The Life of an Ethical Animal Breeder – Ten Truths
If you think you’d like to start breeding companion animals, congratulations! This can be a rewarding and fun experience that can, if done properly, enrich your life on many levels. Before taking the plunge, I invite you to read my extensive but very REALISTIC overview on what you can expect as a breeder, based on my and others’ experiences in the hobby. This overview is not intended to dissuade you but instead to optimally inform your awareness on the type of life you will be living.
1) Lots of People Will Hate You
The first truth may be one of the less obvious ones but probably the one you should recognize before you commit: animal breeders are unpopular in the United States. In the era of “Adopt, Don’t Shop!”, the media, social culture, and general public perceive dog and cat breeders as irresponsible, greedy, and uneducated people directly responsible for the annual millions of dog and cat deaths in shelters. In addition, many veterinarians have negative attitudes toward and sometimes won’t even work with breeders (and you’re going to need a good vet in your corner for this job). This perception is not wholly incorrect and, unfortunately, there does exist an ethical quandary inherent in bringing forth life to the world, no matter what species it is—but that’s a whole new debate I don't want to get into.
Research points to two types of breeders mostly responsible for the shelter overpopulation problem – “backyard breeders” and “puppy mills” (or cat mills). The first type of breeder is generally a person with a dog they love who thinks along the lines of, “I really should breed Sassy just one time because she’d make such pretty babies” or “The kids need to see the miracle of birth up close” or “It would be so much fun to have some puppies in the house.” These are NOT good reasons to breed, and unfortunately, LOTS of people do this without so much as testing their dog’s genetic health, the mate’s genetic health, and often also use a mixed-breed dog, justifying their actions by giving babies away rather than selling them. Puppies from such a situation often grow up to have genetic illnesses and unpredictable adult size/personalities, making their well-meaning but frustrated owners more likely to relinquish them to a shelter – especially if the puppy in question was “Free.”
The second type of breeder is where most people get their very expensive purebred dogs – the puppy mill. If you buy from a pet store and not directly from a breeder, you are likely to be told that the puppies come from a “USDA-licensed breeder” – which is true but means diddly squat when it comes to the quality of the treatment of the adult dogs in the kennel. Here is an excellent scientific article regarding the prevalence of puppy mills due directly to the “legal” guidelines in commercial dog breeding: The Need for Environmental Regulation of Puppy Mills
A responsible breeder would NEVER sell their puppies to a pet store in lieu of personally speaking with each and every prospective buyer.
My personal opinion is that every USDA-licensed breeder is on the slippery slope to becoming a mill breeder. Anyone who keeps more than four breeding females is required to become USDA-licensed – and once they are, they may keep HUNDREDS of breeding females! Dogs and cats under USDA license are required to be kept in separate facilities from the breeder’s home in pens of regulation size. The USDA doesn’t care about animal socialization and does not require breeders to test their dogs for genetic problems. The USDA does not care about breed registration.
The bottom line is this: If any breeder fails to test his/her breeding animals for all breed-related genetic illnesses, purchases the cheapest animals rather than selecting for quality, keeps all their animals in some facility for breeding, whelping, and rearing, raises animals solely for profit, you deserve this animosity, because by definition you are adding either physically unfit dogs and cats or a LOT of dogs or cats to the shelter problem. Many people who say they want to be breeders fall into one of those categories and their actions lead to the conditions we see in shelters, in turn creating the hatred most of the public has for ethical breeders!
2) You Have A LOT of Competition!
In addition to the backyard breeders and puppy mills that provide the pet industry with the majority of puppies and kittens for sale, a lot of responsible people love animals and love them enough to make breeding their lifestyle. When selling animals, you are competing against not only the unscrupulous mass breeders out to make as much money as they can, but also established, hard-working peers who have done all their testing and have well-established advertising practices, a long track record of healthy babies, and good customer service. You have to show that your babies are as good as or better than your competitions’—and again, there are MANY good breeders already out there! Make sure to seriously ask yourself if you can contend with that. A lot of people get into breeding and find that the demand for their babies just isn’t there. Then they are forced to give their animals away – which WILL contribute to the shelter problem.
