The Myth of Christmas Puppies

The second most popular Christmas meme in the dogblogosphere was discussing Saturnalia and the pagan roots of the holiday celebration; I wrote one, Terrierman wrote two, and Christie kicked off the trend last year with hers. The common message was to expose the weak foundations of popularly held beliefs and shed some light on under-appreciated facts. And Christmas is the holiday of under-appreciated facts (Santa isn’t real and it’s not Jesus’ birthday, sorry).

The most popular Christmas meme was “Don’t buy Christmas Puppies!” Pet Connection ran a slew of posts on the topic: Holiday shopping season begins, and the puppy-millers are ready!, A pet is not a toy. A pet is not a toy. Rinse. Repeat., As another storm moves in, remember the puppy-mill dogs …, Christmas puppies: Testing my own advice, How to ‘save’ puppy-mill dogs: Don’t buy them, Christmas adoption bans; followed closely by Lassie Get Help: A dog is not a toy. Also: puppy mills suck.; Champlain Valley Pug Rescue tells us Why puppies should not be given as Christmas presents.; Lexiann at Favorite Pets questioned Puppies as Christmas Presents; The Bark Magazine blog agreed: Santa says: Adopt, Don’t Buy; and Johann the Dog kicked the trend off early: How much is that doggie in the window? And who could forget PeTA and their “Adopt, Never Buy” campaign.

That’s a lot of attention given to Christmas Puppies. Keeping that in mind, take a stab at the following questions:

  • There are more {Dogs or Cats} as pets in America
  • More households have {Dogs or Cats} as pets
  • Pets given as gifts are {More or Less} likely to end up in a shelter
  • Dogs purchased at pet stores are {More or Less} likely to end up in a shelter
  • Dogs born in the owner’s home are {More or Less} likely to end up in a shelter
  • Dogs adopted from a shelter are {More or Less} likely to end up back in a shelter
  • Dogs acquired for under $30 are {More or Less} likely to end up in a shelter
  • Dogs acquired for over $100 are {More or Less} likely to end up in a shelter

Rank the following sources of pets from where you believe most pets come from to the fewest number of pets come from:

Animal Shelter
Newspaper/Private Party
Pet Store
Puppy/Kitten from Own Pet

Now what do you suppose the facts on the ground would be to justify the “No Christmas Puppies,” “Adopt, Don’t Buy,” and “Don’t give an animal as a gift” messages?

It would be logical to assume that (1) Puppies are a larger problem than Kittens (both in numbers and in propensity to buy on a whim), as you don’t hear much at all about “No Christmas Kittens.” It would be logical to assume that (2) Giving a pet as a gift makes that pet more likely to be relinquished to a shelter. It would be logical to assume that (3) Pet store puppies are more likely to end up in shelters. It would be logical to assume that (4) a large percentage of people buy pets at Pet Stores. It would be logical to assume that (5) people who buy pets for money do more harm than good. It would be logical to assume that (6) people who buy pets from breeders or private parties are more likely to relinquish their pets than people who adopted them from shelters.

It would also be logical to assume that Gifts and Pet Stores are popular means of acquiring puppies.

All those assumptions are wrong. Just like you were once duped into thinking that there were flying reindeer–at least one with a radioactive glowing nose, an immortal fat old philanthropist, and the birthday of Jesus, if you believed any one of those assumptions above, you’ve been just as duped.

There are more Cats as pets in America. In 2001 there were an estimated 68.9 million cats and 61.6 million dogs as pets. Cats are also more likely to be acquired on a whim than dogs (more on that later).

Although, more households have Dogs as pets. In the same survey, 36.1% of US households had at least one dog (1.6 average) and 31.6% of housholds had at least one cat (2.1 average); another survey found that in 2000, 39% of homes had dogs and 34% had cats. AVMA Survey, 1997, 2002; APPMA Survey 2002.

Pets given as gifts are Less likely to end up in a shelter.

Dogs purchased at pet stores are Less likely to end up in a shelter.

Dogs born in the owner’s home are More likely to end up in a shelter.

Dogs adopted from a shelter are More likely to end up back in a shelter.

Dogs acquired for under $30 are More likely to end up in a shelter.

Dogs acquired for over $100 are Less likely to end up in a shelter.

