“Daddy, why does the brown dog only have three legs?”
“Why is the Shiba-Inu’s tail curled down to cover its karcheng?”
“Why is the Shetland Sheepdog so aggressive?”
“Why does … ”
My six-year-old daughter would rattle these questions off whenever we visit adoption drives for rescued dogs—like the ones in January, organised by animal welfare groups (or shelters) Voices for Animals, Paws N Help Outreach, and Exclusively Mongrels.
On a near monthly basis, dogs are given away to these welfare groups for various reasons: owners moving out of condos into smaller HDB flats (thus failing to meet requirements for HDB-approved dogs), expats migrating overseas, or dog breeders giving them up because they’re no longer productive (aka “puppy mills”). For stray dogs, or “Singapore Specials”, they’re normally rescued from construction sites or streets, with the intent to be sterilised and rehomed.
Most purebred rescues released by breeders to shelters are aged 7 to 10 years old. They are usually females, passed on because they can no longer produce healthy litters of pups. If nobody wants them, their stay at a shelter can be indefinite (with the help of donations and volunteers). The adoption fee per rescue varies between S$100 to S$400, not counting medical costs.
Image credit: Voices for Animals Facebook
Image credit: Paws N Help Outreach Facebook
Image credit: Exclusively Mongrels Facebook
If I want to buy a puppy instead, I have to visit pet shops and dog farms/kennels. A puppy can go between S$3000 to S$13,000 depending on age, bloodline, breed and breeder credentials. The younger the pup, the more expensive it is. Then I have to factor in medical costs like licensing, vaccination, deworming and sterilisation. Unlike rescues, the risk of buying a puppy with a pre-existing medical condition is usually lower (more on this later).
Image credit: Pick-a-Pet Facebook
So as a father looking to buy a dog for his daughter, I have to make a financial and moral choice. Do I buy a S$3,000++ puppy with all the cuteness, interactivity and energy befitting of a six-year-old, knowing they can build a bond from the start? Or, do I adopt a seven-year-old rescue for S$300++?
If it’s the former, I might be feeding into the puppy mill industry, even if the breeder assures me the puppy was bred ‘ethically’—meaning the puppy’s parents are free-roaming, kumbaya-loving mutts (translated: they weren’t caged for the sole purpose of producing pup litters twice a year for profit). Remember, pet shops and farms have to pay license fees to AVS (Animal & Veterinary Services) to run their business. The ones who do not pay include illegal and unaccounted home/backyard breeders. So it’s big business, and it’s not restricted to just Singapore.
Image credit: William Goh Kennel
On the flipside, while adopting a rescue means my upfront cost is lower, I’m taking a risk on any unknown medical conditions it might have suffered prior to being rescued. Not only does this mean a high medical bill (up to S$7,000 or more depending on the condition), the frequent visits to the vet will have its impact on my daughter (i.e. she’ll bear witness to issues of life and death much earlier). Rescues are often physically and emotionally subdued, having gone through countless pregnancies, malnourishment and the lack of experiencing a home and family’s warmth. They need time to warm up to anyone, let alone come to terms with their past.
To help me make up my mind, I met with a friend of a friend—Karen, the owner of Gaia Wholistic Animal Wellness Centre, an animal rehab in Jalan Besar. There, she introduced me to a Corgi named Noah. Since his birth in 2018, Noah has hydrocephalus—a condition where cerebrospinal fluid builds up in his skull—“water in the brain”—resulting in brain damage on a cellular level. He suffers from side effects like partial blindness, motor discoordination and seizures. Every so often, he would rattle his head as if something’s not right. Puppies born with it are usually euthanised to avoid expensive surgery, but not Noah.
Noah, the Hydrocephalus Puppy. Image credit: Karen Quek
At two months old, Noah was rescued by Karen, who wanted to give him a fighting chance as his foster “mummy”. She suspects his condition is a cause of mixed breeding and bad genes from puppy mills or home breeders, which further explains why we only see healthy puppies in for-sale advertisements. Rarely do we see ads for runts like Noah.
Before turning one, Noah underwent six surgeries. Imagine a two-month-old baby going in and out of hospital six times. One surgery involves the insertion of a shunt into his brain (through his nape), which comes with a manual valve. Through it, excess cerebrospinal fluid is expressed out and reinjected into his abdominal cavity (to be reabsorbed into the body). He was under general anaesthetic in 3 of the 6 surgeries and heavy sedation for two. Here’s one of the surgery videos (viewer discretion is advised).
Noah has to take ascorbic acid and B complex IV for immunity twice daily. Image credit: Karen Quek
Twice a day, Karen injects him with ascorbic acid and B complex IV to boost his immunity. She does it through intravenous ports on either side of his hind-limbs. Noah is usually awake, so I can imagine the pain. But he’s gotten used to it. If you watch the other videos, he makes do with what he’s been given in life. The heart and mind of a patient rescuer like Karen knows no boundaries and I salute her for her tenacity and grit. Ultimately, she believes in giving as much love to Noah as possible, no matter how challenging the process is.
