Dog Buyers Beware:
Heartbreak Comes With Sale of Unhealthy Pets
Metro stores sell stock from breeders cited for violations
By STEVE NEAVLING FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
The moment she laid eyes on them, Jennifer Moodie fell in love.
But a day after she paid $900 for two Yorkshire terrier pups at a Utica pet shop, one went into seizures. The pup, named Jasper, spent the next four days attached to IVs at a vet's office and died in Moodie's arms within two hours of coming home.
"His blood-sugar was so low that he had brain damage," said Moodie, 25, of Northville.
Moodie sued Utica Pet Supply, where she bought the dogs, and received her money back for Jasper in an out-of-court settlement.
The other pup, Kaylie, spent her first few months coughing and vomiting before bouncing back.
Those dogs were among thousands shipped to metro Detroit pet stores in recent years from large out-of-state breeders, many of which have been repeatedly cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for raising puppies in substandard conditions.
Veterinarians critical of large breeders say puppies raised by them - like Moodie's - are often inbred and housed in squalid, close quarters that expose them to genetic diseases, parasites and deadly viruses that may not surface for years.
Most dogs from large facilities go through life without any reported health or behavioral problems, but those with problems can leave pet owners with hefty vet bills - not to mention the heartache of seeing their dog die or become debilitated at an early age. That happens often enough that some animal lovers now refuse to buy from pet stores, saying the risk of getting a dog from a troubled breeder is too great and consumer protections too weak.
Store owners, however, defend getting dogs from breeders. Some say reports of unhealthy conditions at large, licensed facilities are an anomaly, contending that those breeders are far superior to unregulated backyard breeders. And by purchasing from large breeding facilities, the stores receive a wide range of breeds and money-back warranties for sick or dead pups.
Owners also note the USDA - which is responsible for regulating commercial breeders - has not shut down any of the facilities they buy from.
"I'm very content with the quality of dogs we sell," said John Geoth, 47, co-owner of Utica Pet Supply, one of metro Detroit's largest importers of dogs from large out-of-state breeders.
Geoth said he buys all of his dogs from Happy Tails Kennel, a Minnesota breeding operation that is the target of an ongoing federal investigation for housing dogs in squalid conditions. Since 2002, the facility has been cited numerous times, with violations including confining dogs to cramped, filthy cages and selling puppies less than 8 weeks old.
But Geoth says the product is still superior.
"We're putting out a companion animal that is unsurpassed by anyone," he said.
Where the puppies come from
More than 3,500 puppies arrived at metro Detroit pet stores last year from the country's largest breeding facilities and brokers. More than 80% of those dogs were supplied by the nation's eight largest exporters - and all of them have had multiple citations by the USDA in the last five years.
In addition to Utica Pet Supply, which imported 400 dogs, the other big importers in metro Detroit last year were Family of Pets, with shops in Troy, Roseville, Novi, Waterford and Livonia, and Petland, another major pet store chain.
Family of Pets imported more than 1,350 dogs from four facilities with multiple violations; Petland, more than 600 from cited facilities.
Jim Kurdziel, co-owner of the Westland Petland store, said people within the franchise visit facilities they buy from and would stop buying dogs from anyone who mistreats animals. The Free Press looked at the most recent USDA inspections of the eight largest breeders of dogs sent to metro Detroit, some dating to 2002, others as recent as this year. Those inspections have found various problems. Dogs have been confined to overcrowded cages, surrounded by flies and feces and exposed to harsh weather.
A report from a November USDA inspection of Happy Tails, the largest exporter of dogs to metro Detroit, documented dozens of dogs crammed into cages that were too small and had floors that exposed the animals' feet and legs to injury.
Inspections in 2002 and 2003 at the same facility found similarly substandard cages and feces-littered kennels for 120 adult dogs. The facility also sold puppies before they reached 8 weeks, the minimum age required under federal law.
Reports on the more than a dozen other out-of-state breeders that account for the last 20% of dogs sent to metro Detroit could not be obtained, and USDA officials declined to comment.
