How much is that designer doggie?

Animal protection advocate Anna Ludvik with two dogs rescued from puppy farms.
Animal protection advocate Anna Ludvik with two dogs rescued from puppy farms.

A blind dog in a cage is about to give birth. Around her are dozens of other small cages filled with puppies and their nursing mothers. Some of them sit in their own faeces; many have matted coats, skin and eye infections and are sick. The noise of barking is deafening and the smell of ammonia is intense.

This is a puppy farm, a place where many of the puppies you see in pet shops begin their lives.

You won't find puppy farms listed in the phone book, but you might find dogs from one of these breeding factories for sale in the newspaper, on the internet, or in a local pet shop.

Unlike registered, professional dog breeders, puppy farmers often fly under the radar, breeding hundreds of designer or cross-breed dogs in unsanitary and unethical conditions in order to make money, and the problem is spreading across the world.

Southern Cross University law student Anna Ludvik is an animal protection advocate and she wants to see more public awareness about what puppy farms are and get people thinking more about the animals in our lives.

Anna is involved with the Animal Law and Education Project (ALEP) run by the Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre (NRCLC) and encourages people to come along to a workshop being held in Lismore on Saturday, September 17, to find out more about puppy farming and its repercussions.

"As societies grow more affluent, the demand for pure-bred or designer dogs is increasing as people want a particular dog as a status symbol," Anna said. People see buying a labradoodle (Labrador poodle cross) or a Maltese cross poodle as desirable; people with allergies may want a labradoodle because it doesn't shed hair and poodles are intelligent and easy to train. Dogs are also cross-bred to be smaller for people who live in high-density, small apartments. Some think that because cross-bred dogs have lower chances of genetic deformity it's better to have a cross-breed, but these too have been bred from pure-bred dogs who themselves may be suffering."

The increasing numbers of people who want designer dogs means that registered, ethical dog breeders who normally breed only a few dogs a time in healthy conditions can't keep up with demand, and the number of unethical puppy farms is growing. While there is no regulating authority overseeing puppy farm breeders, the breeders may have registered with the local council in the same way as other professional breeders.

"It's easy to define how animals should be kept, but it's a legal nightmare trying to differentiate puppy farms from ethical breeders," Anna said. "A responsible breeder should welcome you onto their property and has a duty of care to the dog. You should be able to see the original vet certificates and the conditions they live in. A puppy farmer won't let you onto the property and may use a go-between as the seller.

"On puppy farms, indiscriminate breeding often takes place and while the pups appear to be healthy, they often die young or grow up to have rare diseases. While we live in a more affluent society, it's at the expense of animal welfare. Dogs form a trusting relationship with humans and depend on us for protection, socialisation and the company of others. If we keep domestic animals, we need to have responsibility for them."

When Anna travelled to Thailand she saw designer dogs being bred for profit while being kept on chains or in cages and not allowed out to exercise. In Japan, Anna rescued a toy poodle called Olivia that had been bred in a Japanese puppy farm.

"I met Olivia in a Japanese pet shop when she was four months old," Anna said. "I saw puppies in small crates and in glass boxes and when I went back two months later she was still there in the same one-metre square box and I knew I had to take her home."

When Anna took Olivia to the vet, she discovered Olivia had dislocated knees, a common problem in small breeds known as subluxation, which is the result of indiscriminate genetic breeding. She also had a host of other problems including ear mites.

"The success rate of an operation for her knees is fairly low and so she is on a weight management diet and pain management," Anna said. "She is now three years old and still not fully adapted. She is extremely hard to toilet train because she was kept in a small box where she ate, slept and pooed in the same place. She had never been properly socialised, only experiencing being picked up and put back down again. I can pat her now, but she is timid and finds it difficult to form bonds and she'll never fully recover. If a dog doesn't have a good start to life, the dog may never adapt. It's a lifelong burden for her. If I hadn't taken her, she would have been bred and passed on those genetic traits."

With more people buying cute designer dogs that turn out to be untrainable or have medical conditions that are expensive to treat, the numbers of dogs being abandoned and handed into local pounds is also on the increase.

"The RSPCA and the local dog pounds are full of pedigree and designer dogs that need a home," Anna said. "Every day in Australia a dog is killed every four minutes in council-run pounds."

