During my “free thinking” moments (translation, on a run or bike ride), I have recently been ruminating on the way I’ve seen small animal veterinary care change in my lifetime. This is a description of the changes I’ve noted in the world of canine ownership.
When my family wanted a dog, we looked in the classified ads of the local newspaper to find a litter of the breed we wanted. Laborador retrievers, Cocker Spaniels and other breeds were predictable in their demeanor, grooming needs and appearance. Once a person did some research to find the breed appropriate for her needs (ideally), she found a local source and purchased a puppy from another family who’d decided to breed their family pet. There was a whole other world of show dogs out there, but no family I knew ever purchased from those breeders, as their puppies were all intended for the show ring.
Over time, pet stores began to “carry” puppies to sell. The power of the impulse buy added another dimension to small animal care: people who’d purchased a puppy because it looked cute or “needed a home” and found out after the fact what they’d gotten into… and many dogs lost homes just because those homes weren’t prepared for their care.
Breed specific rescues were formed to help re-home these animals, to educate families about the needs of the breed before placing the dog, and to match homes with dogs appropriately. Small animal veterinarians were called upon to work for these rescues, and we often gave them discounts and did pro bono work, partly to help the cause, and partly to earn some new clients in the adoptive owners.
Another result of the pet store sales were puppy mills: breeders who produced puppies in large numbers to sell to these retailers, without concern for the quality of the dogs they produced. Laborador retrievers began to have problems with hip dysplasia, spaniel breeds with rage syndromes, any breed that was featured in a Hollywood movie (i.e. 101 Dalmations) was overbred and poorly bred to meet pet store requirements and some really nice breeds became known more for their problems than their assets.
During this time, local shelters, over-run with unwanted puppies, began to educate the public about the huge numbers of puppies euthanized every year, and spay/neuter programs cropped up to help manage the problem. In 2010, no puppy or kitten is placed from a good shelter without already having been spayed or neutered. Programs “requiring” owners to do this after adoption were not enforceable. Small animal veterinarians in private practice don’t do many routine spays or neuters anymore, as shelter pets have become the norm.
Breeders of show quality dogs have also begun having their “pet quality” puppies spayed/neutered before placing them as part of their effort to ensure they don’t add to the overpopulation problem. This turn of events has made it politically incorrect for a family to breed their family pet, even if they have homes arranged for the puppies; that takes away from homes for shelter pets, is how the thinking goes.
As a child, I spent hours reading about dog breeds, where they came from, what they were bred to do, how they could be used by mankind for specific purposes. I still love the variety of canines in my practice; it is the specie which varies most in size and form – because mankind did that over eons, by selecting for certain purposes and appearances.
We still have breed advocates and I hope we never lose the variety. We also have a new movement to create new “designer” mixes: cockapoos, shitzipoos, labradoodles, golden doodles, cavachons, maltipoos, etc. These are intentional crosses of two specific breeds in an attempt to obtain the best qualities of each and move away from the heritable problems of each breed. These mixes have what we call “hybrid vigor” in veterinary medicine. And most puppy mill operations today are involved in the creation of these popular puppies.
So what we have today are three major sources of puppies: pet stores rarely market purebred puppies anymore, but instead, open their space to shelters or rescues to offer dogs needing homes. Shelters still offer puppies and adult dogs, as they always have and breed specific rescues offer dogs directly to the public through web sites, dog events and other publicity efforts. Breeders still offer their puppies who will not make the grade in the show ring.
The increase in rescue adoptions is good; fewer dogs are euthanized at shelters as we make progress in addressing the underlying problems. But families adopting these “mystery” dogs can’t prepare themselves for their specific needs, and don’t know until they are months or years into ownership, just what problems may arise.
I see an increase in behavior problems which are really difficult to address without changes in environment. The breed specific rescues are doing good work by matching a family’s wishes with an appropriate dog. That is a labor-intensive effort, and not something shelters are equipped to do.
Many well-meaning families are caught with a dog not appropriate for the space and time they have to offer. The difference is that these are not pure-bred dogs – new rescues are being formed to work on their behalf. But identifying dog types and willing, adoptive homes is more challenging without a breed identification with which to start.
The challenges remain. They are slightly different than they were 50 years ago – but they continue…