Tuesday , 16 January 2018

From a Vet’s Point of View: Shelter vs Puppy Mill

(cover photo is copyright (c) 2009 Brett McBain and made available under a Creative Commons Attribution)

Christina Nosotti is a local veterinarian and a contributor to MDB.  An opinion piece she wrote was recently published in the Gazette but edited for space. Below is the piece in its entirety: 

It’s not so black and white.

There is much debate over whether to adopt from a shelter or buy from a breeder. Shelter advocates claim that by adopting, you are saving lives and controlling the animal population. Others like going through breeders because they feel that they can be more certain of the health and temperament of their pet. Both sides seem to agree about staying away from the dreaded puppy mills and that animal hoarding is shameful. However, there are no guarantees and no magic recipes for choosing a pet. There are horror stories in each category, just as there are wonderful accounts of having acquired wonderful, loving, healthy pets from any of the above groups. Where animal health and welfare is concerned, all facilities should be treated equally and they should all be required to meet the same basic standards. In the media, there is too much focus on status and titles which clouds the real issues. All animals deserve to have adequate living conditions, food and proper health care. Whether the organization is benevolent or for-profit is not the issue when we are evaluating health status and well-being of our companions. Some veterinary organizations have established guidelines of care, but they need to become mandatory for all animal facilities regardless of their goals.

It is a myth that we are controlling the overpopulation problem by adopting, because the reproduction rate is not slowing down from adopting alone. In fact, controlling the animal population requires a multi-factorial approach. We need laws that prohibit reckless reproduction of animals, we need to promote sterilization of family pets and we need to increase awareness of responsible pet ownership, just to name a few crucial components to a solution. Without enforced regulations, shelters will never conquer the overpopulation problem on their own. As it is, the number of shelters and rescues is constantly increasing. We need to centralize our efforts and pool our resources rather than having independent entities almost competing with one another. We need to discourage the tolerance of low quality care due to lack of funds. Benevolence is no excuse to allow animals to suffer and not receive adequate care.

It is equally a myth that you can predict your pet’s temperament and disposition by getting a purebred. For example, there are aggressive Golden Retrievers, just as there are very docile Pitt Bulls. We cannot custom order pets as we do inanimate objects. Despite some breed predispositions that we cannot ignore, we always have to keep in mind that they are all individuals and we cannot predict everything by genetics alone. There has also been much genetic manipulation of certain breeds and there is more of a tendency to see genetic diseases. The new fad is now the designer breeds. Breeders are having a field day crossing various breeds together and claiming that these new crosses are superior, touting the best qualities of each parent. The only real advantage is that the genetic pool is being diversified.

There seems to be more awareness that not all breeders are equally diligent or scrupulous, but it is not as well known that we can say the same about rescues and shelters. Everyone seems to agree that puppy mills and animal hoarders are dreadful, but what is the difference, from a health point of view, if we compare them with a poorly run, overloaded rescue or a multi-breed breeder? Some rescues, due to lack of funds, fail to meet the most basic requirements. It is not right to have hundreds of animals kept free-roaming in a facility (building) where it is a known fact that some are carriers of diseases such as feline leukemia, for example, which is equivalent to human AIDS. It should not be tolerated to keep facilities in operation when they struggle just to feed the animals. If they can barely provide food, it’s a given they get very little or no veterinary care.

It would come as a surprise to many that some puppy mills are well run and do have higher standards of care. The issue, in such a case, is no longer their health status, but an ethical one. Should we, as a society, have the right to breed on a large scale for profit? This, in turn, leads to the question: what is large scale? How can we monitor those who breed animals? What about housing large numbers of animals together for any reason? At what point does it become considered animal hoarding? What is the difference between a puppy mill and a multi-breed breeder? Overcrowding them should never be considered an option under any circumstances.

Despite the publicity given to seizures of poorly run puppy mills, there are still a large number of facilities, including shelters and animal sanctuaries, where there are major insufficiencies in basic animal care. The Five Freedoms For Animal Welfare, that were first created in the United Kingdom in the 1960’s and now accepted by veterinary associations around the world, can be applied for all species of domesticated animals.  They include freedom from thirst and hunger, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury or disease, freedom to express normal behavior and freedom from fear and distress. The ASV (Association of Shelter Veterinarians) has established guidelines based on these basic freedoms. They cover a variety of topics such as facility design and environment, sanitation, medical health and physical well-being and some public health concerns. As mentioned in their introduction, the guidelines are based on the animals’ needs, “which remain the same regardless of the mission of an organization or the challenges involved in meeting those needs.”

The vast majority of people, who breed or care for animals, do claim to love them. However, even with the best of intentions, many inadvertently cause animal suffering due to substandard conditions. In most cases it is due to lack of knowledge and/or funds. To run and operate any animal facility, it is not, as yet, required to have any formal training or credentials. Supervision by a certified veterinarian is not required by law. It is important when housing any number of animals under one roof to at least have a basic understanding of diseases and how they are transmitted and to understand the stressors that compromise the animals’ well being and predispose to illness. In larger establishments, it is important to understand the ill effects of overcrowding.

We have to shy away from a black and white way of thinking and the labels we are putting on animal organizations. When choosing a pet, there will never be any guarantees, but you can be cautious about whom you choose to adopt or buy an animal from. Do not encourage any establishment that doesn’t appear to be providing optimal care. Animal care givers need to be held accountable and we need to raise the level of professionalism in how animals are kept and handled. We need to demand high standards for everyone. No excuses!

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  1. Great article, very interesting. As a rescuer, I have to say I particularly agree with the second paragraph. I’ve been in the rescue world for a short time and I was surprised to see the competition between rescuers. I would never trust nor work with an organization who prioritize recognition or anything else but the pets well-being. Aren’t we all supposed to fight for the same cause, after all?

    I also love this sentence ”However, even with the best of intentions, many inadvertently cause animal suffering due to substandard conditions. In most cases it is due to lack of knowledge and/or funds.” this is especially true for the shelters and rescues who doesn’t provide proper vet care; I can’t believe there are still that many rescuers who do not even spay/neuter the animals… why are you even rescuing if you can’t do the strict mininmum? If you can’t provide basics when welcoming a pet into your shelter/rescue, you are taking a deathrow pet and potentially placing it back on deathrow.

  2. I do agree with this article. Unless we have MANDATORY STERLILZATION and micro chipping we will always face the problem of overpopulation.
    However, I have yet to see the Veterinary Profession demonstrate against Puppy Mills, so-called breeders and the like. They still perform docking of tails and ears and declawing of cats. Where are their ethics?

    • From what I understand, vets are obliged under law to perform certain sugeries…but many are opposed to them on ethical grounds, and try their best to educate the client. Our laws in Quebec need to get with the times.

  3. The problem as I see it with overcrowding in shelters are due to the ones who have the luxury of calling themselves ” no kill”. I am very sorry to inform people that this ” no kill” stuff is a fairy tale.Any tradition shelter who do NOT turn animals away, have to make some hard decisions at time in order to keep the quality of life for their animals.No kill shelters turn animals away.They dump the responsibility of euthanization on other shelters.it is nothing more than a way to get more funding because of the fuzzy warm feeling the phrase ” no kill” gives people

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