Still I get a cold chill down my spine when I recall a term that was explained to me very many years ago; before I was even a dog breeder. The term, or more accurately the phrase, was ‘they bucket them’.
An experienced show breeder explained to me that it was common practise for puppies not meeting ‘breed standards’ to be dispatched at birth. Obviously this is hearsay of one person, but in the years since I’ve heard this so very many times that the anecdotal evidence is compelling. As compelling as it is so very very sad. A glorious tiny miracle of life purposely drowned. What should have been their first courageous little gasp into life instead brings an awful death upon them. It’s outrageously cruel and so utterly unfair. Over before they have begun, at the capricious will of the misguided human who was entrusted with their life.
Not on my watch
The horror of healthy puppies dying miserably for no other reason that hobby breeder vanity, ego and ribbon chasing (for what else can it be?) has stayed with me as a breeder. And a good thing too.
Upon deciding to become a breeder myself, 12 years ago, I had some important things to get straight. Stuff to sort out in my head so that if the worst happened it would not be an ad hoc decision to be made in an emotional moment, but rather a clear course of action to follow.
Given no sane person with even a woeful moral compass would entertain the ‘bucketing’ of healthy puppies, it did however raise the question ‘is there any circumstance where the humane euthanasia of a newborn pup is justifiable?’. For I would not enter the realm of orchestrating new life naively; amid the joy of so much new life must also lurk the spectre of death.
Not surprising to me, the answer came to me in my sleep. Resting my head when life’s questions seem intractable, my brain refuses to cease unravelling and – like magic – the obvious answer dawns.
Nature has a way – breeders are not ‘God’
And here is my answer. If a puppy is not in pain then we will do everything in our power to help them live.
So irrespective of how hopeless a situation might appear to the human onlooker, and providing there is no pain, the breeder is not the decider of this puppy’s fate either by their direct action or by virtue of their failure to assist.
Every puppy born deserves their chance at their life, be that a life with three legs, a life with an undershot jaw, a short life, a long life. It goes without say that it’s a breeder’s job to make sure they do everything in their power to produce healthy puppies (nutrition, genetics, welfare, veterinary support and so on), but occasionally life can throw a curve ball.
The simple and obvious answer above I have applied to every puppy we have ever brought into the world. It’s our policy, if you like. And the policy is ‘if a puppy is not in pain we will do everything to assist them’.
Without exception, I feel it has served us well and at many levels. For example, the improbable can happen. Take DA Heidi (see videos below from four years ago), a really tiny puppy was born with a pronounced undershot jaw and front legs curled around as holding an imaginary ping pong ball.
Without our firm policy in place, surely this little mite could have been a possible case for humane euthanasia? I am truly thankful that such decisions have been removed from my breeding equation, for I am never left to quite-rightly ponder the ‘what ifs?’ in the wee hours.
So what of Heidi? Her undershot bottom jaw grew. By 8 weeks of age she did not have an undershot jaw. Her curved legs gradually straightened and by 8 weeks these were fine as well. She was still small, needed two operations to fix hernias, but by 12 weeks of age she was ready for her loving family.
Her mum Melody had been patiently waiting all this time, for she had fallen in love with this deformed little puppy from the beginning. Melody made the commitment to this infant irrespective of her circumstances on the proviso – just like us – she would not have to live with pain. Life be it long or short would be pain free and love filled.
From this experience I added a new mantra: ‘nature has a way‘. For you tell me: which veterinarian specialist could have predicted Heidi would grow to have a healthy normal life? She is now four years old and no trace of her tough start can be seen. A dear little chocolate dappled smooth hair mini dachshund.
Nature has a way, but she needs our help
‘Assist’ is a keyword in our policy. Providing a puppy is in no pain we will assist every one of them in their life.
Without exception the puppies I speak of were compromised at birth. Not in pain, but certain pain would soon befall them through a miserable slow death in the event we did not intervene. Curved legs can’t beat the breast to stimulate let down; an undershot jaw can’t create the suction vacuum require to extract milk.
Many breeders might argue that this is nature’s way too. Puppy will ‘naturally not survive’. But I don’t see it that way. Every puppy born deserves a fighting chance plus they deserve to have us fighting with them. It’s not acceptable to let them ‘quietly slip away’. That’s rubbish. Might be quiet – not to mention very convenient – from the breeders’ perspective, but it ain’t so dandy for the tiny creature desperate to live or the mother helplessly enduring their slow demise.
Sleep deprivation is part and parcel of being a breeder. Naturally. But add to that a compromised baby – even an entire litter – in need of two hourly feeding and toileting 24 hours a day and it’s an unsustainable scenario.
About four years ago this came to a head when I had an expectant mum, Macey, who appeared to be in labour. But she wasn’t due for a week. All the signs of labour were there. Could the dates have been incorrectly recorded? She was no doubt in trouble, so I took her to the vets and the decision was to perform a c-section. It was then under surgery that all was revealed; the signs weren’t labour but pancreatitis. Unheard of for a bitch to carry puppies with such a condition, certainly at the level she had it, Jeremy advised.
