responsible breeder or from your local RSPCA or shelter will not only provide the healthiest and happiest pup possible, it will ensure you're not funding an illegal industry that puts profit before the welfare of animals. If you'd like to help make a change, visit closepuppyfactoriesnsw.com.au and make a pledge of support.
Should you buy from a pet shop?
Last year, a woman brought home a $2300 English Staffordshire terrier puppy, 'Torro', from a Perth pet store, only to rush it to a veterinary hospital one week later. The pup was diagnosed with bronchopneumonia and died shortly after, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.
Later it was discovered that the dog had been shipped all the way to WA from a 'stud' farm in NSW where approximately 200 animals were living in sub-standard conditions. Since Torro's death, the RSPCA has visited the property several times, finding numerous breaches to the Animal Welfare Code of Practice and removing more than 80 animals.
The pet shop that sold the dog was a member of the Pet Industry Association of Australia (PIAA), which at the time guaranteed that puppies bought from its member retail stores are not the product of puppy farms. But Debra Tranter from Oscar's Law says puppy farmers often use a third party to cover their tracks when selling to pet shops. "Most puppy farmers use a broker," she says. "A broker will travel around to a number of different puppy farms, buy the litters and then onsell the litters to the pet shops." The PIAA has since confirmed to CHOICE that the pet shop's membership status is with their lawyers and the guarantee is currently 'under review'.
While regulations governing pet shops are being tightened in Victoria, laws vary in other states and the origin of your new puppy may not need to be disclosed.
Torro's sad case highlights the importance of visiting the home of your new puppy before purchase, something that pet shop windows just won't allow you to do.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.