Aug 23, 2021 • 14M

Is There a Great American Dog Shortage?

No. The AKC is ‘dog whistling’ in order to create a moral panic; we should not take the bait.

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"The voice of America’s displaced pets and the conscience of the animal sheltering industry." - The Bark
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Authorities found these conditions at an AKC “Breeder of Merit” only eight days after an AKC inspection found “everything was up to par.” The “Breeder of Merit” was charged with cruelty. 

If you believe the article in Axios, by Jennifer Kingson, America is in the grip of a great dog shortage. “Demand for pet dogs is far outstripping supply,” she writes, “and the imbalance is expected to worsen.” The way Kingson tells it: millions of Americans want to get a dog but can't find one. Unless we take action, millions more will face the same problem. 

But what action should we take?

According to Kingson, even though dogs are being killed in animal shelters, Americans can’t adopt more because shelters lack adoptable dogs. “Today,” she says, “it is primarily sick or dangerous dogs that are euthanized — and when you ‘rescue’ a dog from a shelter, the animal may simply be a foreign import that was brought to the U.S. to slake demand.” To Kingson, these foreign-born dogs are also dangerous. 

Even though millions of them are in need of homes, the U.S. government shouldn’t allow dogs to be brought here, she says, for fear of importing rabies along with them. 

The only option, Kingson concludes, is to expand commercial breeding. The problem, she says, is that “While shady ‘puppy mills’ do exist, most domestic breeders are highly ethical but are being squeezed by state and local laws that limit conditions for breeding dogs.”

It’s a crisis of epic proportions — at least according to the puppy breeders and industry lobbyists Kingson relies on to make her case. These include:

  1. Mark Cushing, a lobbyist for industries that profit off animals, including pet food companies;

  2. Sheila Goffe, a lobbyist for the American Kennel Club (AKC), an organization which profits from breeding; and,

  3. Patti Strand, “who has bred dalmations for 52 years.”

But what would we find if we ignored the self-appointed, financially-interested breeding proponents Kingson spoke to and instead looked at the evidence for ourselves? Is it dangerous to adopt dogs from shelters? Is it dangerous to rescue dogs from abroad? Is it ethical to breed dogs by the millions?

Despite the fear-mongering, what the evidence shows is that rescue and shelter dogs can meet demand, that these dogs are dying for homes and represent a clarion call upon our conscience, and that the vast majority are healthy, friendly, and pose no threat. We don’t need to factory farm dogs on a commercial scale.

The sky is in no danger of falling. 

The vast majority of shelter dogs are healthy, friendly, and do not pose a threat

Although there are dogs dying in animal shelters, Kingson claims that we cannot adopt more because, “it is primarily sick or dangerous dogs that are [killed].” This is misleading.

It is true that in the past two decades, shelters that have fully invested in lifesaving by comprehensively implementing the programs and services of the No Kill Equation, have achieved placement rates greater than 95% and as high as 99%. Collectively, these achievements have helped lead to a decline in killing nationwide of 90% from its high water mark in the 1970s. It has been called “the single biggest success of the modern animal protection movement.” But we have not yet achieved a No Kill nation.

To the contrary, shelters across the U.S. are complaining about the need for more adopters, with a coalition in South Carolina declaring a “state of emergency.” A spokesperson put it in stark terms: “The lives of thousands of animals in shelters across South Carolina are at stake.” 

We’ve made tremendous progress to be sure, but one million dogs or more are still being killed. These dogs are neither sick nor dangerous. They are young: the average age is two years old. Most are healthy. And they are friendly. In short, it is premature to declare victory. 

The vast majority of rescue dogs are healthy, friendly, and do not pose a threat; some need a little extra TLC

To make the claim that dogs from abroad represent a profound threat to human health, Kingson points to the temporary ban by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on allowing dogs into the U.S. from 113 countries. She claims that the ban was necessary because “rabies and other diseases that can jump from dogs to humans are cropping up in places where they were all but eradicated.” This is also misleading.

While the CDC did enact a temporary one-year ban on dogs arriving from certain countries, it did so in response to what it found was a rise in the number of false rabies certificates. The number of false certificates, however, represented only 0.05% of the total and the CDC did not identify an increase in dog-to-human rabies transmission, with only 1-3 human rabies cases per year. Historically, 90% of these cases are wildlife related. The ban also only impacts 6% of dogs arriving from other countries. The risk, to put it mildly, is minimal. And better screening at the border, rather than a ban, provides a way to minimize it even further without sacrificing dogs abroad or, as we shall see, increasing their abuse at home through commercial breeding. 

This has life and death consequences — and emotional ones. “Several soldiers said the [‘heartbreaking’] ban… will most likely force them to say goodbye to the dogs they formed bonds with on deployment — dogs like Pepper, who was skin and bones when she was found three months ago by a U.S. soldier on patrol in Jordan.” Said the soldier: “I want nothing more than to bring her home and show her a better life.” The ban is also hurting street dogs, like Pihu “who had suffered spinal injuries and infections so bad that both hind legs had to be amputated,” but is now living and thriving in the U.S. with the American tourist who brought her home and treated her. And it is threatening dogs from the meat trade, who face being eaten if not saved by rescue groups and adopted to families in the United States. 

None of this appears to move Kingson who paints a picture of unwelcome dog “immigration” from undesirable countries and, in referring to them as “foreign imports,” reduces them to objects unworthy of moral consideration. It smacks — if you’ll pardon the pun — of ‘dog whistling.’ 

Thankfully, the American public is not taking the bait as there does not seem to be any group in favor of the ban, with the exception of the AKC. 