3) You Won’t Make as Much Money as you Think (especially for the amount of work you’ll do)
Assuming you’re not prepared to become a high-volume, facility-building, USDA-licensed breeder, your maximum production of offspring will be pretty low (which is what those of us who don’t breed primarily for money prefer) and your overhead AND risk is HIGH. Even if you cut corners and forgo grooming supplies, fancy beds/bowls, and supplements, you won’t be able to avoid the bulk of what costs breeders lots of dough. The animals themselves, genetic testing panels, high quality food (breeding females and puppies eat a LOT), outdoor housing, indoor crates or pens, whelping supplies, veterinary expenses (accidents as well as disease prevention), flea and heartworm preventative, home repairs, cleaning supplies, and taxes will eat up a significant amount of what you will be earning from babies. Factoring in the daily nature of attending to the needs of your adult dogs, whether they have puppies or not, and you’re looking at a “job” making right around minimum wage – assuming you are asking top dollar for your babies! Also consider that some babies are not suitable for sale, some breeding animals do not have high fertility, and the market is very unpredictable when it comes to animals.
4) It’s 24/7, 365-day-a-year Activity (in more ways than you think)
Speaking of the daily nature thing, this responsibility cannot be overstated. In fact, this aspect is quite difficult for me, personally—and I love animals. Animal care is what I was meant for. As a child, I had snakes, chameleons, turtles, a crocodilian, and several cats and dogs all at the same time, and all in the house! I took care of all of them without fail, my parents in awe of my discipline and willingness to forgo lazy time or friend time to scrub crocodile crap off gravel. But once I switched from pet keeping to animal breeding, the job became more tedious and stressful - I became the steward of both newborn animal lives and high expectations of human purchasers. The weight of a different kind of responsibility and anxiety fell on me hard, making the daily grind of animal care take on an urgent significance.
And what a grind it is. Here is the Basic Routine - Each and every day I am up just before the sun—not because I would be if left to my own devices, but because the dogs in their kitchen crates loudly inform me that it is time to go outside, and NOW. Each day I clean up all messes (see #5 below!), scoop multiple litter boxes, freshen all standing water dishes, top off dry food bowls, distribute fresh raw food thawed the night before, pet and look over each animal, make time to play with the dogs (who can’t go out in public very often, to prevent bringing parvo or distemper into the house), and vacuum the pet hair from the floor. On the weekends, I completely dump, rinse, bleach, and refill all the litter boxes, disinfect and refill all water and food bowls, change/wash all dog crate and cat house bedding, administer vaccines, wormer, nail clipping or basic grooming to animals that need it, and make changes to my website and update advertisements. As needed, I meet with customers picking up or visiting their babies, take animals to the vet, ship animals via air cargo (that means getting up SUPER DUPER early!) and assist animals in breeding or in hours-long labor.
The Basic Routine part occurs EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. As in, every day. It doesn’t matter if it’s my birthday or I’m sick or I had a little too much to drink the night before or a non-animal-related emergency occurs in my life. THE ANIMALS DO NOT CARE, and that’s not their fault. And if I want to go on a vacation? I have to write out a lot of instructions and pay a lot of money, usually to more than one person, to ensure all the chores are performed correctly. Vacation often causes me more headaches and stress than just staying home!
I am very lucky to have a supportive husband who can pick up the slack here and there, but this is by and large my responsibility, and a heavy one at that.
5) Baby Animals are Messy, Loud, Destructive, and Messy
In the digital world of today wherein much of our socializing is performed, platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest would have you believe that puppies are ALWAYS clean, sweet, and sleepy, boasting gorgeous fluffy coats adorned with bows or clothes while doing super cute things and making super cute noises.
It’s a LIE.
Puppies are indeed sweet and cute, but keeping them clean and happy requires constant, unpleasant and mind-numbing labor. When puppies first start to walk and eat, they step in their food, splash through their water bowl, and play in their poop, which in these early days is about as solid as applesauce and SMELLY. They get the poop in between their toes, under their bottoms, and on top of their head. They smear it in every conceivable nook and cranny of their bed, toys, and play area.
And they poop A LOT. The average puppy lays a little pile of turds approximately six to eight times a DAY. Multiply that by an average of four puppies per litter and then add the pee count – ten to twelve times a day – and it REALLY adds up. Puppies take a long time to be housebroken, meaning you have to deal with their waste constantly.
