The commercial mass breeding of dogs is not illegal, underground or small scale. Most of the dogs were suffering from severe health problems; there were dogs missing an eye or an ear, dogs with inguinal hernias from having too many litters, dogs with evidence of botched do-it-yourself C-sections. There were dogs with ruptured and missing eyes, and a standard poodle covered in mats and crusted with ticks.
I was standing in the heat of a San Jose veterinary hospital parking lot on Memorial Day when the van pulled in. They’d been on the road for over 24 hours, transporting 49 dogs from Oklahoma to California.
One of the dogs, a small female golden retriever, trembled in the van, refusing to be tugged, pulled, cajoled or tempted out. She was finally carried out in the arms of one of the vets, who set her, shaking, on the ground.
“Hey, Sunshine,” crooned Pat Lynch from Norcal Golden Retriever Rescue. “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be OK.”
Seeing a golden retriever so scared of people that she shakes is sobering for anyone familiar with the breed’s usually happy-go-lucky, ball-chasing, people-loving nature. But Sunshine had reason to be afraid: Until that day, she’d spent her entire life inside a wire cage, pumping out puppies for the puppy-mill trade.
Puppy mills are the factory farms of dog breeding, big commercial operations that produce puppies that are then distributed nationwide to pet stores and sold directly to consumers on the Web. The dogs are kept in small cages — which USDA regulations require to be no more than a few inches bigger than the dog — and females have puppies every time they come in season for their entire lives.
The commercial mass breeding of dogs is not illegal, underground or small scale. Stephanie Shain, the outreach director of the Humane Society of the United States, says that of the 7 to 9 million dogs acquired in this country each year, between 2 and 4 million come from puppy mills. Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council figures suggest that around 300,000 to 400,000 puppies are sold in pet stores annually — a figure HSUS puts at closer to 500,000. A report from the American Veterinary Medical Association indicated that more than 200,000 American families bought puppies online in 2004.
Despite those grim statistics, Sunshine and the 48 other dogs who shared the trek from Oklahoma are about to learn what it means to be a beloved pet, thanks to a group of Bay Area veterinarians and vet techs who have made it their mission to rescue as many puppy-mill breeding animals as they can. They travel to auctions in the big puppy-producing states like Arkansas and Pennsylvania, buy as many animals as possible with the funds they have and bring them back to California for veterinary care, rehabilitation and placement in homes.
After their most recent trip, Fremont veterinarian Helen Hamilton and vet techs Lisa Stein were joined by two other veterinarians and a dozen or so volunteers from groups dedicated to dog rescue. What motivated all these people to spend their holiday gently cleaning and caring for almost 50 frightened, filthy dogs?
All of them are haunted by the fate of the thousands of other dogs just like the ones they were caring for that are still living in cages, still being bred every time they come in season, eventually ending up on the auction block, sold to another puppy miller. “They’re not pets or even living creatures. They’re a crop,” said Dr. Hamilton.
While many people are vaguely aware of the existence of puppy mills, they may not know how common they are or just how bad conditions in them can be — or that their own family pet might have been born in one. Their dog may have been purchased from an expensive online pet boutique or from the Web site of a supposed small-scale family breeder, illustrated with a bucolic farm scene. But the reality is very different from the image, as Hamilton learned when she began to investigate the background of some her clients’ new puppies.
“One of my clients brought in a silky terrier puppy she had bought through a Web site,” she said. The puppy was sick with a preventable, highly contagious disease known as kennel cough, which had quickly developed into pneumonia. The owners pursued legal action against the Internet pet store, and learned that it had been the subject of previous legal actions and had also been investigated by local animal-control agencies. “That was my awakening about the Internet puppy problem.”
A while later, a second client brought a sick puppy to Dr. Hamilton’s hospital — this time on Christmas Eve. “I was at the emergency clinic checking my patients, and a client came in with a 17-ounce Yorkshire terrier/Pomeranian cross she had bought over the Internet 24 hours earlier,” she said. “And you know, a 17-ounce puppy has no business being shipped.” The little dog was cold and rigid, and on Christmas morning she began to have seizures. When the owner got the estimate for the puppy’s care, she decided to have her euthanized, instead.
