The patient that inspired this blog is a cute teacup Yorkie named Samantha with a host of health and behavioral problems. Working with her is heartbreaking because she is suffering physically and behaviorally. Everything about her pulls you to save her and help her. I explain to her owner that a big part of what is going on physically and behaviorally is due to poor breeding. This puppy was purchased from a pet store instead of from a reputable breeder. Therein lies the problem.
My client says what I have heard many times before — that she wanted to save this puppy. She did save her, but the consequence was that she opened the door for another puppy to suffer. She sees one pup who needs help, but I see the thousands of pups who are ready to fill that one’s spot, and who will suffer, as will their owners. I know that this seems harsh, but it is reality. If we didn’t purchase from pet stores there would be no spaces for more pups and they would be shut down. If there was no way to make money, the pet stores would close; plain and simple.
This client was told that the pet store only purchases from reputable breeders who breed for form, health, and temperament. Just spending time with Samantha proves that statement to be untrue. She has luxating patellas (kneecaps which do not stay in place), a liver shunt (a life threatening disease), separation anxiety, generalized anxiety, and storm phobia. I wish that I could say that Samantha’s case is rare, but it is not.
Remember this statement: Reputable breeders don’t send their pups to pet stores, ever. Period. They would rather keep the entire litter themselves and live their lives with eight teacup Yorkies than give even one up to someone else for sale to a third party. If you would like to know what makes a good breeder, see my earlier blog on the topic.
Aside from breeding, there are problems in the handling and behavioral development of puppies that are purchased from pet stores. In order for puppies to be in the pet store at a cute age, they have to be taken from the litter prior to eight weeks. This means that they have to be separated from the litter and transported by road or air to the store. Can you imagine putting your infant on a truck or plane from Nebraska to Florida? That is what many of these puppies go through to get to the pet stores.
Puppies from different litters or different breeders are often transported together, facilitating the spread of disease. Young pups have underdeveloped immune systems to begin with. The early separation, handling, and transportation are stressful, so the immune system becomes suppressed, making them more susceptible to infectious diseases like Bordetella bronchiseptica (one of the key diseases in Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease), Giardiasis and other types of infectious diarrhea, and canine distemper. As in Samantha’s case, many pet store pups spend the first two weeks after adoption hospitalized for pneumonia.
The behavioral reason that separation from the litter at an early age is so important is that there is a sensitive period for socialization to other dogs that occurs between 3 and 8 weeks of age. If dogs are separated from their litter before they should be, they can become afraid of other dogs. Small dogs often present with reactivity to other dogs partially because they weren’t well socialized with other dogs prior to eight weeks.
Once the puppy is in the store, she will be kept in a baby pool or crib, generally. Some stores still keep them in cages. The pups in cages fare the worst because they don’t get any socialization. Remember that the socialization period (3-14 weeks) is a time when a small amount of interaction can cause a big impact. It is also a time when no interaction can cause a big impact in a negative way. Really, there is no way to do this well. If the pup is fearful and shows that body language to a potential purchaser, it will probably go unnoticed. If the pup is in a baby pool, the purchaser will pick the puppy up, which will further teach the puppy that people don’t pay attention to body language very well. This type of learning causes the puppy to bypass this type of body language and go right to bigger displays such as barking or growling. If the pup is in a cage, she gets no exposure at all, which creates a very fearful puppy.
Another factor is the exposure to crates and walking outside, which is lacking in most puppy stores. If pups are exposed to crates in a positive way before 14 weeks, they will be more likely to accept this type of confinement later. If not, they can be more likely to be afraid of the crate, causing them to panic when the door is closed. This can be horrific for owners as they try to housetrain.
Oh, housetraining! Pups begin to develop preferences for a certain substrate (surface/ground) somewhere around six weeks. Well, if the pup is never walked outside and only urinates or defecates inside on a soft substrate until she is adopted at ten weeks old, it is easy to see how she would be confused when the owner tries to teach her to urinate outside. She has developed a preference for going inside on paper, so that is what she chooses.
Before you get defensive, I am not saying that puppies adopted from pet stores don’t have the same worth as pups adopted from a breeder. I am saying that these pups will suffer and the ones that come after them will as well.
No, it is not OK to purchase a puppy from a pet store. Go to a good breeder or visit your local humane society or rescue organization. Remember the ones that will fill that puppy’s space at the store, and as the song goes, "walk on by."
Dr. Lisa Radosta