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'Designer dogs' can be a mixed bag

Some breeders are cashing in on the cachet of these hybrids by churning them out at abusive puppy mills.

October 19, 2008|Melissa Patterson | Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — The puggles, maltepoos and labradoodles scampering along city streets are bred to be cute and customizable, pet industry experts say.

But these pricey "designer dogs" are also exploited by abusive breeders and unscrupulous sellers, leading to more sick puppies and unhappy owners, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Like puppy mills that produce non-hybrids, these operations are hurting the animals through neglect and poor care, the society says.

Made fashionable by celebrities like Jake Gyllenhaal and Jessica Simpson, hybrid puppies -- the offspring of two purebred dogs -- often go for more money than purebreds, which can range from $200 to $2,000 per dog.

Hybrid puppy breeding operations are cropping up in rural areas from Pennsylvania to Kansas, animal advocates say. But a big hot spot for hybrid owners, said pet industry insider Laura Bennett, is much closer to home.

"Urban areas -- the Chicagos and the New Yorks and the L.A.s and the San Franciscos" -- are where wealthier clientele prefer custom-made puppies, which are often bred for non-shedding coats, compact size and friendly disposition, said Bennett, pet blogger and CEO of Embrace Pet Insurance.

But owning one of these designer dogs can come at a price beyond the original cost of the pet.

Tracy Mattes of Woodridge, Ill., fell in love with her cockapoo, Jake, through the glass of a cage at a pet shop in 2005. But by 2006, Mattes discovered that her puppy had myriad serious and costly health problems, including severe allergies, a juvenile cataract, a digit on his paw that needed to be removed and a kneecap that popped out of place.

"His veterinarian bills are through the roof," Mattes said.

On top of Jake's almost-$700 price tag, Mattes estimated, she has spent more than $6,000 on surgeries and other vet care. Three-year-old Jake takes two medications per day and requires vet visits at least once a month.

Puppies bought from pet stores or Internet breeders are much more likely to have been born in a puppy mill and, therefore, to develop health problems, said Kathleen Summers, deputy director of the Humane Society's Stop Puppy Mills campaign.

The society defines a puppy mill as any operation -- licensed or unlicensed -- where animals are continually confined, kept solely for breeding and socially or physically neglected. It estimates that there are about 10,000 puppy mills nationwide.

But Erika Burklow, manager at Happiness Is Pets in suburban Orland Park, disputed the assertion that pet store puppies have been abused. Her store's owners hand-pick the puppies from private owners, keep records of genealogy and licensing, and offer warranties against certain health issues, she said.

The society recommends adopting from local shelters, many of which are home to hybrids, because, it says, the shelters' treatment of dogs is held to higher standards and the money from adoption won't support the puppy mill industry.

The story of hybrid dogs dates back decades. One of the most popular hybrids, the labradoodle (Labrador retriever and poodle) is said to have been bred about 20 years ago in Australia for its "hypoallergenic" coat -- a byproduct of its poodle genealogy.

But breeders looking to cash in on the cachet have started combining any curly-haired dog with a popular breed to create "poodle" mixes, experts and officials say, and misleading buyers with outrageous promises.

"I've heard of the breeding of dogs that don't drool," said Yuval Nir, an Illinois veterinarian, who doubted the reality of such a trait.

Pet store workers told Jennifer Tvrdik that her $900 puggle puppy (pug and beagle) should weigh between 15 and 30 pounds as an adult, she said. Two years later, Rocky weighs 51 pounds.

"He just kept growing," Tvrdik said. "He has a very enormous head, big jaw, big mouth."

But another big selling point of mixed-breed pooches, sometimes called "hybrid vigor," is rooted in fact, said veterinarian Derrick Landini: The careful crossing of two breeds, each of which comes with a genetic propensity for certain illnesses, could weed out some of those weaknesses.

"In general, you'll hear the vet . . . say, 'Go to the pound and get yourself a mutt, because you're probably going to be better off with it,' " Landini said.

But Nir stressed the importance of consulting with a veterinarian before buying any dog, because even the most meticulous breeder can't predict the exact result of two parents.

"It's just like saying the kid is going to be the parents," he said. "You know that's not true."

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