That wasn’t OK with Dr. Hamilton. “I got the emergency clinic to get her to donate the puppy to the hospital, took her home, nursed her back to health and found her a home,” she said. “The Web site she got the puppy from had a supposed 48-hour guarantee that went into effect as soon as you paid for the dog. However, because they won’t actually ship a dog until you’ve completed payment, the guarantee basically expires before you even get the dog.”
But, said Hamilton, it gets worse: “If the dog dies, you have to ship it back, at your cost, and they’ll have the dog autopsied, at your cost, by a vet of their choice. If their vet agrees they were responsible, they’ll replace the puppy with a puppy of like kind. That’s their guarantee.”
Hamilton began to look into the dogs available on the Internet and realized that most of the sellers were nothing more than puppy mills, many of them not providing even minimal care for the dogs. She and vet tech Stephanie Glock decided to go to a puppy-mill auction in Arkansas and see for themselves.
“The auctions are unbelievable,” Hamilton said. “We saw, over two days, two different females in actual labor — with a sign on their cages saying not to touch them because they were in labor — go on the auction block.” Another female was sold that had 2-day-old puppies, even though USDA regulations prohibit the transport for sale of puppies younger than 8 weeks.
“There was one little bichon I really regret not getting,” Hamilton continued. “She had injured her leg — it had gone right through the gaps in the cage wire and obviously hadn’t been properly cared for. But all they said when they auctioned her was not to worry, it won’t affect her ability to breed.”
Hamilton and the three techs and the volunteers, along with San Jose veterinarians, unloaded the dogs and started the long process of examining, cleaning, vaccinating, worming and treating them.
Most of the dogs were suffering from severe health problems, some of them genetic. There were dogs missing an eye or an ear or part of a tail, dogs with inguinal hernias from having too many litters, dogs with evidence of botched do-it-yourself C-sections. There were dogs with ruptured and missing eyes, and a standard poodle covered in mats and crusted with ticks.
And then there was a tiny, starving miniature dachshund named Savannah. She came out of the truck weighing 6-1/2 pounds, around half her healthy body weight. She was spewing liquid diarrhea and was stiff and shaking. Vet tech Aubri Lahan held her gently the entire time she was cleaned and examined, keeping her wrapped in a towel and stroking her tiny head.
So what was wrong with Savannah? “She was suffering from malnutrition from being loaded with hookworm and whipworm,” Hamilton said. “She was emaciated. And she must have been starved, because I can find no other medical problems to account for her condition. She’s gained half a pound so far and is eating like a champ. It was a case of pure neglect.”
Savannah is being fostered by Lahan while they slowly try to get her healthy enough to be adopted. “When we first got her she couldn’t walk. Her muscles were too weak,” she said. “Now she can walk around, although she’s scared in new places.”
The healthiest of the dogs are being fostered in private homes, where they’re being readied for adoption. Despite being overwhelmed with large numbers of dogs in need of homes year-round, volunteers from Labrador Retriever rescue rallied to take around a dozen labs into their care. Many of the dogs are still hospitalized at Hamilton’s Veterinary Internal Medicine Service in Fremont or at Boulevard Pet Hospital in San Jose. Nonetheless, everyone involved knows that they’ve barely made a dent in the problem.
“There are thousands of dogs that run through the auction. You can only buy a few,” Hamilton admitted. But that’s not really the point, she said.
“Of course, we want to get the dogs out and get them in loving homes. But the real point of doing this is to draw attention to the lives these dogs live, so that someone who feels the impulse to get a puppy on the Web, or whose eye is caught by a cute puppy in a pet store window, will stop and think, not about that cute puppy but about his mother and father back at the puppy mill. Those dogs are spending their entire lives in tiny cages and cramped, filthy runs.”
If you want to help the dogs brought out of Oklahoma, or offer one of them a home, but the most important thing you can do to help all the Sunshines and Savannahs that didn’t make it out of the puppy mills, she said, is simple: Stop buying their puppies.
“It’s a money-driven industry, and the only way to stop it is when people become educated not to buy puppies from these sources,” she said. “You have to cut off the demand so that they’ll breed less and fewer dogs will suffer.”
How can you ensure that the dog joining your family isn’t from a puppy mill? If the only test you have to pass to get the puppy is whether your check clears or your credit card charge goes through, that’s a pretty good sign the breeder doesn’t have the puppy’s best interests at heart — or yours. Instead visit a shelter and save a life.