Sun, Jan 07, 2007 - Page 17 News List

How much is that doggie in the window?

Buying an animal in a pet store can often cost consumers a lot more money than they initially expected as genetic disorders and disease are common

By Noah Buchan  /  STAFF REPORTER

Prince, a rescued dog, is seen before having treatment for scabies.

PHOTO COURTESY OF ANIMALS TAIWAN

For Aileen Sun (孫筠湘) it was a dream come true. For a week, she would pass the window of a local pet store and admire a purebred basset hound. One day it was gone, sold to some college students. If ever she had the chance again, she told herself, to see that beautiful puppy she would buy it. A few days later, she got her wish. Passing by the store again she saw the same puppy in the window, returned because the parents of the students who bought it refused to allow them to keep the canine. That night, the puppy was given a new home after Aileen paid just over half the original price of NT$18,000.

Sun's dream quickly turned into a nightmare when Pete — who Sun affectionately calls her "daughter" — stopped eating and began to rapidly lose weight.

"She was so weak she could barely move," she said.

Sun soon learned that her pet had Fanconi's syndrome, a genetic condition that leads to kidney malfunction. Four veterinarians, two operations, three weeks of drips and NT$100,000 in veterinary bills later, it still seemed likely that Pete was going to die.

"Everyone had just given up," Sun said. Eventually she brought her dog home where it miraculously recovered.

Sun's story is not unique. The cute, fuzzy appearance of many store-bought animals belies an array of genetic problems because the dogs and cats that are highly sought after — and carry the highest price tags — are purebreds.

According to veterinarian Joey Hung (洪禜偉), genetic problems are more common in purebreds than mixed-breed animals because of overbreeding and inbreeding. When customers come to his office with an animal that has a genetic disease, the American-trained cardiologist immediately recommends neutering the animal so that the defect cannot be passed on.

Another issue Hung deals with in his practice is canine distemper, a virus that is spread in closed environments and easily infects puppies between the ages of three months and six months. The small spaces that pet stores often occupy increase the likelihood of infection.

Hung says it is common for new pet owners to try to return the animals to the store after being diagnosed with distemper. "Then [I] get an angry call from the pet shop saying 'Why did you say that? It's a common cold, not distemper. I'll take the puppy to my own [veterinarian] and prove you are wrong,'" he said.

It is hardly surprising that pet store owners selling animals would have this kind of reaction as they are loath to shatter the image that puppies may have birth defects. And though some pet-store owners have a genuine interest in the welfare of the animals they sell, the underlying aim is to turn a profit as quickly as possible.

In addition to distemper, another common disease that Hung encounters in his practice is parvovirus, a highly contagious febrile disease. First discovered in canines in 1967, it has spread rapidly.

"The parvovirus is so strong [that] … if you replace a dog you should keep it in a different environment for three to six months," says Hung.

He added that consumers are often mystified by the sickness of their animals because "they tend to believe that the dog looks healthy at the time that they buy [it, but] they do not [understand] the puppy is getting the disease from their home because of the previous sick dog."

Hung says that it is rare for pet stores to warn consumers about the potential health problems of the animals they sell.

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