The effects of puppy mills

The effects of puppy mills

Research shows that the extreme negligence dogs experience in puppy mills can have long-term effects on their brains. Our collaborator explains.

July 22, 2019

It’s been 10 years since I looked after dogs seized from puppy mills by two animal-rights organizations. Aside from their physical health problems, these animals seemed as traumatized by their experience as prisoners of war. Some of them were startled by the slightest movement and cowered in their cages when anyone came close. Others would turn constantly in circles. Some dogs stared blankly into the distance and didn’t react to anything. “Do whatever you want with me,” they seemed to be saying. These images will haunt me all my life.

Dr Frank McMillan is a veterinarian and the director of well-being studies at Best Friends Animal Society in Utah. Alongside researchers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, he participated in some of the rare scientific studies that have focused on puppy-mill animals. His conclusion is unwavering: dogs that have been bred for profit in massive-scale operations, who are kept in tiny, filthy cages and deprived of caring human relationships, not only suffer during their captivity, they continue to experience the effects of their cruel treatment throughout their entire lives.

Dogs are fundamentally social animals, Dr McMillan adds. As a species, they’ve shared their lives with human beings for thousands of years and, with time, have become increasingly dependent on us for care and affection. “When their emotional needs are not met, dogs suffer. What’s more, in these cases the development of their brains is actually altered,” Dr McMillan explains. “Important connections are not made and the animals are eventually unable to behave normally.”

Romanian orphanages
The situation is comparable to children who’ve also experienced extreme negligence. We first heard about some of the most atrocious examples which occurred in certain Romanian orphanages after the fall of the iron curtain in 1989. One hundred thousand babies and children were found living in atrocious institutions where they received defective care. In many cases, orphanage employees, who had up to 100 babies in their charge and no time to look after them properly, dropped nursing bottles next to babies in the hope that they would learn to drink by themselves. Diapers were rarely changed and children received neither the affection nor the reassurance that’s natural in a normal, loving environment.

The result? Some toddlers never learned to talk and dragged themselves along the floor instead of walking. Others spent their days rocking back and forth or hit their heads against a wall. Most of these children had trouble giving or receiving affection. And the longer they lived in the institution, the more serious their problems grew.

“Science shows that we start creating bonds of attachment to a loving figure at the beginning of life and that we constantly build on these social bonds throughout life.” - Dr Frank McMillan

“When the emotional needs of an individual are met from birth, it’s easier for her or him to make social bonds, trust, develop emotionally and lead a normal life,” continues Dr McMillan. “It’s similar with dogs.”

The fundamental need for affection
Fortunately, some dogs who have grown up in puppy mills are able to bounce back once they’ve been adopted, Dr McMillian notes happily. This is due in great part to what we call resilience. “Their brains have been able to create new connections and these animals have been able to learn to communicate and become good companions. But lots of these dogs can’t adapt,” he concludes.

The good news is that groups working to defend animal rights are increasingly successful at pressuring different levels of government to close down puppy mills. People are also becoming aware seems that getting a puppy in a pet shop or through a generic online store without knowing the origin of the animal is not necessarily the right way to get a healthy animal.

Fortunately, some stories end well. Tomorrow, discover Emily's fabulous story of resilience, and read how she overcame the legacy of her passage through puppy mills.

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