Karen’s rehab centre has been treating many rescue cases like Noah, such as Max, a two-month-old Japanese Spitz. Max was almost put down by an ex-breeder because he was born with deformed hind legs. Similarly, he was the runt of a litter due to excessive in-breeding. He couldn’t walk, so he slides and glides around instead.
This was Max at two months old. Notice his splayed hind limbs? There’s no support for his hips, which stifles his ability to walk. Image sourced via Karen Quek.
Unable to stand on his hind legs, Max usually slides or glides on the floor. Image sourced via Karen Quek.
“My initial plan was to treat his emotional trauma. Like any human child, he would be comparing himself with others and become extremely defensive,” Karen said. “He barks often, trying to sound fierce, but it is a coping mechanism. Then comes the physical issues like malnutrition, poor blood circulation, cold exposure around his feet and low bone density. The rescue mum had to add calcium powder, massage his legs, administer warm-packs and do a lot of home exercises.”
Now two-and-half years old, Max’s walking posture has improved (it’s not 100%). With therapy, he’s friendlier towards others. Image sourced via Karen Quek.
Having heard some of her rescue cases, I asked Karen what’s my best option when faced with this moral dilemma. Do I get a puppy or adopt a rescue?
“There are some registered breeders who do home breeding for show, agility and prestige dogs. Usually the ones with certification and come from good parental breeds. If you sell puppies from a farm, their parents are normally in a room, cage or kennel. For pedigree breeders, they do home breeding, litter by litter, and not rush the puppies for sale. They are more considerate by taking care of the parents. I personally cannot comment on the physical condition for both, whether it’s good or bad.
“But, there are also many unethical or unlicensed breeders in Singapore. It’s very difficult for the government agency, like AVS, to investigate. Singaporeans are like that. If there are no issues, then I’ll mind my own business. It’s just how we put up cases and choose not to voice out that much. It depends on the severity of the cases.
Karen with her two mutts – Morpheus and Mini – at her rehab centre.
“The commitment to raise a dog is huge. You have to walk them, you cannot leave them alone for too long, especially if it’s a puppy. For rescues, there’s usually a two to three weeks’ trial or homestay trial with the adoptive family. Some adopters have this mindset where they can ‘try’ first. It doesn’t make sense … I’ve done rescue rehoming for shelters and some adoptive owners will complain about their rescues peeing, chewing or showing aggression, and decide to return. This wouldn’t happen for owners who bought a puppy. I hope this mindset will change,” Karen shared.
With pros and cons on both sides, it boils down to the emotional connection between owner and pet, regardless of where they’re from.
The bigger question I have to ask is whether we’re ready to bring a dog into our lives as if we’re having another child. Whether it’s a puppy or a rescue, the commitment is similar. Are we prepared if we’re frequent holiday travellers or rarely at home? Do we have the patience to train a puppy if it pees and poops all over our floor and furniture? If we adopt a rescue, are we prepared for any outcomes from its first veterinary check-up? Explaining this to my six-year-old is going to be tricky.
Throughout our visits to pet farms, kennels and adoption drives, all she cares about is having a dog, whether it’s a puppy or a rescue, in the hope that it will scrounge around our four-room apartment, jumping onto beds and couches, racing after the frisbee in the backyard or East Coast Park. My wife and I identify with her need for social attachment; she is our only child and gets lonely when we’re at work. Until we’re able to have a second child, a reciprocal, loving pet seems good in theory.
But personally, I need proof that the puppies I’m buying are ethically bred. I cannot, on my conscience, condone mills or inexperienced home breeders. Western Australia is introducing a bill to render puppy farms and pet shops illegal and improve traceability of dogs. Netherlands has zero stray dogs due to a mandatory and free sterilization programme that favours adoption. Hong Kong has introduced mandatory laws requiring hobby breeders to get licensed or face inspections. Just recently, Montreal and Laval in Canada made it compulsory for all dogs and cats six months and older to be microchipped and sterilised (unless there’s a medical reason or they’re licensed and approved for breeding).
In Singapore, all dogs are required to be microchipped and licensed for trackability, but sterilisation is not mandatory, so backyard breeding and puppy mills continue to thrive. A cursory check across local Gumtree ads, Facebook and WhatsApp groups will reveal the dark side of this business. There’s just no way to effectively police them (let alone find proof). The government should consider extreme measures like mandatory sterilisation as the next step. It can pass a law allowing AVS authorities and potential owners to check the genealogical track record of the puppy’s parents and view their living conditions.
If my family is lucky enough to qualify for a rescue pet, I need to be sure it’s still possible for my daughter to form an emotional connection with the rescue (I need to prepare for its medical bills).
For now, I’ll continue to work on convincing my daughter to settle for a guinea pig or a rabbit instead. Maybe she’ll warm up to the idea. Hopefully, when she’s old enough to distinguish the difference, the laws will have become kinder to dogs, and she won’t need to make a moral choice at all.
Do you have an opinion to share about puppy mills or adopting rescues? Drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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