Buying a Puppy? What to Ask, What to Watch Out For, and Where to Go
Massachusetts-based veterinarian Lorna Grande, DVM, knows first hand the risks of buying puppies from disreputable breeders, pet shops, and puppy mills.
After serving on the board of directors of several animal shelters and working as a humane educator for a large SPCA, Grande set out to create PupQuest, an educational website to help consumers make smarter decisions when searching for a puppy.
With the help of Liz MacHaffie, who holds a Masters of Science in Clinical Animal Behavior, Grande created an invaluable resource to help puppy seekers stay safe, buy responsibly and make educated choices.
We talked to Grande about the risks of buying a puppy and what you should keep in mind.
THK: When you are buying from a reputable breeder, what are you really paying for?
Lorna Grande: That is a very good question, one that all consumers should ask themselves BEFORE they buy a puppy. There are two main areas to focus on: physical health and behavioral health (personality).
One of the things you pay a breeder for is their effort to minimize the likelihood that your puppy will end up with genetic problems found in the breed. A simple example is hip dysplasia in German Shepherds. To pay money for a German Shepherd puppy without proof that parents’ and grandparents’ hips are normal is foolish. The dog you paid a lot of money for will probably have a lifetime of pain and you will have lots of avoidable veterinary expenses.
You also want to be sure the breeder provides proof that your individual puppy was examined by a licensed veterinarian.
Assuring your puppy will grow into a dog with a stable personality is not just all about how you raise them. Many people are misguided about this. Your puppy’s relatives and how it is raised in the first few weeks of life—long before it comes home with—can have significant impact on his future temperament.
The puppies must be properly socialized early in life. Puppies raised devoid of lots of positive, diverse human contact and interactions in the real world in the first few weeks are missing fundamentals you may not be able to make up for when you get them home. Undoing negative experiences is sometimes harder than people think. Again, we are talking about purchasing a puppy from a breeder. Reputable breeders work hard to positively socialize their pups from a young age so you will have a great dog in the future. Of course, you have to be sure you don’t mess it up once the puppy comes home with you. That’s a conversation for another time!
This is why the number one PupQuest recommendation is to always visit where the puppy was born and raised. Never buy a puppy sight-unseen online. You should meet the mother of your puppy and she should be friendly, outgoing and not shy or over protective. Where do the puppies spend most of their time? In a kennel removed from people or in the home where they can become accustomed to daily life?
Reputable breeders want to meet you in person and interview you in the same way you should want to interview them. Beware, online breeders are catching on so some pretend to only sell to qualified buyers. If they trade a credit card for a puppy shipped to you, does that make you qualified?
THK: Would you expect reputable breeders to conduct health screenings of the puppies they sell? What would you consider absolute essential?
Lorna Grande: Absolutely, that is what you are paying for! If health screenings have not been done that is a red flag that this is not a reputable breeder and you should walk away.
On PupQuest we have a health-screening page. There, you can find links to different databases that list tests that should be done for each breed. For some breeds, there are ways to confirm online that the parents of your potential pup have passed these tests.
Routine care should be done by a licensed veterinarian. Be careful! Many breeders cut corners by buying vaccines and worming medications online and giving them to their puppies themselves. Again, a red flag that this breeder is cutting corners.
THK: Could you describe how puppy mills operate? Aside from being incredibly cruel, how can they also affect the future health/life of the puppy you buy?
Lorna Grande: There is no particular definition of puppy mill. On PupQuest, we call them puppy farms. Generally puppy farms are large, commercial, wholesale “breeders” that sell to pet shops or directly to consumers online. When people talk to clerks at pet shops or email with a “breeder” online, they somehow don’t connect the dots back to a puppy farm/mill because the person they are talking to doesn’t seem like a bad person. I think their vision of puppy mills is so terrible we can’t believe this particular individual would be affiliated with that industry. We think this disconnect contributes to why puppy farms/mills still have so many customers even though there is so much clear information out there educating consumers and warning them not to get dogs from puppy mills/farms.
The simplest way to explain how puppy farms operate is to remind you that most are regulated by the USDA, the United States Department of Agriculture. Without getting into the controversy of farm animals, I don’t believe most people who buy a puppy intend to get a puppy raised in the same way livestock are raised. Pigs and chickens raised for food were not intended to be social family pets. Puppies raised in crowded filthy conditions, devoid of positive, regular human interaction are not being raised humanely or with any regard for what is needed psychologically and behaviorally to grow into a healthy, stable, family pet.
THK: Any particular red flags to watch out for when buying a puppy?
Lorna Grande: I know I sound like a broken record, but always visit where the puppy was born and raised. If everyone took that one step even if it is a little inconvenient, the impact on animal welfare would be huge. Terrible breeders can’t survive in the public eye. They survive because they deceive consumers and don’t open their doors to anyone.
When you visit, the pups should be in the home with the mother. Mom should be friendly and welcoming and the pups should be bright eyed, friendly, and not fearful.
So anything short of those simple things is a red flag. Don’t meet a breeder in a parking lot; they are likely hiding something. Don’t believe them when they tell you “You can’t come into the basement because it will get the dogs excited.” They are hiding something.
Read the paperwork carefully. On PupQuest, we have photos of folders many breeders try to pass off as veterinary records. You need to see a veterinary signature and most practices will stamp their information on the medical records. Each puppy will have an individual record and the results of a complete physical exam will be noted. How do you know if the puppy has a heart murmur, an eye problem or a hernia if a licensed veterinarian didn’t examine it? Reputable breeders are proud of the vet care they give their dogs and will be happy when you tell them you want to call the vet to confirm the information.
THK: Would you say buying a puppy online is a terrible choice? Why? What are the major dangers of doing this?
Lorna Grande: Reputable breeders do not sell their beloved puppies to strangers on the Internet. They don’t take young vulnerable babies and ship them on airplanes to strangers.
Reputable breeders may have websites, but they aren’t going to trade a credit card number for a pup.
As I said before, if you buy a puppy sight unseen and do not visit where it was born and raised, it is very likely that you are supporting an inhumane, below-standard breeding facility. Internet sales have contributed to an explosion of animal exploitation. It has given greedy, opportunistic breeders an avenue directly into peoples’ homes. The consumer fraud is incalculable. I saw clients every day who were ripped off by dishonest dog “breeders.”
When you buy a puppy from someone, because you give them money, it is like you patting them on the back and saying “Keep up the good work.” You need to be thoughtful about that. Thousands and thousands of animals suffer horribly because consumers aren’t careful. They support cruel breeders either because they didn’t know or it was inconvenient to find a reputable one.