Anna recommends anyone wanting to buy a cat or a dog should go to an animal rescue shelter or talk to their local kennel club about recommending an ethical breeder. When it comes to buying an animal from a pet shop, people should be asking if the shop re-homes abandoned dogs and cats, and if not, don't buy from there. Sometimes a puppy farm breeder will take puppies to a pet shop and tell the shop owner that the dogs were a result of their bitch getting loose and mating with a neighbour's dog and pet shop owners often buy them on good faith.

One of the only pet shops in the Lismore area that sells only rescued cats and dogs is Pets and Saddles. Shop owner Lucinda Dyason has been in the pet industry business for 42 years and receives about three surrendered dogs every week and up to 250 cats per year. Lucinda believes that a new system of pet shop regulation is needed in

order to make sure that animals in pet shops are looked after properly and that designer dogs with faulty breeding are not sold indiscriminately.

"At the moment, it's up to the public to police what goes on in a pet shop," Lucinda said. "I know of pet shops that sold puppies with Parvovirus and birds with mites, and not a thing was done about it. If an animal in a pet shop is sick or not looked after, people should report it to the RSPCA; if enough people report a shop, something will be done about it."

Chief inspector of RSCPA Queensland, Michael Pecic, will be speaking at the upcoming puppy farm workshop in Lismore. Michael has been with the RSPCA for four years and regularly investigates reports of puppy farms. He often finds it harder to deal with the sights he sees in puppy farms than he did during his 18 years in the police force investigating child abuse. When he led a team investigation into a large puppy farm in Queensland he found more than 130 designer dogs and 600 rats in a three bay garage.

"The mother dogs and puppies were kept in cat carry cages which were dirty and poorly kept and the dogs had very little water in the pen," Michael said. "The rats were sold as reptile food and the income was used to buy food for the dogs while the puppies were growing."

After one of his investigations, four inspectors were taken to hospital with high levels of ammonia in their lungs from the smelly, foul conditions on the puppy farm.

"People who breed bigger dogs try and keep them in sheds in the dark or on rural properties where they run around breeding at random, having their litters on the ground," Michael said "All you'll see as a buyer is pretty pictures of pups on rugs; they try to keep how they are bred a secret and it's very hard to find them.

"One puppy farm we raided had 140 designer bred poodles that were being sold to the overseas Hong Kong market for $5000-10,000 each. These people sit under the radar and don't declare the income to the tax department. We need the government to help us by tightening the laws on the sale of animals and that will help make it safer for consumers too.

"Often I see female dogs that might have had a lot of litters with huge, strained underbellies; sometimes they are blind, living in darkness, breeding, and some of them have no hair left on their skin. The saddest thing is that no-one touches them; they have no socialisation and they shut down in shock. When they need vet care, it's easier for the breeder to put them down and get another breeding bitch."

In order to keep track of which breeders are acting responsibly, the RSPCA wants to see the introduction of laws that make people responsible for the life of an animal. One of the ways to do this would be to introduce microchips that identify who the animal's breeder was. If an animal with a health problem or genetic defect is sold on, there would then be a way to track the animal back to the breeder.

In Australia, animal protection law is state-based and there are a number of groups, such as Oscar's Law, that have been campaigning for state governments to police the puppy farming industry and create laws to improve animal welfare. The Queensland government is looking at bringing in a breeder identification system and earlier this year in NSW, the Minister for Local Government Don Page announced the establishment of the state's first Companion Animals Taskforce. The Taskforce will investigate a range of companion animal issues including animal breeding practices and puppy farms, desexing and micro-chipping, and will develop initiatives to promote responsible pet ownership to better protect the welfare of pets.

These changes have been welcomed by animal protection advocates, but according to both Anna and Michael, the biggest change needs to start with consumers choosing not to buy animals from puppy farms.

"We need to increase community awareness about these issues so people make the right decisions and then can put pressure on government to introduce better animal protection legislation," Anna said. "Society leads the law, not the other way around. The future is in the hands of the people."

The workshop about puppy farming will be held at Lismore Workers Club from 10am to 12pm on Saturday, September 17, and entry will be by donation. As well as speakers from the RSPCA, there will be speakers from the Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre's Animal Law and Education Project. For more information and to RSVP, email animallawworkshop or phone NRCLC manager Angela Pollard on 6621 1005.

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