Breaking down the time I spend on all things animal-related, the bulk of my time is spent cleaning poop and pee. Did I mention you would mostly be cleaning? You will be—a LOT. Yes, you do get to play with baby animals. Not for the first few weeks, because they aren’t at the developmental stage to play, and not once they are weaned and socially mature, because then they will be going home with their new owners, but during that small period of time in between. During the ENTIRE time, you will be cleaning their messes. And I’m not even talking about poop and pee, of which there is that aforementioned abundance. There are intermittent but not infrequent surprise mounds of saliva, vomit, shed hair, torn up objects, chewed blankets, spilled food/water, shredded paper, and dirt. There will be fleas and parasites you will be battling constantly, and this involves daily vacuuming, spraying pesticides, bathing adults frequently, and keeping your floor clean of excess crap with steam cleaning and bleach. You will need to wash all animal bedding and food/water bowls at least weekly (we run an “animal load” every single day).
Other “surprises” manifest themselves randomly in the form of active household destruction. If you are raising puppies, they will chew on the bottom corners of cabinets, the legs of furniture, the edges of walls, shoes, and plants. They will swallow anything small enough, including pieces of socks, fuzz from stuffed toys, coins, washers, and plant leaves and dirt. You will have to a) induce immediate vomiting for any smooth or poisonous objects, b) take the puppy in for expensive and painful abdominal surgery, or c) take a chance and wait with bated breath for a day or two and comb through each and every bowel movement to make sure the object passes without damaging the puppy. If you are raising kittens, they will claw up your furniture and curtains as they go through the learning curve of using a scratching post. Finally, keeping animals in your home also gives it a distinct, not pleasant smell—even if you are religious with your cleaning regimen.
Failure to maintain a strict routine regarding hygiene WILL catch up with you. I speak from experience. Nature doesn’t let you cut corners.
One more thing: Baby animals make a LOT of noise, and most of it isn’t that cute. Puppies howl and yelp and scream when you put them away after a play session and can cry for up to an hour every time. They hurt each other while playing and that makes them cry. Kittens have quite the lungs on them, too, and will often meow over and over and over again, even if every one of their needs has been met. As with human babies, animal babies often cry at night, waking you from a dead sleep – even if they are kept on the other end of the house.
To recap – Those perfect baby animals on Instagram take lots of human effort to look that way, and it doesn’t last long at all!
6) You Have to Deal With People - All Kinds of People
Breeding animals does mean you get to deal with animals, but when the time comes to find homes for your babies, you will be talking to people—lots of people. Strangers, who you don’t know from Adam, will call and email you asking all manner of questions. You will hear many of the same questions over and over and over again, and some questions that you hear will scare you. You will wonder about each and every individual person and whether he or she will commit themselves to your baby for the next 12-15 years of its life. You will worry about abuse, or resale, or surrender to a shelter. Sometimes – and this is the most frustrating of all - you will spend hours of your time communicating with a seemingly interested and responsible person who decides to not purchase. Or, just as bad, people who want to come over and play with puppies and take two hours out of your day but do not purchase. People will haggle with you over your price, make cutting remarks about your animals, and even send you pictures of other animals that they buy instead of yours!
Once you do have a deposit placed for a baby, new issues come up that eat away at your free time. While it is important to keep your customers updated every so often with new photos and developmental progress of their baby, some buyers are very high maintenance, calling or emailing almost daily for weeks asking after their baby. Sometimes people call with a sad story about a family emergency saying they cannot follow through on their baby’s purchase and press for a refund of their deposit. Sometimes it can be difficult to agree on pickup arrangements, as the buyer has a complicated schedule or balks at the high cost of pet delivery or shipping. LOTS of times, buyers will schedule a pickup time on a Saturday or Sunday and then call at the last minute to reschedule for another day - when you have already cancelled your own weekend plans to accommodate them (this last one is particularly frustrating for us).
Once babies do go home, you have a large support role, with buyers asking questions about behavior and health, most of which are questions only appropriate for a vet (“Fido ate a button/fell off the porch and is limping/has loose stools, what should I do?”) Occasionally these calls will come in the middle of the night. You may hear from buyers years later, wanting you to pay for a vet bill because their puppy needed surgery for cancer or something else that could be genetic but that you did not test for. You may even hear from people you do not even know who ask for a free puppy because some OTHER breeder wronged them and they "deserve" one!
There are all kinds of unpleasant circumstances involved in person-to-person communication, especially when animals and money are involved. Throughout every interaction, positive or negative, you have to be professional, patient and pleasant with each person for every reason, because your reputation depends on it. Fortunately, MOST people I work with are very courteous, responsible, and, most important of all, true animal lovers!
