Consumer alert: Christmas puppies

Every holiday season brings its share of must-have gifts. What other time of year do people willingly line up — sometimes in bitter cold — for computer games? But puppies have been Christmas crowd pleasers for decades running. And just as gaming companies race to meet the end of the year demand, so does a business that animal welfare groups call cruel: puppy mills.

“This is the big money-maker time of year for puppy mills,” says Stephanie Shain, director of outreach for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). The uptick in breeding extends to so-called backyard breeders as well, as a glance at the classifieds will prove. “People are marketing dogs as “Christmas puppies” because it helps them sell,” Shain says.

This year’s “hot” breeds? Popular lap-warmers such as Lhaso Apsos, Yorkshire terriers, and Maltese, says Shain, all of whom, not coincidentally, get lots of ink in today’s tabloids. But plenty of lesser-known breeds come from the mills as well. “I can’t think of any breed of dog out there that’s free from the tortures of puppy mills,” she says.

The source of many purebreds

In fact, the challenge of finding a reputable breeder, who’s motivated by love of the breed rather than profit, is greater than most potential new owners realize. “People don’t understand that if you buy a purebred dog it probably came from a puppy mill,” an HSUS undercover agent told Newsweek. He says he’s constantly surprised by the number of people he meets who think puppy mills are a thing of the past.

It may be because most of us assume conditions as terrible as what he observed would be outlawed. His investigation turned up case after case of dogs crowded into small, dirty cages with no protection from harsh weather, isolated from people, and given little or no medical care.

“Breeding stock” may spend their whole lives in these cramped cages, churning out litter after litter until their fertility wanes and they’re sold, killed, or abandoned. Sadly, laws governing these mills are loose and rarely enforced.

Both pups and owners suffer

The owners pay a price for their new pup’s suffering. Mass bred pups are more likely to develop behavior problems, such as fear or aggression around people, because they miss out on socialization, or early exposure to humans. And because medical care in the mills is often lacking, many arrive in their new homes with expensive health problems.

By New Year’s, vets are “treating the kennel coughs, distempers, and parvoviruses that attend December pet store overcrowding and the annual puppy mill ramp-up to the ‘jolly’ season,” writes veterinarian Patty Khuly, in her blog. Visit any pet web site and you’ll find one wrenching tale after another posted by people who unsuspectingly adopted these puppies and find themselves saddled with medical bills for the pet they’ve fallen in love with.

Disposable dogs

Those are the lucky ones. In any given year, 13 million American households adopt a dog or puppy. Before the end of the next year, half have been surrendered to shelters, says Nicholas Dodman, a professor of Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine and author of Puppy’s First Steps.

For those who see these statistics first-hand, Christmas puppies are one of the season’s saddest traditions. “Beagles were very popular a few years ago,” notes Shain, “Now we go to dog auctions where Beagles are literally sold for one dollar.”