July 18, 2024

Lottie Winter shares the heartbreak of buying

This was the cost of the latest medical investigation into the myriad of congenital health problems he had presented with in his very short life. When he was eight weeks old, we had rushed him to a specialist cardiology centre,North Downs Specialist Referrals, for an emergency heart scan.

We’d only picked him up from the breeder days earlier, and had taken him to the vet after noticing he was struggling to breathe. Our vet heard a loud heart murmur, and feared his organs were failing. We were told to expect the worst, however, the scan revealed a hole in his heart and non-related restricted airways – the best possible outcome, we were told. He would need lifelong heart monitoring, and extensive surgery to open his airways and remove his soft palate – but he was going to live.

“I’m sorry to tell you his spinal cord is compressed by 80%. It’s very likely that your puppy will be paralysed in his hind legs by the time he’s six months old. ” This was not what we expected to hear just seven weeks after picking up our adorable Pug/Shih Tzu cross puppy, Bagheera, from a breeder in Weymouth, who we found on Pets4Homes. Bagheera seemed to have come from a respectable breeder – he had been kept inside a family home, we met both the dad and the mum dogs, and there were dog toys strewn everywhere. It all looked legit.

And yet here we were, just weeks later, at the Queen Mother Hospital at the Royal Veterinary College in North London, having just spent £2500 on an urgent MRI and CT scan which we weren’t insured for because these were congenital issues. I felt winded from shock.

Then, as Bagheera neared four months, we’d noticed his hind legs dragging and buckling underneath him, as well as a lump on his spine in between his shoulder blades. We had hoped that it may be an abscess, or something easy to treat, but the scans revealed a major spinal malformation. His vertebrae were pressing into his spinal cord and were preventing messages from his brain reaching his legs. As he was growing, it was getting worse.

While the spinal deformity wouldn’t have been easily noticeable as a young puppy, Bagheera was born with every single one of his health issues and it would have been almost impossible for our breeder’s vet to miss his breathing problems and heart murmur. His breeder hadn’t mentioned anything to us, and we entered into the heartbreak unknowingly. She had insisted we collect him at seven weeks, upon her vet’s advice – something I now know should have been a warning sign that this was not a responsible breeder.

She told me that due to lockdown measures in her area, Bagheera wouldn’t be able to get his first vaccinations if he stayed. It soon became clear that the breeder was most likely rushing to get rid of a sick puppy, fearing he would die before she could collect the £900 she charged for him. We’ll never know for sure, though – she disappeared when we texted her to tell her there was a problem, after denying all knowledge of any issues. She claimed the other puppies from the litter were fine. When I asked for her vet’s details, she stopped responding altogether.

Our experience has been heartbreaking but we are not alone. The pandemic has prompted a stratospheric rise in the number of people wanting to buy puppies – internet searches for ‘buy a puppy’ were up by 120% during the first month of lockdown, and pet insurers have seen a 78% rise in owners registering new animals. Of course, breeders have been quick to meet the increased demand, taking to unscrupulous and irresponsible breeding and selling practices in the process.

One such method is importing litters from other countries, carting off underage puppies in the back of vans and lorries for days at a time, often without adequate food or water. “Everything seemed perfectly legit up until the day Sushi was delivered and our ordeal began,” says Sarah Woods, a nail technician, from Liverpool, who bought a Pomeranian puppy from a seller on Instagram under the handle @pomeranian_boomini.

“We were sadly uneducated on what to do when buying a new puppy, but a friend recommended this particular seller, who had tens of thousands of followers. ” Sushi was delivered to Sarah at 2am in the back of a van, with multiple cages filled with puppies, and was covered in her own vomit and excrement. Her papers said she had been travelling from Russia for 30 hours, and judging by the state of her, she hadn’t been given any food or water. She was malnourished, dehydrated and barely able to walk. Despite two nights on a drip in a veterinary hospital, Sushi lost her battle and passed away.

“We messaged the breeder and were then made to feel like we were fully responsible for Sushi’s death, who sent us a barrage of abusive messages over WhatsApp. It was a miracle Sushi even made it to us alive after the horrific journey she endured to get here. ”

Sarah isn’t the only one to suffer the sudden loss of an imported Pomeranian puppy. Love Island finalists Molly-Mae Hague and Tommy Fury bought an imported puppy from Instagram user @Tiffany_Puppies, who describes herself as a ‘licensed expert breeder of luxurious Pomeranians and Chihuahuas” and who has 93k followers on the platform. Molly-Mae and Tommy’s Pomeranian puppy, Mr Chai Bear, died six days after arriving with the couple, after also being shipped from Russia. In a tearful YouTube video, Tommy recalls how Mr Chai had suffered diarrhoea, vomiting and even an inability to run around before he had a seizure and died in the vet’s practice.