7) Your Social Life is Likely to Be Negatively Affected
Do you enjoy going to concerts or out for drinks, going on a weekend camping trip on the fly, taking long foreign vacations, or have an otherwise spontaneous lifestyle? You can forget about it as a breeder. Animals don’t abide by your schedule and will breed, fight, miscarry a litter, give birth to a litter, and fall ill at completely unpredictable times for which you should prioritize the maximizing of your odds of being present. Having friends over during labor stresses animals, as does potentially your absence. Should you choose to leave your animals to their own devices, thinking they can “handle it” without you, your chances of losing babies, losing adults, and padding your veterinarian’s bottom line increases dramatically. You have to be reliable, sober, and by yourself for a lot of this kind of work.
8) UNCERTAINTY is the name of the game - Plans Never Go As Planned
Truth 8 goes along with Truth 7, but with a twist: Not only can you not completely predict when events such as births or matings will occur, you can also not, in most cases, come even close to predicting the quality of babies from a first mating, the number of babies that will be born, the easiness/difficulty with which the delivery will proceed, or the normalcy/abnormality with which individual baby growth will proceed. Sometimes dogs in heat tie up with a male you did NOT want them to breed to and you have wasted six months of valuable breeding age for an unintended litter. Sometimes a dog is infertile or has poor fertility and only produces one or two puppies each litter (one of my favorite blue Merles, Peru), or eight-month-long cycles instead of six months (my lovely Mercedes). Sometimes animals miscarry or babies die. Sometimes you don’t sell babies within the time frame you expected and have to increase advertising/decrease price. Sometimes you have random outbreaks of fleas or disease. The things that can and do happen with no warning are really endless.
9) You Must Follow the (Increasing) Laws Regarding Animal Breeding
If you think you can simply buy a group of cats or dogs and start breeding with no requirements, think again. In just the past few years, companion animal breeding and selling laws have become much more strict (which is a good thing for the animals, but bad for backyard breeders, yay!) and you are responsible for knowing the legal lingo of your state, county, and city. In addition, keeping any more than four breeding females at your home requires you to maintain legal compliance with the United States Department of Agriculture guidelines, as mentioned above, which means building a moisture-proof facility wherein to house your animals, following the guidelines on where and how puppies and adults are to be housed, securing a local veterinarian willing to sign USDA paperwork and at least go through the motions of signing off on the health of animals you breed and produce, and complying with inspections as deemed necessary by the USDA.
10. Your Heart Will Get Broken – A LOT
This final point is the reason many breeders who are able to successfully integrate the previous nine facts into their lives choose to stop being breeders—the heartbreak. Although many litters are born healthy and easily, many are not—and there are a lot of things that can go wrong no matter the quality of your animals or husbandry practices. Failure to thrive, cleft palates, twisted limbs, missing eyes, and stillbirth, among many, many other maladies, kills or severely lowers the life quality for babies of ALL breeders. Disease can strike at any time, even with vaccination—distemper, parvovirus, respiratory illnesses, coronavirus, calicivirus…the list goes on and on. Babies that you supplement for weeks throughout the night won’t always make it. Your favorite dog or cat may hemorrhage during labor or come down with an infection afterwards and you won’t recognize it, leading to her death, and you will blame yourself for the rest of your life. A kitten or puppy may fall, get its head stuck, swallow a dangerous object, get into the street, or experience some other freak accident leading to expensive vet bills and/or death.
I personally had one incident where a prospective young breeding female stepped through the bars on top of a crate, flipped over, and broke both front legs. After five thousand dollars for special titanium plates, eight weeks of miserable recovery in splints, and four long drives back and forth from Auburn’s vet school, the poor dog still walked with a painful limp. It was a freak accident that happened in a split second and there are likely to be more. If you think you will be able to forsee and prevent all accidents and illnesses, you are in for some nasty surprises.
Saying farewell to many of the babies is a tough one, as you grow very attached to certain ones that just feel special. Letting them go hurts your heart, despite knowing that there will be more to come.
The worst surprise for me: If you decide to stay in the business long term as a small-scale breeder, this will mean rehoming breeder animals who are past their breeding prime in order to make way for animals from new bloodlines or your own holdbacks. A good breeding male or female is really a pet, a partner in the experience, and sending them off to other people is stressful for everyone involved. This is even harder than letting go of all the adorable babies you will always be tempted to keep, litter after litter. This is the one issue that has threatened my own staying power in the business, as I have altered and kept several of my past-prime breeders, not having the strength of heart to send them away like so many of their offspring. Each time I keep a retiree, I increase my workload and decrease my ability to integrate a younger breedable male or female.
So, there you have it! These are the things you must face if you are to be an ethical, honest, and successful companion animal breeder. Take it very seriously!