A nice family by all accounts (I never had the opportunity to meet them personally) brought their 8 week old Labrador Retriever puppy to my veterinary practice and was seen by one of our associate veterinarians with the concern that their puppy seemed to lose her balance and have weakness at times. These episodes in veterinary medicine are known as ataxia.
The attending veterinarian did indeed note occasional episodes of ataxia and ran through the list of possible causes. Some are curable, some are not. Some are not curable, but manageable, however, may require ongoing long term care that could be costly in the lifetime of this 8 week old puppy.
The family had called the breeder repeatedly with no return call. The breeder had previously listed the puppy on Craigslist for sale and the family had purchased the puppy from him with no Florida State certificate of veterinary health inspection: a crime on the part of the breeder and a circumstance that leaves this family with no legal record of the sale nor legal recourse to receive compensation from the breeder within the Florida Puppy Lemon Law.
The diagnostics alone to sift through the possible causes for the puppy’s conditions are costly. The unknowns for this family with regard to cost of treatment, possible ongoing care, the emotional toll on their young children as they grew more attached to the puppy were too much to bear. They faced an impossible dilemma already caring deeply for the puppy.
Our practice leadership team decided that we would offer the family the option to sign the puppy over to the clinic, possessing the resources for her diagnostic work-up and to take whatever measures would be necessary to ensure her long term quality of life. We would find her a suitable home that could handle whatever future treatments and diagnostics may be necessary – likely a member of our medical team – and give the puppy her best shot at the healthiest possible life. With sincere regard for the well being of his puppy, the father of the family turned her over to the clinic.
On my end, I had not even met the puppy but having been briefed on the circumstances, I did not hesitate to submit my vote to have the clinic take on the responsibility of her care…and then I met her. Despite her occasional instability and her back legs going out from under her every now and then, her spirit was clearly indomitable. She had no idea that she was different, was playful, sweet, and absolutely beautiful. I was reminded immediately of my current 12 1/2 year old Labrador Retriever, Bernie, who was signed over to my clinic at 4 months of age that had such severe fractures of his left elbow that he would require an orthopedic surgical specialist, months of recovery and rehabilitation, and still have significant unknown with regard to the extent of what the ultimate use of his left front leg would be.
Bernie would indeed need a lot of work and TLC, but he spoke to my heart and I kept him. He eventually shot up to a strapping 86 pounds by 18 months of age and regained the use of his repaired and rehabilitated leg, albeit with a slight limp and lateral orientation that gave him a rather bouncy and goofy gait that to me added to his uniqueness and charm. He has been one of the most all around beautiful souls I have ever had the privilege to share my life’s journey with.
My clinic staff playfully named the puppy “Stella,” after the beer because she appears as if she may be slightly inebriated during her episodes of instability. Stella is now my family’s special needs child just as Bernie was all of those years ago. I explained to my human children that she is special and needs special care just like Bernie once did before they were born, but Daddy will do everything I can to figure out what is wrong with her to to fix her to the best of my ability. At such a tender young age, and currently stable, I did not want to make her go through a transition to a new home and submit to a battery of testing all at once, so now that she has had several days to adjust (very well, I may add, and Bernie is an excellent big brother!), she is scheduled in 2 days to have her tests run.
Although there is hope in this story and I am grateful that Stella ended up in my home as a veterinarian that can put every available resource to help this precious little life, I titled this post as a cautionary “tail,” because of the extremely sad experience of the family that had to part with Stella and fell victim to a clearly unethical breeder. He is one of millions out there waiting for the next family they can scam into paying a high price for a puppy that was never once actually examined by a veterinarian, with no state law required veterinary inspection of health certificate for sale, and just took the money and ran. I want this story and the horrendous actions of backyard breeders of this kind to spread far and wide so that others may be educated to know the red flags that are clear signs that they should be avoided.
- Craigslist purchases for puppies & kittens are nearly 100% a bad idea. A reputable, ethical breeder would not resort to Craigslist to sell puppies or kittens. Craigslist listings are a big red flag.
- Local breeder offers to meet you somewhere public with the puppy or kitten to see him. This usually means that he does not want you to see the likely abominable conditions the puppy came from and/or the conditions of the parents.
- Lack of a state certificate of veterinary health inspection. This is not only required by law in every state I am aware of, but proves that the puppy or kitten was examined by a veterinarian and determined to be healthy for sale. It also provides the breeder’s contact information and brick and mortar address for legal recourse if necessary.
In addition to recognizing red flags, know the positive signs that you are dealing with a caring, ethical breeder.
- Invitation to the home to see litter and an opportunity to see the parents.
- State health certificate of veterinary inspection signed by a licensed veterinarian.
- Parents are older than 2 years prior to first breeding.
- Breeder will not release puppies until 8 weeks at a minimum, ideally 10-12 weeks of age for maximum socialization with mom and litter.
- Contact the respective breed club to become familiar with inherited diseases common to the breed. Ask for documentation for genetic or O.F.A screening of the parents these disease. The more diseases they have been screened and the parents are negative for, the better the possibility for a healthy pet and knowing that you are dealing with an ethical breeder.
My preference of course is to rescue as know that I am saving a life as I am gaining my next friend and furry family member. I love Labrador Retrievers and I know that if I ever want one, all I need to do is wait and the opportunity to rescue one will inevitably come along. I do not mind if they come injured or with health issues given my innate passion to tending to sick or injured animals…it actually bonds me closer to them.
Of course, that is me and I do not judge people wishing to have the breed that they in particular love that may not be veterinarians with the training and resources to take on special needs cases. Please simply learn from this article and if ever in the market to purchase a breed that you may have a preference for, ask the right questions, seek the appropriate documentation, and recognize the red flags that usually characterize and incompetent or unethical breeder.
As for Stella, I do not know what the future holds for her, but this I do know: my family, my medical team and I will doing everything in our power to figure out her issue and make her as physically healthy as she can possibly be and no matter the outcome, she will most certainly be loved…she already is.
Dr. Roger Welton is a practicing veterinarian and highly regarded media personality through a number of topics and platforms. In addition to being passionate about integrative veterinary medicine for which he is a nationally renowned expert, Dr. Welton was also an accomplished college lacrosse player and remains to this day very involved in the sport. He is president of Maybeck Animal Hospital , runs the successful veterinary/animal health blogs Web-DVM and Dr. Roger’s Holistic Veterinary Care, and fulfills his passion for lacrosse through his lacrosse and sport blog, The Creator’s Game.