What happened to Sushi looks like a clear case of criminality. Sushi was only 10 weeks old when she was transported, and the law states that puppies must be at least 15 weeks old to travel to the UK. However, My Chai was allegedly over the legal age limit, meaning Tiffany Puppies has operated in some way legally (although selling a sick puppy is always illegal). “The importation of puppies in this way isn’t covered by Lucy’s Law,” says Marc Abraham also known as ‘Marc the Vet’, veterinary surgeon and founder of anti-puppy farming campaign group Pup Aid. “It’s sadly just an alternative route to market for irresponsibly bred puppies. ”

Lucy’s Law, which came into force in England on 6th April 2020 as a result of tireless campaigning by Marc and other animal welfare advocates, dictates that a puppy must be sold directly by the breeder, and the breeder is required to physically show the puppy interacting with his or her mother. “It’s the biggest step forward in terms of breeder accountability – and that’s the most important thing. Breeders have to be held accountable,” he says. “Before the law was passed, you could buy a puppy from a pet shop, with no way of finding out who the breeder was – therefore, it was impossible to hold them accountable if something went wrong, which of course it often did. ”

The issue of puppy importation, often nicknamed “dogfishing” to signify the misleading nature of the sales, is another hugely popular legal route to market for young puppies, who are transported from overseas puppy farms and delivered directly to unsuspecting buyers in the UK, often using photos of healthy dogs that bear no actual resemblance to the dog arriving at their new home. In other deceptive practices, foreign breeders deliver puppies to UK breeders selling exactly the same breed to make it look like they’ve been well looked after in someone’s home with the mum dog present (even though they’re not related).

Marc is now backing a new petition to ban the legal importation of young puppies, which had already collected over 120,000 signatures in its first few weeks. However, the Government has responded by stating that the “banning the import of puppies would amount to a restriction on trade which would need strong justification under World Trade Organisation rules and whilst we remain in the transition period, is not possible under EU trade law. ”

The response also reiterated the importance of article 4 of The Welfare of Animals Order 2006, which states that “it is an offence to transport animals, including people transporting dogs, in a way that will cause injury or unnecessary suffering” and that they “continue to ensure that illegal import of puppies is stopped. ” According to Marc, the easy solution would be to raise the minimum puppy import age to at least six months. “This would help tackle both the legal and illegal trade by making older pups unattractive to sellers, minimise risk of rabies transmission to UK dogs and humans, as well as finally making detection and enforcement possible, as by six months of age the secondary teeth are visible which presumably would be almost impossible to fake. ”

Imported or not, and illegal or legal, the dog breeding and selling industry is plagued with decades-old problems that will often require far more than grassroots petitions for change. “Everyone thinks that Kennel Club certification is a sign of good breeding, but in my experience, there are some breeds that are so historically inbred and have suffered severely from centuries of eugenics that a certificate means nothing other than the fact it’s a purebred dog,” says Deborah Joseph, GLAMOUR’s Editor-in-Chief, who also suffered at the hands of unscrupulous breeders when she bought a Kennel Club registered pug puppy online 12 years ago.

The Kennel Club was founded in 1973, and describes itself as “one of the largest trusts dedicated to the health and welfare of all dogs. ” In many ways, it is; it provides information on different breeds, funds education campaigns and checks its breeders provide adequate care to their dogs with the Kennel Club Assured Breeder Scheme, the only one of its kind in the UK. To qualify for the scheme, breeders must comply with a strict set of requirements, including recommended but non-mandatory health screens on their dogs, inspection of premises, and to agree to rehome any dog they have provided if needed, at any point in its life.

However, there are also issues with the fundamentals of breeding that are not being addressed quickly enough. “We picked up our puppy at 12 weeks old, and we saw the mum dog. I did notice the mother, like our puppy, had very bulging eyes, but it seemed so legitimate and we were totally in love with the puppy,” recalls Deborah. “Within weeks, our pug Frank was experiencing horrific allergies to most foods.

