The damage done by puppy farms goes beyond the obvious
By closely documenting Susie-Belle’s journey to her current state of emotional well-being, I have
been able to look back in detail at the enormous progress that she has made in the 3 years that she has been free of the puppy farm. If I hadn’t written our book I may well have missed or by now forgotten some of the subtle changes in her, the signs that reveal these days she is truly experiencing a peaceful inner life. For her to reach the stage where she now is, is not only a remarkable testament to her resilience, it’s a veritable wonder when we know how damaging her previous life was to her brain and psychological development.
Although I can’t know for sure, it’s almost certainly the case that Susie-Belle was born in the puppy farm. Her mother, like she herself would be later, was undoubtedly chronically stressed during her pregnancies. For her puppies, this together with poor nutrition, a cramped, awful environment and lack of caring, healthy human contact would have had multiple effects on how the genes of the puppies would behave. Known as epigenetics, this relatively new branch of veterinary (and human) medicine gives more disturbing insights into the terrible damage that puppy farming inflicts on those caught up in it.
The environment of a puppy farm is a stressful place for any living creature to be. For the breeding dogs like Susie-Belle and Twinkle, to stay confined for years in such a place is horrendous, any average, caring human being is capable of recognising this fact. But worse than the obvious suffering we see is the massive effect the prison-like environment has on brain chemistry; it inflicts damage at the level of genetic function. Being in a chronically stressful situation affects the brain to the extent that it causes disruption in how genes are decoded to make proteins and thus how learning and coping behaviours happen. This must surely and deeply concern anyone who claims to care for animals.
At the time of their birth, the mother’s deprivation which is rife in puppy farms, has affected the brains of her puppies – this is without even talking about in-breeding and hereditary issues. Then they spend the early days and weeks with little handling, no human love, no healthy stimuli to encourage healthy brain development. Dogs that have little human contact before about 5 weeks, cannot recognise humans, or have any concept of what they are. The current problem of shipping puppies to dealers round Europe as young as a few weeks old, leads to enormous issues in this regard. Without early, caring, tactile human contact, the immature puppy brains simply do not develop to recognise humans, let alone trust or relate happily to them.
When puppies are taken from their mothers too young as they usually are in puppy farms, they are taken before they have learned to cope. This is not just a behavioural issue, it is down to brain development – or lack of. These poor puppies then get sold through the usual channels – dealers, online ads, internet sites, pet shops, at car-boots, markets, etc – and are completely unprepared to live as the companions they are supposed to be. The early damage done to their brains leads to problems such as noise reactivity, excessive barking, fearfulness in the home or outside on walks, aversion to humans, to strangers, to other dogs. Behaviourally they are compromised as soon as they take their first breath in the puppy farm.
Of course, not all dogs are as damaged as others and many, given the right home environments will be better out of the puppy farm sooner rather than later, but all dogs are damaged somehow. It’s a rock and a hard place position when we think about either taking a puppy from its mother before its brain has developed sufficiently to enable it to cope, or leaving it in the impoverished, stressful environment of the puppy farm where little enrichment is likely.
In view of all this, it is even more remarkable that dogs that one day do get a chance to live in peace in normal, loving homes, are ever capable of the healing that I have lived and shared step-by-step with Susie-Belle and witnessed in others. It does however tell me why progress with Twinkle is so much slower and why when we wonder if she does indeed have a degree of brain damage, we are not that far from the truth.
As I come to understand more and more the extent of abuse, cruelty, and willful damage that is going on unchecked in puppy farms, the closer I hug Susie-Belle and the more I look at her damaged sister Twinkle and yearn for an end to this misery and my heart breaks for the countless others who will never make it to safety.