Pets given as Gifts account for only 7% of acquired dogs and only 8% of dogs are bought at Pet Stores. The most common source of dogs is from Friends and Family at 34%.

As Table 10a shows, the data collected by Patronek et al (1996a) refute at least one cherished belief (that dogs received as gifts or from pet stores are more likely to be given up) and confirm a number of others (that age is an important factor in relinquishment of dogs).

The shelter community needs to be concerned that dogs acquired from their facilities are more likely to be relinquished and should emphasize the importance of pet care-givers establishing strong relationships with a veterinarian (their “other family doctor”).

– Acquisition of Pets, The State of the Animals II: 2003

As much as these bloggers mean well and their posts do shed critical light on the abomination that is the puppy mill industry, they’re barking up the wrong tree and smearing breeders right along with puppy mills. The message about puppy mills has obviously gotten through, and there’s only 8% more of the market that needs to be taken away from them before they’ll be a memory. But it’s apparently true that puppy mills do a better job of producing pets people keep than breeders of all merit and shelters when those are lumped together.

It also is pretty damning that equal numbers of people adopt from shelters and take in strays; yet, the dogs adopted at shelters are twice as likely to end up back in the shelter than the dogs taken in as strays. And shelter dogs fare worse than any other source, even free dogs.

The slandering against the puppy mills has splashed on to all breeders. And not one of those bloggers who railed against pet stores and gift puppies acknowledged that both of those factors actually keep pets in homes MORE than any other source. It’s confusing, it’s mind blowing, but it turns out that gift pets and pet store pets are the MOST likely to stay in homes and pets adopted by people who care so much that the buy used from shelters end up going back to shelters more than any other source.

And how about this for mind blowing, if you visit a vet with your dog AT LEAST ONCE, you decrease your chance of abandoning your pet by 86%. Take your pet to the vet at least once per year and halve your remaining chance. Twice or more per year, halve that chance again!

The relinquishment rate being so high for newborn puppies speaks again to the need for expanding the spay/neuter message even though 70% of dogs are already desexed. What else than ooops! pregnancies can account for all of those relinquished puppies and kittens and the largest source of dogs being what I can only imagine are ooops! litters from friends and family.

If you are a breeder, the most important benchmark of the ethics of you being one is your ability to sell the puppies you create. If you can’t sell puppies you are not a breeder, or at best a failed one. If you have to give puppies away to free or dump them in shelters, you are a failure.

The above chart is interesting. Very interesting. Most dogs and cats are acquired for little money from friends and family. The acquisition of dogs is also more likely to be planned than on a whim, which is not true for Cats. More cats are acquired on a whim than planned:

Pet care-givers acquire dogs and cats from a variety of sources. These sources are believed to play an integral role in pet population problems. According to the APPMA National Pet Owners Survey, pets in 1998 were acquired as indicated in Table 7 (APPMA 2000, 2002). Use of those sources marked with an asterisk indicates that some forethought and planning usually went into the acquisition of the pet.

The total percentage of dogs acquired from such sources is 74 (or about 48 percent of the identified sources); the total percentage of cats acquired from these sources is 38 (or about 29 percent of the identified sources). This indicates that cats are more likely to be acquired on a whim.

Other surveys have shown similar differences between the sources of dogs and cats. Nassar, Mosier, and Williams (1984) found that in Las Vegas cats (24.5 percent) were much more likely to be acquired from the stray population than dogs (8 percent), but only 9 percent of cats were purchased compared with 26 percent of dogs. In Massachusetts 71 percent of pet care-givers had planned to acquire their dogs, going to such sources as breeders (33 percent), shelters (16 percent), and pet stores (7 percent) (MSPCA 1996).

– Acquisition of Pets, The State of the Animals II: 2003

So there you go. Data found on the HSUS website speaks volumes to myths that people believe: That shelters do a good job at keeping pets in homes with their careful selection programs and temperament tests. Turns out that random loose dogs taken in off the street are twice as likely to stay there. That buying dogs is less ethical than adopting them, turns out that buying dogs even at pet stores is more successful than adopting them or getting them free from friends and family. That puppy mill and gift pets are the most likely to be abandoned. Turns out that they’re not.

Go figure.

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.