The problem with puppy farms

Last month saw the start of the #SeeThemSuckling campaign against the production and sale of farmed puppies. Puppy farming is one of the big challenges in companion animal welfare at the moment, so today’s post looks at what it is, why it’s a problem and what can be done to tackle it.

What is a “puppy farm”?

The name refers to businesses commercially producing pet dogs. It’s commonly used to describe fairly intensive breeding and implies profit being put before the welfare of the animals. BBC Panorama filmed a great documentary about these “farms” which shows footage from inside some commercial dog breeders’ kennels. It’s still available here on iPlayer and I’d definitely recommend watching as I hadn’t realised the set up and scale of some of these breeders until I saw the film.

So what’s the problem?

Although it’s possible in theory to raise lots of dogs well to sell as pets, puppy farms can often pose the following problems:

  • Puppies are not socialised during crucial periods of their development, leading to future behavioural problems with other dogs and humans.
  • Puppies are not habituated (used) to experiences they will have in later life, such as going for a walk outdoors or riding in the car, which can lead to fear and more behavioural problems.
  • Dogs are kept in small kennels on inappropriate bedding so not get the level of care that pet dogs in the home should ideally receive.
  • Dogs are bred too often with no time for bitches to recover from a litter.
  • Puppies may be weaned too young.
  • Lack of hygiene and disease controls in large, multi-dog operations cause health issues.
  • The dogs may not all get prompt veterinary attention when required.
  • Some breeders are known to use inhumanely small or closed cages for dogs, especially when they are about to give birth to puppies.
  • Long distance transport is required to supply puppies to dealers and buyers, sometimes crossing borders illegally – which has huge repercussions for health and disease control.

Several of these problems are caused by obviously illegal actions, such as the tiny boxes some breeders use for bitches giving birth to puppies. Others are roughly within the law – although neglect and abuse are legislated against, whether or not a dog is sufficiently socialised and exposed to stimuli as they grow up is much harder to prove.

Another huge problem is wilful deception by dealers claiming that their stock of farmed puppies is home bred. Misled customers buy these dogs without realising the health problems they could have and the industry that they are supporting. No one advertises that their puppies are farmed but the dealers go further than omitting this key fact and may claim that the puppies’ mother is out for a walk, that they are an accidental litter from a family pet or that you can’t come to their home for an innocent reason like renovation work so need to collect the puppy elsewhere. The BBC even uncovered breeders supplying a “show bitch” to dealers, of the same breed as unrelated puppies, to convince buyers that they were buying a homebred pup.

What’s the legal position?

To “keep a breeding establishment for dogs” (described as producing 5+ litters per year) businesses must be licensed by their local council under the Breeding and Sale of Dogs (Welfare) Act 1999. Breeding and selling dogs without a license can lead to fines, imprisonment and disqualification from keeping dogs, but that’s not the whole problem – as well as unlicensed breeders, welfare at licensed outfits is also an issue.

Each year to renew their license a breeding establishment must have an inspection by a vet to ensure that the dogs are well cared for. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 sets the standards for this care but as with all the animal welfare scenarios I write about, sometimes these are allowed to slip even if they were in place during the annual vet inspection. In these cases, the RSPCA can inspect and prosecute if a crime (such as neglect, which the Act above lists as a criminal offence) has been committed, but only if they have enough evidence to do so. Gathering evidence takes a lot of resources, so the problem with poor welfare on puppy farms continues.

What can be done?

Puppy farms remain because there is a huge demand for puppies. The popularity of certain breeds, such as pugs and bichon frise, plays a part in pushing would-be owners to buy these puppies rather than adopt a shelter dog or mongrel. But ignorance on the part of buyers and wilful deception by puppy farmers and dealers means that demand for puppies in general is often met by “farmed” dogs.

With the problem attracting more and more media attention, there are few excuses left for would-be owners who buy a farmed puppy. Somehow though a big, profitable market for breeders and dealers remains so sharing the message and educating your friends is important. I was really shocked to learn about Dogs4Us which is literally a puppy shop in the North of England. Make sure your friends and family know all about farmed puppies and how to ensure they never buy one!

The simplest advice if you are buying a puppy is from the #SeeThemSuckling campaign, that if you can visit your pup with his/her mum and see them interacting the chances your new companion has been farmed are much lower. Never agree to have your pup delivered alone or collect him/her from a location like a car park or motorway services. If you have any doubts, it’s better not to buy the puppy – although it feels like rescuing it, you might be supporting the neglect and abuse of his/her family. You can report someone you think may be selling dogs from puppy farms here. Of course, you could decide not to buy a dog at all and instead take one of the thousands who are awaiting homes in rescue centres!

The government are currently reviewing feedback on their plans to update several types of animal establishment license in England. This would modernise licensing of pet shops, kennels and dog breeders amongst other business, so it will be interesting to see what changes are made.

It’s horrible to think that many dog lovers are unwittingly supporting abuse of the species we all agree is “man’s best friend”. Through educating dog buyers and cracking down on the breeders and dealers who supply the dogs, there’s a huge opportunity to make a change. Spread the word to your friends and family, #PoutforPuppies and adopt your pets from shelters whenever you can. Thanks for reading!

Want to take action?

  • The Puppy Love Campaign suggest writing to your MP and letting them know your view. They provide a letter template to show your support for an updated Pet Animals Act, preventing the sale of puppies in pet shops.
  • The RSPCA see the next step as being compulsory licensing of everyone selling a puppy and if you want to sign their petition, you can find it here.
  • Post your #PoutforPuppies selfie on social media (if that’s your sort of thing!) to promote the #SeeThemSuckling campaign.

References/further reading:

The Kennel Club – resources on puppy farming

RSPCA page “Scrap the Puppy Trade”

RSPCA report “Sold a pup? Exposing the breeding, sale and trade of puppies.”



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