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Puppies, Kittens and Animal Welfare: Q&A with registered breeder Tracy Stewart on unethical breeding and government crackdown

Recently, there has been a huge spike in ‘puppy farms‘ and ‘kitten factories‘, with a lot of people behind these operations having little-to-no experience or education in the field.

Last year, the New South Wales government announced a statewide crackdown on breeders ‘doing the wrong thing’ as a means of targeting this increase.

But, what is the wrong thing? And what really is a puppy farm?

Well, breeders across Australia would like to know as there are no recognised definitions within the state and territory governments.

Canberra-based breeder, Tracy Stewart, has over 40-years of experience in breeding and competitive showing. She is registered with both the Australian National Kennel Council (ANKC) and the Co-Ordinating Cat Council of Australia (CCCA).

Tracy thinks there needs to be a definition in the legislation, state by state, detailing the guidelines for breeders to follow.

Q: What do you enjoy about being a breeder?

A: I love cats a lot, so that’s really important, and to a certain extent, goes without saying. Although, there are still people who don’t necessarily love cats or dogs that still breed them. But I do love cats a lot, and I’ve had cats since I was quite young. I also like with the purebred cats, that because I show them, I get a chance to go out and travel away from home, visit lots of places which is good, and I get to meet lots of people, and I also get to catch up with friends. So, that social aspect is really important. That’s really about showing cats, but I think if you’re breeding cats, it’s really important to show them too because you meet other breeders, you meet people who may be want to buy a cat, and you get feedback from the judges about the standard of your cats in relation to how the breed should be.

Q: What are some of the things you need to be aware of as a breeder to ensure you are breeding responsibly, safely, and ethically?

A: You need to understand the breed and the species, like cats and dogs, and what’s important for them. You need to understand if there are any issues or health issues related to that particular breed or anything that you need to be aware of. It’s important to know whether there are, because some breeds do carry specific health issues. Like Maine Coons are known to being subject to heart disease, so the breeders have to do a lot of testing to make sure their cats are free of the disease.

Just knowing about breeding and things like the right age of breeding, not breeding cats when they’re too young or too old, understanding what’s good timing for breeding, so not having litters too close together that puts the mothers’ bodies under pressure. We also breed for temperaments, so not only picking cats that are healthy, but ones that also have the best personalities to breed as well.

Most state governments do have guidelines around breeding cats and dogs, and some of the guidelines are really useful to have a look at. Often I try and follow a lot of what’s in there because they are actually quite good guidelines and they have stuff around vaccinations, flea and worm treatments, and what conditions you should house your animals in.

Q: How involved in the process of raising the animals are you after they have gone to their new homes, and how do you help prepare the new owners?

A: Yep so, my kitten buyers get an information sheet which has got everything about feeding, grooming, healthcare, personality and all that. They also get a litter tray and sample litter that they have been using, and samples of food that they have been using to minimise stress during the transitional period between homes. I encourage people to stay in contact and send photos, which is really good. It’s nice to see photos and see the kittens settling in.

From time to time there are health issues with cats and kittens. They’re like people, we’re not 100% healthy, we have issues from time to time, sometimes they’ll have accidents, or behavioural issues and owners will ask for advice. I just try and provide support with advice about what the issues are, and often what I’ll do is get my vet to have a look at the cat and give a second opinion, just to help them make an informed decision.

Q: What is your understanding of puppy farms, and are you aware of the recent raids of facilities that are being labelled as puppy farms?

A: I’m being a little bit controversial because the issue in New South Wales is that they don’t have a definition of what a ‘puppy farm’ is. So the New South Wales state government has said they want to crack down on puppy farmers and has contracted the RSPCA to conduct audits, but unfortunately, they do not have a definition in the legislation and they haven’t been able to provide one in response to questioning from the media about exactly who [they] are targeting with this program. So it’s unfortunate that it’s really unclear about actually what they are trying to target and what behaviours they are trying to change.

Everyone thinks in their mind they have a picture of what a puppy farm is, but when it comes to implementing the legislation and RSPCA doing the audits then there are no rules around it. So what’s happening in New South Wales at the moment is [that] the RSPCA in their auditing of breeders is being quite broad, and are targeting all sorts of breeders. In particular, at the moment they are targeting a lot of registered breeders and not necessarily those who they might be trying to target, which are breeders who are not registered with the National Council, and therefore not adhering to [the] council’s code of ethics. It’s quite a controversial topic at the moment, and I think a lot of breeders are trying to get the state government to be clearer about what they are trying to achieve, who they are targeting, and what the issues are.

Q: Do you think there needs to be a recognised definition of what a puppy farm is and what classifies as an ethical breeder that is somewhat unified across the states and territories?

A: Yeah so that’s what the breeders in New South Wales have been asking for, but it can’t be a national standard, because regulation around domestic animals is controlled by each state government. So, it needs to be state by state, but I know the breeders in New South Wales have been campaigning the New South Wales government to put some clarity around that. So that would be a starting point. There’s a number of other issues involved with the current process, but I think that’s one that’s most important to most breeders, is understanding what the government is trying to target, who the governments trying to target, and what the guidelines are. At the moment there aren’t any and so the RSPCA is able to approach any breeder they want, registered breeder or not.

Q: Do you think there has been an increase in unethical breeders or concern for animal welfare due to people entering the industry to make a profit?

A: I haven’t particularly noticed an increase. Those types of breeders who are about making a profit have been around always, and there has always been quite a lot of them. I don’t know that I’ve noticed more now, but certainly, they’re out there and they’re really, really hard to regulate. I know the government’s trying some strategies to do that, but I don’t think they’ve quite hit the mark, because they need to be clearer about who are they going to target, and how are they going to do that. And so, targeting the registered breeders is probably not where they really want to be putting their effort. I mean sure, you’re always going to see some registered breeders doing the wrong thing, but on the whole, the registered breeders are registers because they want to do the right thing.

Q: Do you feel the high demand for ‘designer’ pets have impacted the industry and contributed to what is being labelled as ‘puppy farms’?

A: Probably with the dogs, it has, because we’ve seen a rise in the cross-breeds and their prices, as I’ve just said have gone through the roof. So cross-breeds start at double of what a purebred does, because again, it’s a demand and the market’s driving it. It’s also interesting what people are demanding, and therefore how breeders are responding. With the cats, it’s interesting that a lot of breeds that are quite susceptible to health issues are quite popular, and they’re cross-breeding these.

So, there’s a breed of cat called the Scottish fold, which has a folded ear, which actually is representative of some significant health issues in the breed. In fact, the Scottish fold had been banned in a lot of countries in Europe, not Australia, because the issues are really, really severe. And they’re crossing the Scottish fold with a breed of cat called a munchkin, which people think are really cute, but of course a munchkin [has] a short leg, and has been bred through what is generally known as the ‘dwarf-gene’ which also has health issues associated with it. And so there are these two breeds with quite significant health issues that they’re cross-breeding because they’re cute. And they don’t genetic test at all because that’s not what it’s about.

Q: If you could speak directly to someone looking for a pet, what would you say to help them make an informed decision of where to look?

A: The first thing is to make sure your breeder is registered with the appropriate authority, and it can actually be really hard to tell because the people who are scamming and the people who are unregistered are really, really good at making it look like they are. So you do need to do a bit of checking, and possibly making connections to find out the reputation of the breeder as well. Have a good conversation with the breeder and get to know them. Check that the breeder is doing the health testing, that there are registration papers and all the vet records.

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