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Every puppy owner's worst nightmare

Wednesday, 28 February 2018   (0 Comments)
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VetScript Editor's pick - March 2018

The day that Rebecca Whitehorse bought a British Bulldog puppy from a then-DogsNZ breeder, she acquired a burden that has cost her tens of thousands in veterinary bills. Rebecca is now taking the seller to the Disputes Tribunal. Mirjam Guesgen reports.


Rebecca Whitehorse is living every puppy owner’s worst nightmare.

In 2014 she bought a purebred English Bulldog puppy off Trade Me from what she thought was a reputable DogsNZ (then New Zealand Kennel Club [NZKC]) breeder. What she got was a puppy that was constantly ill with breed-specific ailments, and veterinary bills totaling more than $25,000. The breeder went silent, refusing to answer calls. Now, on the advice of DogsNZ, Rebecca is taking her case to the Disputes Tribunal.

Rebecca was 19 when she decided to buy a puppy. An advertisement on Trade Me described four healthy, vaccinated NZKC puppies. One particularly wrinkly chap, Caesar, caught her eye.
“There was no hesitation; he was just the cutest bundle of rolls,” says Rebecca.

She contacted the breeder and asked if the puppy could be sent from Auckland to her home in Christchurch. Without much further discussion, and $3,000 later, the deal was done.
Rebecca says from the moment Caesar was in her arms, she was hooked. “I would have done anything for that dog.”

And she did. Over the next four years, Caesar faced a barrage of health problems that his veterinarian put down to his genetics: gastroenteritis that left him too weak to walk; eyelid prolapse; yeast infections; and multiple allergies, including one to anaesthetic that once left him with ulcers on his oesophagus. Caesar wasn’t allowed to go to doggy daycare because he couldn’t breathe, despite the air-conditioned facilities.

When Caesar’s health problems started mounting, Rebecca contacted the breeder for advice.

“He literally just laughed at me,” says Rebecca. “He said, ‘What do you expect me to do about it? They all sound to me like Bulldog problems. Looks like you got the dud of the litter.’ That attitude to me sent me through the roof.”

After the breeder refused to offer advice, a refund or sympathy, Rebecca contacted DogsNZ. Canine Health and Welfare Officer Becky Murphy took the case.

“DogsNZ can help with mediation and can discipline breeders [within the association],” says Becky, who suggested Rebecca file a complaint with the Disputes Tribunal, to recoup some of the money she had spent on veterinarian fees.

The extent of the breeder’s ignorance and indifference became clear when Becky spoke to him on the phone.

“There was a complete disregard for genetic disease and breed-specific disease, a lack of understanding of good mating practices, and no understanding of [breeders’] obligations. There was a complete lack of empathy,” reflects Becky.

After that call, the breeder withdrew his membership from DogsNZ.

Rebecca learned the hard way that particular dog breeds come with particular health issues. She admits she was naïve when getting Caesar, not asking enough questions of the breeder and not researching what to look out for in a Bulldog puppy, such as a face that’s too short, or too many rolls or an arched back.

She stepped into a familiar trap, falling in love with the squishy round face, stubby legs and baby-like features that invoke a motherly caring instinct (Sandøe et al., 2017). As VetScript highlighted in June 2017, dogs with known phenotypic issues such as brachycephalia or chondrodystrophia are popular because of their presence in advertising, in celebrities’ arms and on social media. The push for a particular look, rather than function, has driven unchecked and uncontrolled puppy breeding and selling.

“I was under the impression I was receiving a healthy puppy,” Rebecca says.

“I thought the NZKC was at least some sort of backing that you’re buying from a reputable breeder. So I didn’t really question anything.”

“I’m never going to say that every one of our members is a saint,” says Becky Murphy from DogsNZ. “There are always going to be people who don’t have genuine intentions, but we’re tightening things up as much as possible.” Becky explains that since the time Caesar was born, DogsNZ has established its Brachycephalic Working Group and put in place the DogsNZ Code of Ethics, which may have, she says, protected Rebecca.

Breeders who are part of the Accredited Breeders Scheme must abide by these rules and also microchip the parents and conduct the necessary health checks on the parents prior to breeding. Bulldogs, for example, must get DNA profiles, as well as hip scoring, patella luxation and eye examinations annually. Becky asserts that breed-specific health problems can be avoided if breeders carefully manage their breeding stock and conduct health checks.

“Brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome is difficult to test for. Consequently, it is not part of the mandatory testing, but DogsNZ has offered funding to Massey University for the purchase of a whole-body barometric plethysmography chamber to measure respiratory function,” says Becky.

Anyone who breeds dogs in New Zealand must follow the Animal Welfare (Dogs) Code of Welfare, which states they must make all reasonable efforts to ensure that the genetic makeup of both sire and dam will not result in an increase in the frequency or severity of known inherited disorders (Ministry for Primary Industries, 2010, Minimum Standard No. 7). Dogs are also legally classed as a ‘good’, so the Consumer Guarantees Act 1993 applies, whereby they have to be “fit for purpose” and “comply to the description”, otherwise the owners can ask for replacements or refunds from the breeders.

