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How Puppy Buyers Could Be Helped to Spot Good From Bad Breeders

05/11/2015 10:45 | Updated 04 November 2016

Puppies are making headlines and for reasons most decent people would rather not think about, especially those wanting a puppy and trying to pick their way through what is a terrible mess of a situation for dogs right now. Dogs are suffering in the puppy breeding business in ways and numbers never seen before. It's easy, but horrible to see why: the trade is lucrative and poorly regulated; there are rich pickings to be had by those with low, or non-existent ethical standards and it's an international business
that's rife with criminality and cruelty.

But in addition to the big operations, many of which are illegal, there are plenty of smaller scale, licensed, legally operating breeders, making easy money in the puppy trade, with little or no consideration given to the welfare of the dogs involved. No doubt these individuals would be outraged at being lumped in with the puppy farmers in any nominal categorisation of breeders. But, for the dogs whose health and welfare is caught up in this modern money-making scourge, definitions are pretty irrelevant.

Whatever definition is used, one common characteristic shared by the 'bad' breeders and puppy farmers is that money drives them. They see dogs as commodities. Simply that. Except when it comes to selling the puppies face-to-face with buyers, then out will trot a well-practiced, deceitful spiel about how well loved the dogs are, how they're family members, the puppies are happy, and parents live happily ever after in a fantasy concocted solely to dupe the purchasers. In some cases, breeders will boast about the parents being champions and winning all kinds of this and that, all designed to impress, sometimes true, other times not. Some will even produce genuine registration documents issued by the Kennel Club (KC) whose two-tier puppy registration system is open to breeders who pay them a fee, and at least in theory, abide by the KC Code of Ethics. In the words of the KC they register over 250,000 pedigree dogs and crossbreed dogs every year and as they say, this is open to all dogs so they've developed different registers.

But, for the average puppy buyer, the differences in the registers mean little. While the KC say registration is a 'simple record of a puppy's birth' and make no claims beyond this, when it comes to buying puppies with KC papers it's not widely understood by the public that 'KC registration' is no assurance of anything. But, the sellers, the breeders and puppy farmers know that 'official' paperwork helps to sell puppies, and paying the KC a fee in exchange for genuine papers is worth it, as buyers who may have done a little homework fall for what is essentially a marketing ploy.

One group that's more than a little vexed by the current KC litter registration system and what it enables is Cavaliers Are Special, a group concerned with the health of Cavalier spaniels. This subject hit the headlines back in 2008 when the BBC broadcast the documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed. It revealed the breed was afflicted by two horrible hereditary health problems: Mitral Valve Disease (MVD) and Syringomyelia (SM); it also highlighted that affected Cavaliers were appearing in the show world and being bred from, despite veterinary advice. MVD is the biggest killer of Cavaliers under 10, and the disease is 20 times more prevalent in Cavaliers than other breeds. SM is a painful condition and in most cases it's caused by chiari-like malformation (CM) of the skull - the skull is too small to fit the brain properly. This is down to breeding. Nearly all Cavaliers have CM probably due to breeding within a closed gene pool and studies have shown that by age six, 70% may have SM. It's believed that the incidence of these conditions could be greatly reduced if breeding practices changed.

Cavaliers Are Special are running a petition which currently has over 20,000 signatories,
seeking to influence the Kennel Club to introduce mandatory health testing for any breeders wishing to register their litters with them. Charlotte Mackaness told me why, and explained how if it was introduced it would help the dogs and whilst we're talking puppy sales, the puppy buyers:

In a nutshell not enough breeders health test their Cavaliers properly. For years, the majority have proven that they will not willingly health test or make the results public. We can only guess why. Mandatory health testing works. While it isn't a guarantee, research has shown that breeding from clear parents improves the chances of producing unaffected offspring. Results for heart testing are particularly dramatic. For example, Denmark has seen levels of MVD fall by over 70% since mandatory health testing was introduced.

Most breeders who do test don't follow the breeding protocols, so they test too early for it to be meaningful and breed very young dogs. Many don't continue to test as the dogs age. This is important as MVD and SM are progressive diseases: just because a dog is clear at two, doesn't mean it will still be free of the disease at five.

The Kennel Club promised an official heart testing scheme for Cavaliers in 2008. It hasn't materialised. An official scheme for CM/SM was launched in 2012 but has been boycotted by most breeders: only around 200 scans have been submitted in three years.

A major benefit to puppy buyers would occur if the KC introduced mandatory health testing and put the results into the public domain. It would be much easier to identify the responsible, health-conscious breeders from those who simply don't care. Right now, it's nigh on impossible to spot the difference. Even conscientious, knowledgeable puppy buyers find it a tortuous process looking for a decent, healthy Cavalier puppy these days as many breeders have the sales patter and others are downright dishonest. Even on the KC's much promoted, Assured Breeder Scheme - the registration scheme that buyers are supposed to have confidence in as:

Assured Breeders are committed to meeting and maintaining high standards for caring for the health and welfare of their puppies and breeding bitches, and are the best point of contact for buying a healthy, happy puppy.

the only health test required for Cavaliers is an eye test. Eyes seem the least of Cavalier worries compared to the horrors of SM and MVD.

Charlotte Mackaness gets mighty irritated when the blame for the crisis in Cavalier health is laid at the feet of ignorant puppy buyers and pet owners:

I'm fed up of pet owners being blamed for the Cavalier health crisis and hearing that we're all ill-informed. Sadly, there are always going to be people who will click on a website and buy a puppy on a whim doing no research but many people will use information wisely if it's available. The bald truth is, it's not available, and anyone buying a Cavalier puppy today can't rely on those one might expect to be responsible.

Using the KC's own definition of a puppy farmer as:

a high volume breeder who breeds puppies with little or no regard for the health and welfare of the puppies or their parents

plenty of Cavaliers are being registered with the KC from breeders who fall under this definition. Recent records show a single breeder in Wales registering 11 litters within a three month period. None of the parents had any recorded health tests. That's a lot of puppies.

So, we can take just this one breed as an example of why KC registration is not helping the average puppy buyer to spot the good breeders from the bad. Even the heavily promoted Assured Breeder Scheme when it comes to Cavaliers appears pretty pointless in terms of health testing. How frustrating it is to know that if overhauled and done right, a single, unambiguous registration scheme that did give some real assurance, could make a massive difference to how the public might source their puppies and do what the KC actually claim the scheme is capable of doing,

The Kennel Club Assured Breeder Scheme promotes good breeding practice and aims to work together with breeders and buyers to force irresponsible breeders, or puppy farmers, out of business

For while mandatory health testing alone, certainly wouldn't solve the problem of Cavaliers being puppy farmed, the expense and time it would require would surely deter a lot from trying to obtain those important KC papers, the ones used to impress the puppy buyers. Papers which currently are as easy to obtain as paying the KC a fee. Remember KC registration in their own words is "open to ALL dogs".

To sign the Cavaliers Are Special petition visit here