Because of broad public support for rescuing these dogs, the House of Representatives recently passed an amendment to a spending bill that would give “the CDC capacity for a rabies screening program to protect dogs in America while allowing for the importation of dogs stranded abroad.” The broadly bipartisan bill cleared the House on a voice vote and is expected to pass in the Senate.

There is no principled distinction between puppy mills and commercial breeders 

Kingson’s final claim that, “While shady ‘puppy mills’ do exist, most domestic breeders are highly ethical,” is as false as the others. It also comes from the AKC. How ethical are AKC certified breeders? 

Despite certifying hundreds of thousands of breeders, including designating thousands of those as “the most conscientious and most committed breeders,” the AKC did not inspect upwards of 95% of them. Based on information provided by the AKC itself, The Canine Review found that there are only 10 inspectors for nearly 140,000 “certified” breeders. Given so few inspectors, over 130,000 “would never be inspected at all.” 

The Canine Review also found that, “Even when the AKC does inspect a breeder, its skeletal team often misses or overlooks obvious signs of neglect or abuse…”  In one instance, dogs were living in such filth, such dire — indeed, criminal — conditions that the “AKC Breeder of Merit… was arrested and charged with animal cruelty.” Her arrest came “only eight days after an AKC inspector visited the breeder’s property and issued a report saying everything was up to par.”

Kingson wants us to believe that there is a difference between “puppy mills” and commercial breeders, but the evidence compels otherwise. Dogs and puppies are not commodities. At the very least, they shouldn’t be. They are sentient beings who, most Americans agree, are entitled to protection. Commercial breeding, by contrast, treats dogs as factory parts. Not surprisingly, they tend toward abuse. 

As a study in the Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science found, “Common to virtually all [Commercial Breeding Enterprises] CBEs are the following: large numbers of dogs;… housing dogs in or near the minimum space permitted by law; housing breeding dogs for their entire reproductive lives — in most cases, years — in their cages or runs; dogs rarely if ever permitted out of their primary enclosures for exercise or play; absence of toys or other forms of enrichment; minimal to no positive human interaction or companionship; and minimal to no health care.”

Because of the trauma they experience at the facilities, former breeding dogs exhibited more fear, nervousness, health problems, compulsive behaviors, house soiling, and sensitivity to touch compared to shelter dogs. In some cases, significantly more. Many of these dogs experience “regular and often persistent fear or anxiety, even after years in their adoptive households.” Not only do one in four former breeding dogs have significant health problems, many of them are psychologically and emotionally shut down, compulsively staring at nothing.

And their offspring also suffer. A subsequent study found that puppies “sold through pet stores and/or born in high-volume, commercial breeding establishments (CBE) show an increased number of problem behaviors as adults.” For example, puppies bought in pet stores were:

  • More than twice as likely to be aggressive compared to those adopted from shelters;

  • More likely to develop social fears (of strangers, children, and other dogs) than from all other sources;

  • More likely to be separated from their mothers at a young age leading to a four-fold increase in destructive behaviors;

  • More excitable, less trainable, had increased separation-related behaviors, escape behavior, and sensitivity to being touched; and,

  • More likely to house soil.

In layman’s terms, commercial breeders engage in systematic mistreatment, causing severe emotional scars that last for generations. They are all puppy mills. 

Where do we go from here?

Instead of more commercial breeding, we must expand our efforts to educate the public about puppy mills, the physical deformities or defects that result from inbreeding, how breeding animals for their appearance leads to phenotypes that cause shorter, harder lives, and the immorality of turning animals into factory cogs. 

We must also expand our efforts to educate the public about the unscientific nature of discriminating against dogs on the basis of alleged “breed,” the false view of shelter and rescued animals as damaged, and the equally false view that purposely-bred animals are more “predictable” and make “better” family pets.

We must continue to pass bans on the retail sale of commercially-bred animals in pet stores, as has been done in five states and about 400 cities nationwide. Passing a complete ban on commercial breeding may not be politically possible at this time in history — after all, the industry remains wealthy and well-connected with lobbyists in the halls of power and journalists like Kingson spreading misinformation on their behalf. For now, we must regulate commercial breeding as much as possible by setting limits on the number of breeding females; creating dog-generous housing; making veterinary care, exercise, play, and socialization mandatory; and ensuring cruelty laws apply and are robustly enforced. This should include one-strike rules that cause breeders to lose their licenses for serious offenses.

Our society is on a rapid, positive trend away from the exploitation of dogs. One of the most exciting manifestations of this is the decline in pound killing. Fewer people are buying animals and overall adoption rates are increasing. Of the $72.5 billion spent on caring for animals in 2018, the amount spent to purchase animals actually declined by 4.3% and is now “the smallest area of total pet industry spend[ing].” When it comes to adding a new animal to their household, more people are “turning to shelters and rescues.” 

While Kingson and her industry sources see this as a crisis, it is evidence that we are succeeding. This is what the animal protection movement wanted to happen. We need to nurture and expand this, at the same time that we force shelters to embrace progressive practices, like the No Kill Equation, in order to increase adoption and reduce killing even further. Doing so will create a more compassionate and just world for dogs.

If we do all that — when we do all that — when all 50 U.S. states are No Kill, when its districts and territories are No Kill, when neighboring countries and then the rest of the world is No Kill, if there is still a clamor for more dogs to love and share our homes with — when that day comes, we can have a discussion about how to ethically respond. 

But as long as dogs are dying, regardless of why they are dying or where they are dying, adoption and rescue remain ethical imperatives — and they should probably be legal mandates, too.