When I called the breeder to ask about it her phone was off – she never picked up in the six months I called her. Within a year he was experiencing severe eye problems having punctured his eye on a twig and needed a £3k eye operation to fix the ulcer on his cornea. By the age of seven, he was totally blind having undergone four eye operations. His mum had been so inbred and genetically deformed, the breeder should have never bred her. If you Google what a pug looked like 100 years ago, you’ll see that it looks totally different from today – and that’s all the result of inbreeding, in my view this has been encouraged by the Kennel Club’s breed standards that puts appearance over health. ” According to Bill Lambert, Head of Health and Welfare at the Kennel Club, ““all breed standards have been reviewed and revised in recent years by the Kennel Club in conjunction with breed clubs, welfare organisations and vets, to ensure they are accurate and relevant. ”

Over the past decade, The Kennel Club has taken commendable steps to help breeders avoid inbreeding and correct genetic deformities like obstructive airways, bulging eyes and spinal problems commonly experienced in pugs, French bulldogs and other flat-faced, curly-tailed dogs. ““The Scheme’s assessors require evidence that the breeder has considered their dog’s inbreeding coefficients the degree of inbreeding and if an Assured Breeder ignored this recommendation, they would run the risk of being removed from the Scheme,” says Bill.

However, some of the unhealthy traits are often fetishised and promoted by popular culture. “With the popularity of pugs and Frenchies, the situation appears to have got totally out of hand,” says Marc. “The more people buying them and the more that celebrities and influencers are pictured with them in the media and online, the more demand there will be, and as a result, the more unscrupulous breeders and sellers will continue to cash in. ”

The issue of increased demand is only one side of the story, of course. If all breeders adhered to responsible breeding guidelines and practises, over time, maybe many of the genetic health problems would be eradicated. Unfortunately, those who breed dogs ethically and with love sadly are the minority, with the lion’s share of dog breeders taking to websites like Pets4Homes and Gumtree without seeking professional advice or guidance, to sell their litters to meet the demand of the consumer.

Pugs and French bulldogs appear at the very top of the list of Pets4Homes “Dogs For Sale” list on their homepage, yet their breeders are not required to provide evidence of any qualifications or certifications and there are no mandatory follow up checks being imposed on them. It takes less than two minutes to register for a standard account on Pets4Homes, which allows you to list up to three litters per year (the legal limit before you need to get a license) for free.

Unfortunately, the anonymous nature of the internet means breeders are setting up multiple accounts under different names to bypass Pets4Homes attempt to cap the number of adverts per user. “We do have clear information on our website about the health concerns associated with particular breeds, including known issues for pugs and French bulldogs,” a spokesperson for Pets4Homes says. “Importantly, we also present guidelines and advice for both buyers and sellers to ensure a successful and safe rehoming process: including a thorough checklist within each advert which buyers should follow. ”

So, if you’re looking to buy a puppy while #WFH, especially one of the breeds with significant deformities, you should know what you’re letting yourself in for. “If you want to get a pug or French bulldog, they’ll be the most beautiful and loving addition to your family,” says Deborah. “But you should also be prepared for a lifetime of heartache and a huge vet’s bill. I still have pugs as pets, but they are both rescues – my pug Frank died aged 11 from cancer: after my heartbreaking experience, I would never again give money to an unscrupulous breeder, as long as I live. ”


  • Consider adopting a dog. There are more unwanted dogs than ever before, desperate for a loving home.
  • If you do decide to buy a pedigree puppy, go to a Kennel Club Assured Breeder. You can check if they have certification here.
  • Research the breed or crossbreed extensively and familiarise yourself with all potential health problems, as well as their behavioural traits and exercise requirements.
  • Visit the puppy and insist on seeing the puppy interacting with the mum at the breeder’s home.
  • Always ask for a veterinary health check prior to collection, even if it is at your expense. If the breeder refuses to provide this, walk away.
  • Never buy a puppy from a puppy farm, and make sure the breeder is only selling one (max two) types of dog.
  • Never collect a puppy before it is at least 8 weeks old.
  • Google the seller’s phone number to reveal any history of excessive litters. .
  • Never buy an imported puppy, no matter how many weeks old.
  • Be wary of anyone advertising a puppy or older dog on social media.
  • Report any suspected unethical breeding, selling or animal welfare issues to the following authorities: the Local Council, Trading Standards, Animal Protection Services, The Kennel Club, RSPCA, and the police.

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