The Age; Gary Tippet August 15, 2010
RITA Bram knows who to blame – the ditzy ”blonde from America” – for the steady procession of pups that pass through her chihuahua rescue centre in Frankston. ”Paris Hilton has done the world of chihuahas no end of damage,” she says.
It was Hilton and her shivering chihuahua Tinkerbell peeping from her handbag who started the celebrity craze of ultra-miniature dogs as fashion accessories. Soon Britney had three Chihs and Jessica Simpson had her malti-poo – and around the world those who follow fashion were quick to, well, follow.
Sales soared. And, just as quickly, Rita and her husband Mayer saw an increase in the number of so-called Tea Cup chihuahuas being abandoned.
Hilby, another resident of the shelter, located in Frankston. Picture: Ken Irwin
Some owners discovered an unpleasant reality – that dogs that travel in bags tend to go to the toilet there. But often they were finding that in more ways than one they’d been sold a pup.
”They buy them as weenie little puppies and they grow into standard chihuahuas, which are two to three kilos, when they want a little handful of a few grams,” says Rita. ”And in many cases they’re not chihuahuas at all, but some sort of cross-bred, part-Jack Russell or Pomeranian or who knows what.”
Fads for certain breeds – and, more recently, so-called designer dogs – have fuelled a rise in puppy factories, experts say. ”Whenever a particular breed or type becomes extremely popular – as we saw after the film 101 Dalmatians – you get people seeing dollar signs and the ability to churn out large numbers as a pure money-making exercise,” says animal behaviourist Dr Debbie Calnon.
”There are some puppy mills and factories that have tapped into that market of the cute, fluffy designer puppy that has become so popular.”
Cross-breeds – once known as bitzers or, less kindly, mongrels – have been cleverly marketed as designer dogs, says Peter Foster, president of DOGS Victoria. ”Unfortunately what’s happening is they’re now just putting names together – anything with an oodle at the end is good.”
Wally Conron, who bred the first labradoodle – crossing a labrador with a poodle – in the 1980s to create a non-allergenic guide dog, has since said he regrets opening ”a Pandora’s box … groodles, spoodles, caboodles and snoodles”.
”Were breeders bothering to check their sires and bitches for heredity faults, or were they simply caught up in delivering … the next status symbol?” he said in a 2007 interview. ”I wonder, in my retirement, whether we bred a designer dog – or a disaster!”
Some in the competitive canine industry claim types of designer dogs have had health, behavioural or maintenance faults bred into them. Labrador breeder and chairwoman of DOGS Victoria’s canine health committee, Sylvia Powers, says crossing poodles with woolly coats with labradors or golden retrievers that have double-coat fur can mean the cross-breeds’ coats ”sometimes just turn to carpet”.
”If people don’t maintain it at least twice a week, but preferably daily grooming, it ties up and mats back to the skin. It becomes terribly painful for the dog.”
RSPCA NSW scientific officer Jade Norris says ”hard data” on faults in pure and cross-breeds is ”seriously lacking”. But the factory-farming nature of intensive breeding often means there are no checks on the dogs. Faults known in certain pedigrees are not screened: ”These people are not driven by wanting to produce healthy or happy puppies, they just want the money.”
Sydney veterinarian Dr Rob Zammit says conditions in some puppy factories can cause behavioural problems. ”We’re seeing that all the time … they become fear-biters. Because they’re not socialised, they’re very quick to back into a corner and bite.”
Katrina Webb, supervisor at the RSPCA’s shelter in Burwood, says the number of ”designer dogs” being relinquished has exploded, particularly in the past three years.
A big reason is that many, likely bred on farms and sold in pet shops, suffer severe separation anxiety or can’t be toilet trained. Many cannot be re-homed and are euthanased.
”There would be no way the sheer numbers (of designer dogs) we’ve been seeing, nor from the volume of these dogs in pet shops, have been bred in back yards.
”To think you are saving that puppy in the pet shop window is naive.
”What you are in fact doing is supporting the puppy factory industry … If you want a groodle, spoodle or labradoodle, come see us, unfortunately we get them all the time,” she says.