HELENA – Montana is home to a decades long battle over whether to place regulations on people who breed companion animals, namely dogs.
The federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) does set a minimum standard across the nation requiring humane treatment for animals intended for use as pets. While the the vast majority of states also have separate regulations for commercial breeders, Montana does not. What constitutes a commercial breeder differs by state. Generally, it refers to individuals or groups that have a certain number of dogs intended for breeding and that put the offspring up for sale.
Animal advocates say a lack of regulations put dogs at risk because breeders might operate what some call “puppy mills” where animals live in poor conditions and may be continually bread to the point of exhaustion.
When the Lake County Sheriff’s Office and an animal rescue group removed nearly 130 puppies from LDR Kennels in Charlo in 2016, Bridget Johnson stepped in to rescue two of the puppies – a Chihuahua and Papillon.
“We took them outside. It was the first time they’d ever seen grass or felt grass,” Johnson said. “We had a terrible time trying to get them to eat. I have pictures of my husband lying on his stomach coaxing them with pepperoni from a pizza and that seemed to work. But they’ll never be right.”
To Johnson, it was evident the dogs’ needed help.
“They had to have all their teeth removed because their dental hygiene was just horrible,” Johnson said.
After taking in the puppies, she conducted her own research on animal legislation and was surprised with what she found.
“I was very interested to find out Montana is one of the few states that doesn’t have any oversight, so we’re just attracting more,” Johnson said. “We keep an eye on manufacturers that sell shoddy goods. Everyone seems to have some sort of oversight or some standard, but obviously this doesn’t.”
Johnson’s story is not uncommon.
Patti Prato, now a retired veterinarian, treated sick and dying animals from commercial breeders for years. Conditions like hip dysplasia, difficulty swallowing and skin problems can plague dogs when little to no consideration of a dog’s health history is given before breeding.
Prato along with a close friend appealed to state lawmakers a decade ago with legislation to protect the animals from the problems she came across at her clinic.
“We really felt this was a no-brainer. How hard could this be? We were really surprised and we’ve been at it every two years since then,” Prato said.
Despite those efforts, every attempt at legislation has failed.
Most recently in February, House Bill 570 was introduced by Representative Willis Curdy, a Democrat from Missoula. That bill would have required a license for commercial breeders and established civil and criminal penalties. However, it shared a similar fate to all the other proposed legislation that came before it.
What’s more, it doesn’t appear to be a partisan issue. Representative Greg Hertz, a Republican from Polson, proposed House Bill 582 in March with many similarities to Curdy’s bill.
“I think the majority of pet breeders are doing a great job,” Hertz said before lawmakers. “There’s just a few out there who aren’t and I’m hoping to discourage these folks from even coming to our state.”
Like other past attempts, Hertz’s bill died in committee.
Some breeders – even legitimate ones – have a hard time stomaching potential regulation of their livelihoods and say humane societies would be given an unfair advantage because they’re often exempt from the proposed rules.
Margaret Duezabou, a breeder outside Helena, testified against House Bill 582.
“I can’t compete with a nicely laid out kennel that is all concrete and stainless steel. And I don’t want an inspector coming into my kitchen at eight in the morning when I’m cuddling puppies and drinking coffee,” she said to legislators.
Another small breeder in Montana, Lou Volpe, said he isn’t opposed to legislation. Volpe operates Vigilante Griffons, a breeding operation for wirehaired pointing griffons. Volpe usually breeds one litter a year to be used as hunting companions.
“Really what it comes down to is a love of the breed and the desire to want to perpetuate that breed standard,” Volpe said.
Volpe goes to great lengths to make sure the dogs he breeds go to good homes.
“We take a lot of pains to vet our clients and the other kennels that we’re going to work with,” Volpe said. “We want our dogs to go to homes that are going to provide that opportunity…for success.”
But ultimately it’s up to breeders to follow best practices.
“There’s nothing to stop folks from breeding a dog or two dogs or any animal for that matter as they see fit to do,” Volpe said.
Humane Society’s across the state also have a big stake in the issue. Gina Wiest, executive director at the Lewis and Clark Humane Society, said they are the ones who often end up caring for the dogs after animal buyers discover costly health issues associated with improper breeding.
Prato described a situation at her clinic when a dog came in with unsuspecting health problems.
“He looked like a perfectly fine little dog, but he has two congenital heart problems. Those are things unsuspecting buyers wouldn’t know,” Prato said.
As a result, dog owners may decide to get rid of their animal by giving it to humane societies.
“It’s terribly costly for us to deal with these animals that come in with extra special needs,” Wiest said.
Earlier this year, MTN reported the case of Charlie, a dog brought to the Lewis and Clark Humane Society nearly hairless with ear mites and a malformed front leg that required surgery. They believe Charlie was the result of improper breeding.
“They’re breeding animals that have not been health checked,” Wiest said.
Wiest said before breeding, dogs ought to be certified by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals that can see if an animal is predisposition for certain health complications.
“A good breeder is going to devote to one breed and they’re going to be breeding for the betterment of the breed. Not to be making money. Not just be selling puppies,” Wiest said.
In the same way breeders are encouraged to breed ethically, potential dog owners also need to do their homework.
“Anybody looking for a dog should do the research,” Volpe said. “A lot of people sometimes just want to get a dog and they go out and get a dog and it’s not necessarily the right breed.”
The Humane Society said the best thing for buyers to do is be vigilant. Steer clear of puppies being sold from the back of a van. Reputable breeders will also most likely only breed one type of dog. Finally, don’t be afraid to ask to see a breeder’s home or wherever the puppies grew up to judge the conditions.
“We have some good breeders here… but we have more breeders that are not good that don’t do what they need to be doing and are just out for a buck,” Wiest said.