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What's so Bad About Pet Store Puppies? Plenty

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker Fact Checked

pet store puppies

Story at-a-glance -

  • The CDC has reported another outbreak of a drug resistant bacterial infection linked to pet store puppies; this event follows a 2016-2018 outbreak in which dozens of people were infected with the same multidrug-resistant bacteria
  • This problem is occurring because those who profit from puppy mill animals routinely give multiple rounds of antibiotics to puppies, including healthy ones, to try to reverse the effects of poor breeding and housing practices
  • The veterinary community is also contributing to the problem of antibiotic resistance by continuing to prescribe unnecessary and too-powerful antibiotics; as a pet parent, you must advocate for your animal companion and insist the right tests are run before accepting a prescription for antibiotics
  • As a potential pet parent, you can be part of the solution by refusing to buy animals from pet stores supplied by puppy mills (which is most of them)

Sadly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and various news sources are reporting yet another outbreak of a drug resistant bacterial infection linked to pet store puppies. From early January 2019 through early November, 30 people became infected with Campylobacter jejuni.1

Per the CDC, the bacteria identified in the outbreak are resistant to commonly used antibiotics, including tetracycline, ciprofloxacin, nalidixic acid, azithromycin, erythromycin, clindamycin, telithromycin and gentamicin.2

The people who fell ill, 4 of whom required hospitalization, ranged in age from 8 months to 70 years, and lived in 13 states across the U.S. — Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, and Wyoming. The CDC interviewed 24 of the 30 people affected, and learned that:3

  • 21 people (88%) had contact with a puppy
  • 15 of those 21 people (71%) had contact with a puppy from a pet store
  • 12 of those 15 people (80%) were linked to the national pet store chain Petland
  • 5 of those 12 people (42%) were Petland employees

The CDC issued its Investigation Notice in mid-December 2019 and noted that "Illnesses might not yet be reported due to the time it takes between when a person becomes ill and when the illness is reported."

Experts Believe These Drug-Resistant Bacterial Infections Stem from Antibiotics Given to Healthy Puppies

Over a year ago in September 2018, the CDC reported that more than 100 people had been infected by antibiotic-resistant bacteria traced to pet store puppies.4 The bacterium involved in that outbreak was also Campylobacter jejuni.

In August 2017, a handful of infections in Florida residents were linked to a national pet store chain based in Ohio, which prompted a multistate investigation by the CDC and local and state health and agriculture departments. From January 2016 through January 2018, 118 people in 18 states acquired the infection linked to the puppies. Of the 118, 29 were pet store employees.

Like the most recent event, the bacterial isolates involved in the 2016-2018 outbreak were found to be resistant to all antibiotics commonly used to treat campylobacter infections. And just as disturbing is the fact that according to the Scientific American, experts believe the problem stemmed from antibiotics given to healthy dogs, "a decision that all but surely fostered antibiotic resistance."5

Six pet store companies were linked to the prior outbreak, and store records showed that of the 149 investigated puppies (puppies from which fecal samples were taken), 142 or 95% had received one or more rounds of antibiotics before reaching the store or while at the store.

Sixteen different types of antibiotics were given to the pups. About half weren't even sick — incredibly, they were given the drugs to prevent illness.

The CDC's report concluded that puppies can be a source of multi-drug resistant bacterial infections in humans, "warranting a closer look at antimicrobial use in the commercial dog industry."

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Puppy Mills Function as a Terrible Distribution System for Multidrug-Resistant Bacteria

This situation is deeply troubling on many levels. The pet store pups involved in these outbreaks are undoubtedly puppy mill animals, so that's where the heartbreak begins. Then we add in dozens of unsuspecting people who became sick not with just any old infection, but with an infection that was difficult to cure because it was multi-drug resistant.

And, of course, we're also dealing with the rampant overuse and abuse of antibiotics in animals born and bred in disease-ridden, high-stress environments such as puppy mills and factory farms.

"This is shocking," Lance Price, head of George Washington University's Antibiotic Resistance Action Center, told Scientific American. "This is an important study that's shining a light on something that we need to spend more time on.

For me, this is an indication that they need to be raising these animals differently. They're creating this terrible distribution system for multidrug-resistant bacteria."

