The cost of caring – a vet reflects on the puppy industry

This is a guest post from vet and animal welfare campaigner Emma Milne.

A victim of puppy breeding in the UK

You never forget the puppies you have to kill. It may be a shocking way to say put to sleep, but these cases are always truly shocking. I was once brought a beautiful little black and tan puppy for a check for weighing and worming. He was about 16 weeks old. Sure enough, from a distance he looked like a typical wormy, scrawny puppy – swollen bellied and thin everywhere else.

To be honest in most of the places I had worked, seeing true worm infestations was pretty rare. I had worked in pretty affluent areas of the UK and had only seen dogs like this when I’d done charity work abroad. The odd thing was that this dog’s records showed that he had been regularly wormed since we’d seen him for his vaccinations so he just shouldn’t have this appearance and poor body condition.

I scooped a hand under his chest to pull him closer to me on the consulting room table and realised immediately that he would have been much better off if he had indeed been full of worms. As soon as my hand had slipped against the wall of his chest I could actually feel his heart murmur. Heart murmurs are the sound made by blood flowing the wrong way through the heart valves as the powerful ventricles pump. Sometimes they are barely audible because of a little leak and the very worst ones, like this, can be felt on the outside of the body because the blood is simply crashing around and not going anywhere.

This poor dog was already in full-blown heart failure. The swollen abdomen was full of fluid that had been forced out of his backed-up blood vessels. His lack of body muscle was because his body simply couldn’t meet all of its needs with a failing heart. And so it fell to me to tell a family besotted with their beautiful new puppy that he was going to die a slow and painful death if we didn’t help by ending his suffering humanely. Of course, they were completely devastated.

They had bought the puppy from an online ad and the breeder had ‘kindly’ offered to meet them half way at the services to ‘save them the whole trip’. The puppy had looked a bit skinny but they fell in love immediately as everyone does with puppies and couldn’t bear to leave him behind. The transaction was complete.

You may be sitting there thinking how stupid it is to buy a puppy like this and you’d be right but sympathy is a major reason that sickly puppies are still bought in many circumstances, not just ones as obviously shady as this one. A very worrying recent study found that people spend longer picking a pair of new shoes than they do a puppy. The average time to pick a puppy was around twenty minutes. Twenty minutes! A robust, healthy dog could be with your family for 15 years or more and will likely cost you anywhere between £14,000 and £30,000. That’s not a joke, that’s a fact. It’s a hell of a lot of money.

Of course these costs vary depending on health, size and life span but none of them is insignificant. You owe it to yourself and your new pet to make sure you make the right choices. Dogs and all pets are like tattoos and marriage - they should NOT be rushed into! You need to think about your lifestyle and what sort of dog you want. And you need to be honest with yourself.

Fashion, TV and celebrities are a major driver in pet choices and at the moment the veterinary profession is in shock at the crazy rise in popularity of flat-faced dogs like pugs and French bulldogs. Many breeds, these particularly, have quirky looks that people find cute but are actually huge signs of deformity and disease. Nature would never pick the shapes we have imposed on many of our dog breeds.

Puppy imports and puppy farming is bigger business now for organised crime than drugs and it’s only you, the future puppy buyer, who can stop the madness. If you actually find out the facts about your breed, talk to your vet about their potential health problems and find out all the ways to spot puppy farmers online, you will improve welfare overnight. Just because a husky looks like something from Game of Thrones doesn’t mean you are going to have the energy needed to meet its huge exercise needs! Likewise just because some pop sensation has a pug doesn’t mean we should perpetuate the demand for the sickliest of breeds.

Personally I don’t mind if you buy a dog for Christmas as long as you are actually capable of meeting its needs for the rest of its life and that you know what those needs are. Never buy a puppy without seeing its mother and being sure that the dog with the puppies is actually the mother. Never buy a puppy without seeing where it was raised and finding out about vaccinations, worming, socialisation and habituation among many other things. Download the AWF/RSPCA puppy contract and information pack from This gives you all the questions you need to ask and if the breeder you’ve found won’t sign the contract then walk away. I mean it.

Good breeders will let you visit multiple times. They should have as many if not more questions for you than you have for them. They will know about breed health problems and health testing and should be open about what tests they do. They will feed good quality food (not raw food) and they will vaccinate and treat for worms. They will tell you what socialisation they have done and have a plan for you to continue with. Don’t accept anything less. You would strive for your children to be the healthiest they could be so why see the future addition to your family any differently?

Above all, please consider adopting. Even if you think you know what you want what harm can it do to go and look? You might find you fall in love. Not all dogs in adoption centres are tainted goods. They are animals in need of love and a caring home. Our first dog, Penny, came from the RSPCA and we enjoyed her scruffy company for 16 years. My wonderful boys, Pan and Badger, were from an unwanted, accidental litter and were my best friends for 15 years. A lifetime of love from healthy crossbreeds.

The Cost of Caring – A Vet Reflects on the Puppy Industry

Dogs can be wonderful pets. My dogs have graced my life and enriched it beyond measure but choosing the wrong dog can be equally devastating - emotionally, physically, financially or all three. By finding out the facts before you get that impulse-buy puppy you will be making life-changing decisions for your family but also for your future dog.

Instead of one-click shopping for a dog or letting sympathy keep puppy farmers in business, let’s turn the tables and fuel the demand for healthy, happy animals, capable of having lives worth living.


You can read more of Emma’s writing here. And learn more about our PUPS checklist to help avoid dogs from puppy farms and illicit breeders here.

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Cynthia Milburn, Director, Animal Welfare Outreach & Education
Senior Advisor, Policy Development
Jan Hannah, Campaign Manager, Northern Dogs Project
Campaign Manager, Northern Dogs Project
Kate Nattrass Atema, Program Director, Community Animal Welfare
Program Director, Community Animal Welfare
Shannon Walajtys
Manager, Animal Rescue-Disasters