Puppies do their most growing in the last two weeks of pregnancy, and these puppies were way too small to survive if delivered. Not only were they one week early, but they were small from lack of nutrition due to Macey’s illness. He was had no choice but to cease the c-section and hope that the pregnancy could hold another week.
At that moment I asked if euthanasia of Macey was the kindest thing; not to bring her out of the anesthetic. In my mind I felt I couldn’t put her through the potential pain of being an ‘incubator’. Jeremy’s answer was firm: the foetuses were his patients too, and where there is life there is hope (or words to that effect). He said if they can just have 4 or 5 more days we can deliver them by c-section and they will have a chance of surviving.
He said the outlook for unborn pups and mum was still bleak. He had never heard of a mum being operated on and then holding the pregnancy. Could the uterus withstand the pressure of growth over the next week? Could mum survive with her medical condition and a near full term pregnancy?
This was uncharted waters for Jeremy. And of course for me. I took Macey home still conflicted – torn – by the moral dilemma that burdened me. I rang my breeder mentor Mary interstate and posed the question I had asked of Jeremy earlier: was euthanasia the kinder option?
Mary’s response came as quickly as Jeremy’s had. But different again. She said categorically not to euthanise. “Macey has held onto life so her babies might live! Don’t you take that away from her.”
For the next three days I slept beside Macey in the donga we have set up as an intensive care facility. She was on the drip as we were trying to get through this waiting period. And then an amazing thing happened, which you can see in the archival footage here.
What followed was a wake up call to Jeremy to meet at the surgery for the c-section. No way could she give birth naturally to all the puppies; that one had been born defied comprehension.
Five babies in total were born. But Macey was weaker than ever, and these babies were tiny and prem. I took Macey and her newborns home to our intensive care set up.
I recall a black cloud veiling the next 12 hours. I lay on the floor of the donga beside Macey’s bed, negotiating my way around the drip line. I syringe fed the puppies two hourly, for she had no milk.
At about 5am the next morning, the saddest moment arrived. I cry now to write of it and have not been able to document this before now. You see, darling Macey knew. This incredibly brave little long haired black & tan mum unexpectedly got busy. Drip still attached, she began nesting her bedding into a corner. She moved her babies there and then gently covered her babies with the bedding. Job done, she moved away to the other corner of the bed.
Somehow I knew this beautiful creature beside me was preparing to die. Her last act of love was to cover the babies she would no longer be around to protect and nurture. Crushing sadness as I lay my head close to hers and whispered my love to her as she soon left us.
Enter the Nanny
For a good while I lay there with Macey as exhaustion and grief beset me. I knew too well that the chances of these prem babies surviving was poor. Then, like a miracle, a past worker visited out of the blue. Teressa. She immediately stepped in, taking those five tiny souls into her care. They were the size of your finger.
For four days Teressa did the near impossible. She attended to the babies two hourly. Sadly, with the passing of each day would come the end for another little soul. It was heartbreaking for Teressa, that despite her best efforts these little tots were not going to be.
On day 5, left with only one puppy the size of a cigarette lighter, hope returned. Puppy lived through day five. She lived through week five. She is Macey’s sole surviving pup, now a mum herself and living with Teressa. DA Mouse; some of you will know her. Together we were able to continue Macey’s act of love for her puppies and Macey now has many grandchildren.
And so it was our Nanny was born. Over the years to follow Teressa would step in and provide the intensive around-the-clock care any puppy might require and at any time. A very special person indeed.
Early on in the peace the Nanny would understandably be devastated when a puppy in her care passed away. In seeking to console Teressa, I realised something. I explained that success is not to be measured by ‘who survives’, but rather by the fact that the puppy did not know pain, cold or hunger in their short life on earth. The puppy lived with great love and this is our role. Taking the journey with them, whatever that journey might be. It’s our duty to their mum as well.
On a brighter note (!) we have a little straggler at the moment, as those who follow on Instagram and Twitter will know. He was reared by Teressa for four days early on, in fact.
He has had X-rays and blood tests and nothing obvious is wrong, although something is clearly not right. His sibs weigh nearly triple his weight, as you can see he is only 800grams in the video below taken at 9 weeks of age.
What is right is that he is happy. I can’t say if his life will be long or short. (And who of us can make that call for anyone?). But what I do know is he needs loving home beyond our walls. To explore love and life as a little dog and family member.
The owner I have found understand is someone who understands that Gigantor is not ‘a problem to solve’. He is to enjoy his life for as long as it is a pain-free one. He is not to be subject to money being thrown at his ‘problem’ and countless tests and visits to specialists who will have as many answers as opinions you seek. For that is not living.
Gigantor has a journey ahead that will be love filled and pain free. If pain arises and has no end in sight, then his owner will love him enough to let him go. That is our promise to Gigantor.