Also startled by the report was the antibiotics program director for U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group):

"Antibiotics should only be used to treat illness, not to compensate for poor practices — whether it's trucking dogs long distances and having poor hygiene in the process along the way," says Matthew Wellington. "These are lifesaving medicines that should only be used to treat sick animals or sick people."

Wellington is correct, except the problem doesn't start in transport trucks — it starts where these puppies are bred. The majority of puppy mills are filthy operations in which animals are subjected to cruel treatment and inhumane living conditions.

Antibiotics are used and abused by mill operators as a hedge against their poor breeding practices and the potential for puppies to become desperately ill before and during transport to retailers.

Another Problem: Use of Unnecessary, Too-Powerful Antibiotics by Veterinarians

Unfortunately, the veterinary community is also guilty of overprescribing antibiotics. Nationally, rates of antibiotic-resistant infections in companion animals are rising at an alarming rate.

Almost every day, Dr. Jason Pieper, a veterinary dermatologist and veterinary clinical medicine professor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, sees antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections in cats, dogs and other pets. He sees a lot of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus pseudintermedius (MSRP), which is found on the skin of dogs and cats.

He's also seeing pseudomonas ear infections, as well as antibiotic-resistant strains of E. coli, enterococcus species, and salmonella in pets' gastrointestinal (GI) and urinary tracts.

"I think a big problem is people [veterinarians] giving antibiotics to animals when it's not indicated, when it's not necessary," says Pieper. "If your patient is going into surgery and there's a huge risk, then it's prudent to give antibiotics. But in other circumstances, it's better not to."6

Research shows that giving animals antibiotics for only a week or two can produce antibiotic resistance, and most effective antibiotic prescriptions for dogs and cats are for a minimum of 21 days.

"The other issue is that veterinarians are giving their patients more powerful antibiotics than are appropriate," says Pieper. "Some of the more potent or broader-spectrum antibiotics induce mutations in the bacteria that spur resistance and cause more problems."

Pieper believes the veterinary community needs to take a lesson from human medicine and start practicing responsible use of antibiotics. Skin inflammation in pets should be tested first to determine whether antibiotics are needed.

"I see way too many cases where such tests are not performed and the doctors give out antibiotics no matter what," he says. "This is perpetuating the problem."

How You Can Be Part of the Solution

As a pet parent and your animal companion's primary advocate, you also need to get involved. Insist that your veterinarian confirm the presence of a bacterial infection with culture and sensitivity testing before accepting a prescription for antibiotics.

  • Remember: Viral and fungal infections do not respond to antibiotics. Prescribing antibiotics to treat a viral infection is a classic example of indiscriminate use of the drug, and it still happens all the time in veterinary medicine. Don't let it happen to your pet!
  • Giving the proper dose of antibiotic at the proper intervals and using the entire prescription is extremely important, even if your pet seems to be fully recovered before the medication has run out. Finishing the prescription will ensure the infection is totally resolved and prevent your pet from having to take another full course of antibiotics because the first course wasn't fully administered, and the infection wasn't cleared.
  • Make sure to provide your dog or cat with a high-quality pet probiotic and feed fermented foods during and after antibiotic therapy. Giving a probiotic will reseed the gut with the appropriate healthy bacteria your furry family member needs for a strong and balanced immune system.
  • Work with an integrative veterinarian who has experience using natural substances to help reduce bacterial growth, including oregano oil, propolis, and olive leaf extract. I also use essential oils, colloidal silver, manuka honey, and Pavia cream to naturally treat MRSA and other types of skin infections.

If you're considering getting a puppy, please don't buy one from a pet store, since most receive their "inventory" from puppy mills. And don't purchase a puppy online from an Internet seller. When people stop doing business with puppy retailers, puppy mills will go out of business.

Adopt your next puppy or dog from a local animal shelter or rescue organization. There are millions of wonderful, deserving pets waiting for homes across the U.S. You'll feel good about your decision, and you may very well save a life.

Take action against puppy mills by supporting and recommending legislation that regulates the breeding and selling of animals in your city, county, or state. Volunteer your time or talents, or donate to organizations that act as watchdogs over breeders, including the Animal Welfare Institute, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund.