Dear VetHelpDirect, I was planning on buying a new puppy, but since the recent media focus on Puppy Farms, I am concerned. How do I know that my puppy is coming from a responsible home, without it being too expensive? Can I trust the vets’ word for this?
This enquiry follows the recent BBC documentary “Inside the UK Puppy Farm Capital”, which suggests that you are right to be concerned. The puppy-farming industry in the UK has been booming over recent years and the recent BBC exposé makes for harrowing viewing.
1: What is a puppy farm?
A puppy farm is a commercial dog-breeding set-up where the need to make a profit is placed at higher importance than the welfare of the animals involved.
The very phrase ‘puppy farm’ instantly makes our flesh creep, and conjures pictures of inadequately fed, inadequately stimulated animals giving birth in squalid conditions. And yet it is thought that up to 50% of puppies sold are from puppy farms.
2: So why do people buy from them?
Because in real life, puppy farms don’t look like puppy farms. They are not run by shifty-looking people who resemble cartoon baddies and the dogs (or at least the ones you see) are not filthy or beaten with sticking out ribs. If puppy-farms looked like this to their customers, then most would go out of business. But the fact is that it’s very easy to hide any unpleasantness from view.
3: So what do puppy-farms look like?
It varies. There are often online adverts, but not always. Often, they offer to deliver the pups or meet on a motorway at a mutually convenient point (so that you don’t see the premises), but not always. There are often multiple breeds advertised for sale on the same advert or phone number, but not always. (Google the phone number anyway though, because if it crops up on a lot of different-breed dogs-for-sale adverts, you’ll know to be suspicious). There are often unbelievably reasonable prices, but not always.
They are sometimes ‘animal rescue’ centres, looking to rehome poor animals that have been ‘rescued from abroad,’ while the pups are being imported from puppy-farms abroad just to be sold to an unwitting potential owner like you. And sometimes the actual selling of puppies occurs in a third-party’s beautiful house, giving the impression that they were bred from a family pet who has lived there all along.
4: So how do I know if I’m buying from a good breeder?
The law changed recently, supposedly to help with this. Anyone producing more than three litters in a twelve month period is now considered a breeder and needs a license. In some situations, anyone selling pups might be considered to need a license, depending on the turnover of money and animals involved. For registered breeders, a star system exists to grade the quality of the establishment.
5: So it should be easy to tell if they’re up to much, then?
Sadly, it’s not as simple as it should be. The recent BBC documentary appeared to show dogs on licensed premises in absolutely appalling conditions; dirty and without bedding and in one case without water. Another breeder was shown apparently selling pups having already had his license revoked. At least one of those breeders had a star…
This strongly suggests that the measures in place to ‘clean up’ the dog breeding industry are not working and further, given that most of the breeders had a license, veterinary surgeons must have signed the farms off! We cannot comment on this as we do not know the full story, but the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons will undoubtedly become involved. If vets are found to have neglected their duties of care towards the dogs in the puppy farm, they need to be held to account.
If they are found to have acted within the law, then, on the basis of what was seen on this documentary, those laws are insufficient. Another issue raised is that recommendations made by vets to local councils are only useful if the councils then act on the information when they decide whether to renew licenses.
6: So how can I be confident that a puppy I buy has not come from a puppy farm if I can’t trust the system?
The result of the documentary quite rightly throws into question the judgements of some of the vets concerned. On the whole, I sincerely believe that you can trust the vast majority of vets to report on what they find, but sadly, when it comes to puppy farming, it is a concern that a few unscrupulous vets may be reducing public trust in the many.
7: I repeat; how can I be confident about the system? Is there anything I can look out for when buying a dog – just in case?
Here are a few ideas:
- You should be able to see the premises. A breeder with nothing to hide will be happy for you to look round and you should certainly be able to meet the mother. If a breeder won’t show you the set-up, there is probably a reason for it.
- A good breeder will want to know about you, and where the pups are going. If they are more interested in making a sale than asking questions, I would be alarmed.
- The breeder should be happy for you to talk to their vet about their animal’s medical records. It may help to ask to see a full medical history for the mother (if it only shows vaccinations, were other issues seen by another vet elsewhere?) They should also be happy for your, or a neutral, vet to check the animals in your presence at the point of sale.
- They should be able to talk about breed-related problems and how they are trying to combat them. A labrador breeder who doesn’t talk about hip-scoring, for example, isn’t taking the trouble to guard against one of the most commonly inherited conditions in that breed. Likewise for a cavvy-king-charles breeder who doesn’t screen for heart disease. ‘I’ve never had any trouble’ might mean ‘I’ve always ignored it’. It might even mean ‘I think it’s normal for these dogs to die young.’
8: This doesn’t sound fool-proof for a buyer at all
No, but luckily things are changing yet again. From 2020, Lucy’s law should be coming into effect, which means that puppies must be sold directly from the breeder or a rescue centre and not from a third party… Which should close down a lot of ‘intermediate stage’ puppy farms.
9: Is this just another rule that can’t be enforced?
Let’s be very very clear; the vast majority of vets who encounter inadequately bred animals want to stop puppy farming. The good news is, that prosecutions have indeed been made against several breeders, and against those vets who haven’t followed the law. It is therefore hopeful that Lucy’s Law will also be used to bring convictions and that the new laws and increased awareness will lead to positive change in the long run.
10: Won’t all this increase the cost of puppies?
Perhaps it will, but it is only right. Many breeders have been breeding at a high level and charging appropriate fees all along. The costs of this business should come to humans and not to the welfare of the pups.
Meanwhile, good, well-regulated rescue centres (such as the RSPCA who employ their own vets) are bursting with unwanted dogs. They will usually rehome them for a lower cost with an honest assessment of their health needs and background. My advice at the present time is not to buy from someone you’re not sure about, but to consider helping out a rescue dog instead.