Puppy farming is one of those hidden issues in our society. We all know that it goes on, but it happens behind closed doors, and it’s generally only with hind sight that people realise that they have bought a puppy-farmed dog. Typically, somebody sets their mind on a certain breed. They try the “quality breeder” route, but discover that they’ll have to wait four months, and there’s a hefty price tag. So when they find a pup on the internet that’s immediately available, costing 30% less, it can be tempting. They meet the seller in a car park, because “it’s much easier than giving directions to our place in the countryside”. It’s only later, when the initial excitement of welcoming the pup has worn off that they notice the fleas, the worms, the poor body condition and the nervousness, all indications of a classic puppy farm upbringing.
It’s one thing for an unscrupulous breeder to be producing puppies in sub-standard conditions, but what about the vets who may be involved in helping them? I came across one purchaser of a puppy-farmed dog recently who was incensed that her puppy came with a vaccine certificate signed by the local vet. She was furious, and she wrote to the vet, demanding answers to her questions. “Do you do any checks in people bringing litters to your practice? Do you ask to see the parent dogs? Do you do background checks on breeders? Do you not wonder why there are so many puppies? How many litters of pups have you vaccinated for this man?” These are all good questions: how much responsibility should vets take in such situations?
The British Veterinary Association, the representative body for vets, has certainly been proactive on the puppy farm issue, campaigning for a review of existing breeding licensing legislation to ensure it is fit for purpose. The BVA supported the conclusion of Professor Bateson’s report on dog breeding which argued that current legislation should be reviewed and re-presented as regulations under the new Animal Welfare Acts.
Current legislation insists that anyone breeding dogs as a business and/or breeding more than four litters a year, in England, Wales and Scotland, is bound by the Breeding of Dogs Acts 1973 and 1991 and the Breeding and Sale of Dogs (Welfare) Act 1999. Local authorities must ensure that regular inspections are carried out by people with veterinary and welfare expertise to ensure that the regulations are complied with. Clearly, this does not always happen, which is why there are so many calls for more action to be taken.
But while the BVA and anti-puppy farm activists may be trying to move puppy farm regulations along at a political level, what about vets on the ground? Should vets refuse to vaccinate pups from suspected puppy farm backgrounds? Should they even go further, acting as whistle blowers to report establishments that they may feel are problematic?
Most vets tend to approach the subject from the side of the puppy buyer, promoting responsible pet ownership and giving advice to prospective dog owners on what to look for when buying a puppy. When it comes to tackling suspected puppy farmers, vets don’t like to see themselves as “policemen” or “law enforcers”. There’s a fear that if vets act as nosey informers, puppy farmers will start to avoid vets altogether, driving the puppy farm industry even further underground. These vets would argue that at least if there is some veterinary contact, the worst of the excesses may be limited. There’s no doubt that if any vet encountered blatant cruelty, they would take the necessary action to deal with it, informing the authorities as needed. It can be a harder call when there’s a grey area, with issues suspected but perhaps not proven.
Sceptical critics, of course, will accuse vets of taking the money for vaccines and turning a blind eye for the sake of continued business.
What is the truth? It probably lies somewhere between the views of the vets vaccinating the pups (who believe that they are keeping half an eye on what’s going on), and the views of their critics (who believe that the vets are entirely money driven).
As Sophocles wisely pointed out 2500 years ago, “What people believe prevails over the truth”.
The BBC Watchdog exposé can be viewed by clicking here.