Choosing a Pet

Finding the right breeder

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Certified Animal Behavior Consultant

Whether you’re seeking a registered breed dog, a pedigreed cat, or so-called designer dog, there’s one simple rule to remember when buying your new pet -- buyer beware. Buying a pet should always involve a healthy dose of skepticism along with some thoughtful research and investigation into the seller (Unfortunately, many people research purchase of microwaves and vacuums more than pets). With effort, you can increase the odds in your favor of acquiring a healthy, happy pet.

There are lots of sources for finding pets, but a dependable source over the years has been classified ads in your local newspaper (both printed, and now, commonly online). While newspapers do have guidelines advertisers must meet, they can’t practically do full background checks, so it’s your job to do your homework when approaching a potential seller or breeder.

Before buying, you want to ensure you’re dealing with a legitimate, responsible breeder who will provide you with a healthy specimen of the pet you’re seeking. These days, the pairing of dogs and cats is a science. All dogs and cats (even mutts and designer dogs) are potentially predisposed to various genetic problems – and a responsible breeder will know what those problems are and work to avoid them. For example, a gene in Maine Coon cats has been linked with a potentially deadly heart problem (feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy). Responsible Maine Coon breeders are beginning the process of genetic testing to eventually lessen the occurrences of the disease.

You want to avoid irresponsible parties who randomly hook up two animals that happen to be of the opposite sex to make a quick buck. Sometimes these folks mean well and even consider themselves breeders, but in most cases, they are decidedly not, at least not quality ones. This so-called “backyard breeding” is, in part, to blame for the proliferation of an array of genetic illnesses in various breeds (such as perpetuating deafness in Dalmatians). The movies and cartoons made Dalmatians popular, and countless jumped on the bandwagon without having any knowledge of what they were doing.

So, how can you determine if a breeder is of the backyard ilk or truly a responsible one? Sometimes that line can be blurred; however, legitimate breeders have some common qualities that illustrate the care and attention necessary to sell quality pets. These qualities include the following:

- If possible, it is important to check their facilities of the seller in person. Ask yourself “Would I want to have dinner here?” If the answer is “No,” say “Adios.”

- Meet the parents! Experts agree, pups and kitties don’t fall far from the tree (Recent research suggests personalities are more likely to reflect Dad than Mom). Ask to meet the Mom & Dad before ogling over the pups. Often, Dad doesn’t live on the premises, but Mom ought to. If Mom or Dad refuses to come out from under a table, hisses, growls, or wants to eat you, don’t accept excuses like “She’s just having a bad day.” Seriously consider moving on before you fall in love with those cute-as-can-be kittens or puppies.

- The breeder isn’t selling used cars. If you feel you’re being pressured, walk out the door without a puppy test drive.

- If you have children, it’s ideal if the breeder also has children (their own or borrowed from others) who handle the pups or kitties gently and frequently to acclimate them to contacts from young people.

- Avoid breeders who always keep dogs outdoors.

- Avoid breeders who have more than four to five litters annually or breed more than three different breeds.

- Avoid breeders who want to give you a puppy under eight weeks or a kitten under nine weeks.

- Good breeders typically belong to a national breed club. They may also participate in dog or cat shows.

- It’s a good idea to ask about the animal’s family history going back three generations. Do require those records where applicable. If records aren’t available, it’s a red flag. For example, for dog breeds subject to hip dysplasia, the Orthopedic Foundation of America (OFA) offers a written analysis of X-Rays of adult hips. Puppies are too young to be analyzed, which makes the health of previous generations crucial.

- Learn about the genetic defects that occur in the specific breed. Resources include:

o Breed clubs
o Canine Inherited Disease Data Base
o The latest on genetic issues in American Kennel Club Breeds

- Avoid breeders who won’t provide a written contract. State canine (and often feline) lemon laws may dictate some of that contract language. In their defense, even the best breeders can’t possibly promise good health for a lifetime. They can only assure that the puppy or kitten is a product of good health and leaves their facility in good health. If the pup or kitten thereafter fails a vet exam, there ought to be a money-back guarantee (where that’s already not the law). Many breeders offer guarantees for genetic illness, no matter what age the dog or cat is diagnosed. If you purchase a pet quality dog or cat, responsible breeders will bind you by contract to spay or neuter. Any breeder who doesn’t do this is suspect.

- If puppies have blister on their tummies, it could mean they’re being forced to sleep in feces. Don’t rescue a pup or kitty from an inhumane operation. You’re not being the hero you think. Instead, you’re providing the financial means for unscrupulous breeders to stay in business. Contact your state Department of Agriculture about inhumane conditions or reach out to local media. Instead of keeping these types in business by making a purchase, you can help to put them out of business.

When looking for your new pet (and, especially when buying over the internet), beware individuals who may be trying to scam you by selling you a poor quality animal (or in some cases, no pet at all in the end). If you happened to be five states away, unfortunately you’re unlikely to visit the facility, so whether through a newspaper or website, exercise caution when making a purchase sight unseen.

“Beware that puppy mills may masquerade as something else” says Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). “It’s important to get third party validation. Do your own research so the reference isn’t from them. They may not be ethical, but they can be very savvy.”

The HSUS is working with Congress to crack down on Internet offers to purchase dogs at bargain basement prices. It turns out many of these dogs are being shipped from Eastern Europe. “Cheap for us is a wealthy position for many people living in certain economies” Pacelle said. “But these dogs sometimes die in transit; if they’re sick there’s no recourse and often you don’t get what you paid for in the first place. In fact, you may get nothing.”

Of course, as with any transaction, price does matter. Find out what the going rate is for whatever animal you’re seeking. A rarer pedigreed cat, such as an Angora may be more costly than, say a more common Siamese. The same is true in the dog world. A Coton de Tulear (Royal Dog of Madagascar) may mean a second mortgage, compared to a more affordable Labrador Retriever. Cost may also depend on a breeder’s level of experience and some show lines with lots of honors do cost more. Don’t overpay. Equally important, don’t underpay. If an offer sounds too good to be true – it likely is.

If you’re considering a pure bred dog, note the short-term purchase price may be less expensive from less-credible sellers, but the long term expenditure and heartache of making a choice from a reckless breeder can be incalculable.

When purchasing via the Internet, a good breeder will be as skeptical about you as you should be about them. It’s actually a good sign that you’re asked to offer references to represent who you are. Also, a good breeder will contractually offer to take the animal back at any time for any reason.

Remember, unlike a microwave or vacuum, you’re choosing a member of the family. The bottom line is that if you have a gut feeling that the deal doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.

Steve Dale is widely known as the "Ann Landers of the pet world." He writes "My Pet World," a syndicated, twice-weekly column, offering animal lovers of all kinds the latest news and information on their furry, feathered and scaled companions. Listen to Steve Dale's WEEKLY RADIO SHOW, "Pet Central," on Saturdays at; or Steve's syndicated radio shows: "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." Learn more at