For dogs sold on Trade Me, sellers can choose to declare that they meet the website’s own code of welfare, which, alongside requiring all dogs to be raised according to the national animal welfare code, stipulates that breeders must disclose if a puppy or its parents have had any surgery to correct inheritable problems, if they have any known breed-specific potential hereditary problems, and if the puppy is the result of a mating of two individuals related within two generations.

Unfortunately, despite this being implemented with the best of intentions, there is no ability to enforce the code. It does, however, complement the Consumer Guarantees Act 1993 requirements.

As of this month (March 2018), Trade Me has banned the listing of Pugs, British Bulldogs and French Bulldogs because of the severity of their health issues.
When the announcement was made in January, Trade Me cited consultations with the NZVA and SPCA in its decision-making.

How can we curb the breeding and sale of unhealthy puppies? CAV spokesperson Rochelle Ferguson doesn’t believe that we have the necessary legislation in place.

“The animal welfare code is largely un-enforceable. This is why CAV is calling for regulations to be developed around the breeding of dogs and cats,” she says.

Bulldogs like Caesar are commonly bred using artificial insemination (AI), and Rochelle says that veterinarians are under no obligation to perform AI if they have concerns that the mating will produce puppies with health problems.

Veterinarians are backed by VCNZ’s Code of Professional Conduct, which states that veterinarians must give sound genetic counselling and advice in the best interests of the animal and its offspring.

According to Gavin Shepherd, Chair of VPIS, if a veterinarian performs an AI procedure despite their best professional opinion, they would be deemed negligent in the eyes of the insurance society and could face disciplining by VCNZ if an owner complained. However, if the dogs are healthy to the best of the veterinarian’s knowledge, the onus falls onto the breeder.

“It’s not the veterinarian’s fault that that’s how it turned out,” he says. “It’s a long bow to draw that the veterinarian shouldn’t have done AI on that dog, if they were unaware of issues.”

Some veterinarians around the world are taking action. In December last year, Valley Vets, a four-location practice in Wales, released a position statement explaining that its clinical team had “taken the decision not to help promote the future breeding of any brachycephalic dog – dogs with flattened faces/short muzzles, such as the French Bulldog, Pug and English Bulldog”.

The statement outlined that, while the clinics would continue to provide care for
brachycephalic puppies and dogs already owned, they would no longer offer premate testing for brachycephalic bitches or treat infertility in brachycephalic breeds. Additionally, the team would “strongly advise prospective pet parents against the purchase of brachycephalic puppies”. Furthermore, the practice (which says it will reconsider once the UK Kennel Club Brachycephalic Working Group has developed new standards and implemented changes to develop better breed health) will not use, or condone the use of, brachycephalic breeds in any form of advertising.

“Veterinarians have done the C-sections and the AI and surgeries to fix up [the dogs], so we need to start taking responsibility, especially with the AI side of things,” says Becky Murphy, who, aside from her role with DogsNZ, is part of a small practice limited to canine reproduction and genetic health screening.

From Becky’s perspective, veterinarians could do better by refusing AI in unfit dogs, and by learning more about which tests – genetic, behavioural or physiological – are capable of validly testing for health compromise in different breeds. Finally, she supports educating owners about responsible dog breeding and where to get puppies. Educating puppy owners is key, Becky says, because they ultimately drive the market.

Information to help buyers find healthy puppies is available. DogsNZ has a database listing the recommended tests for each breed and CAV has produced a veterinarian’s guide to the DogsNZ health testing. The NZVA has an ethical-puppybuying guide that lays out the health and environment checks a buyer can do to ensure the welfare of the parent and pup.

Rochelle would like to see prospective owners consult their veterinarians before puppies are purchased, not just when things go wrong. She says veterinarians can advise prospective puppy buyers on the suitability of a breed and common health problems, and offer interpretations of health and DNA tests.

Veterinary organisations can also educate potential owners more broadly – for example, through initiatives such as the British Veterinary Association’s ‘Breed to Breathe’ and the Australia Veterinary Association’s ‘Love is Blind’ campaigns.

Last year, VetScript banned advertising featuring breeds with known welfare problems stemming from desired phenotypic traits as a first step. Such initiatives can lead to wider discussion – for example, the New Zealand Listener published a feature on the rise of puppy mills, and Trade Me’s announcement was followed by calls of support for the development of breeding regulations to support the animal welfare code. (See Stuff articles ‘Trade Me dog ban offensive to some, great news for others’, and ‘Breeding and selling companion animals “largely unregulated” in NZ’, both from January this year.)

In Caesar’s case, after several operations, many rounds of antibiotics, a change to a hypoallergenic diet and de-sensitisation injections, he is starting to look more like a healthy dog.

Rebecca is awaiting a hearing date with the Disputes Tribunal. Whatever the outcome, “You’re never going to be able to undo the stress you – or the dog – go through,” she says.