There are no public records tracking dogs sold at metro Detroit pet stores that came from in-state breeders, but animal welfare groups say Michigan does not have a reputation for abusive breeders.
‘I cried for over two hours'
People who buy dogs with health problems typically have two courses of action - they can sue the pet store they bought the dog from or they can formally complain to the state Department of Agriculture.
Since 2000, at least 65 Michigan residents have taken action against the Petland, Utica Pet Supply and Family of Pets. Most alleged they were sold sickly puppies and some claimed to have been misled about the breed of the dog. Many had paperwork showing the dog came from an out-of-state breeder, but it is not known whether all the complaints involved out-of-state dogs.
While the number is relatively small, Karlene Belyea, executive director of the Michigan Veterinary Medical Association, said she believes few owners take action even when a dog falls ill, dies or become debilitated later in life because of the conditions they were raised in. Most, she said, don't know they have legal recourse.
"It's so sad when people bond with these puppies and then find out there are significant health problems because the dogs were bred by a bad breeder," Belyea said.
Since 2000, at least 10 people have filed lawsuits or complaints against Utica Pet Supply for selling sick puppies; some died soon after they were bought.
Yetiva Allen of Flushing, who filed a complaint with the state Department of Agriculture against Utica Pet Supply shortly after she said she spent more than $1,000 on vet bills for a wheaten terrier pup she bought there in July 2003. The dog developed arthritis and joint problems in November 2005, causing her to limp and sometimes collapse.
"She's had bouts where she just lies on the floor and whines and cries," said Allen, whose dog came from Happy Tails. "Once it lasted 12 hours."
At least nine people have filed complaints with the state Department of Agriculture since 2003 about sick puppies from Family of Pets.
Bridget Polk, 38, of Mt. Clemens said the schnauzer mix she bought from Family of Pets at Macomb Mall in Roseville was bouncy, adorable and a perfect companion.
But she said when she found her dog came from Happy Tails, a breeder whose history she knew of, "I cried for over two hours."
Although Polk hasn't had any trouble with her dog, she filed a complaint with the state this year, saying the store led her to believe the puppy didn't come from a large breeder. The store denied misleading her.
"This is an industry that is counting on consumer ignorance and impulse," said Deborah Howard, founder of the nonprofit Companion Animal Protection Society, which monitors breeders and has campaigned to warn consumers of the risks of buying dogs from stores that buy from large breeders. "It's all about the cute puppy in the window."
'She wasn't herself'
John Stottele, the owner of Family of Pets, declined to be interviewed but said in an e-mail that he and his veterinarian have visited Happy Tails and found no problems.
"If Happy Tails or any other professional breeder were to have their license suspended or revoked by the USDA, we would no longer purchase puppies from them," Stottele wrote.
Family of Pets also bought more than 50 puppies last year from Pick of the Litter, a Minnesota breeder cited by the USDA in January for broken, substandard and overcrowded cages; animals exposed to wind and rain; dirty feeding and water bowls, and no proof of veterinary care.
Parvovirus, an often deadly disease that attacks a dog's digestive system, is among the ailments that spread easily under those conditions, and a state Department of Agriculture inspection of the Roseville Family of Pets store in March 2005 found an outbreak of it.
Pick of the Litter owner Kathy Bauk declined to comment on the conditions of her facility, saying past publicity has subjected her to harassment from animal-welfare activists she considers dangerous.
Meanwhile, Barbara Ann Quinn bought a yellow lab from Family of Pets in Novi and within an hour of bringing it home its rectum began bleeding. A vet diagnosed the puppy, named Bailey, with parvovirus. Quinn estimates the vet bill ran up to $1,500. It is not clear where Bailey was bred. Although Bailey survived, Quinn said she wasn't a typical lab after that.
"She isn't as big," said Quinn of Warren. "Her coat isn't as glowing. Bailey wasn't herself for a long, long time."
Contact STEVE NEAVLING at 586-469-4935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.