Ending puppy farms: are Victoria's new laws the right approach?

Calla Wahlquist
New Victorian laws are aimed at stamping out inhumane breeding of dogs. Photograph: Beth Walsh/Dogs Trust/PA

On 11 December, almost two years after council workers found 57 dogs hidden in a western Victorian park, a magistrate banned two well-known dog breeders from owning any animal for the next 10 years.

It was a culmination of one of the Victoria’s most high-profile animal cruelty cases. The dogs were discovered in Pioneer Park in the Ballarat suburb of Wendouree on 5 February2016, the morning of a pre-arranged inspection of the Wendouree house and breeding facility. More were found by RSPCA inspectors in a follow-up inspection in April 2016.

They were found in dirty conditions with as many as seven packed into a single travelling crate, RSPCA prosecutor Sebastian Reid said.

More than 70 adult dogs and puppies of working dog breeds were seized and 66 were forfeited, of which 60 have since been rehomed.

In July, another dog breeder from Lake Marmal, 271km from Melbourne in north-west Victoria, was banned from owning any dogs for nine years after the RSPCA seized 36 dogs that, it said, “were housed in appalling conditions, with some dogs not even provided with water”.

The cases are an example of the kind of cruelty that spurred the RSPCA and other welfare organisations to lobby for anti-puppy farm laws, designed to stamp out unethical breeders and target those who warehouse dogs in inhumane conditions.

Currently, dog breeding businesses with more than three and up to about 150 breeding females are regulated under the one system.

Under the new laws that passed the Victorian parliament on 15 December, operations with more than 10 breeding female dogs will be illegal from 10 April 2020, unless they classify as a commercial breeder and have ministerial approval to have a maximum of 50 breeding females. Those larger operations will fall under the inspectorate of the Department of Agriculture, not local councils, and will face more regular audits, including inspections ordered by Victoria’s chief veterinary officer.

Pet shops will be prohibited from selling dogs or cats, except those that came from an animal shelter, a pound or a registered foster carer. Foster carers will be will be limited to having five animals – either dogs or cats – per house.

The flagship reforms were promised by the Andrews government while it was still in opposition and delivered after industry and opposition criticism prompted a 12-month redrafting delay. With the reforms come a slew of new offences for breaching the laws.

But the most significant reform, according to both RSPCA Victoria and the Victorian branch of the Australian Veterinary Association, is the establishment of a pet exchange register that will allow animals to be traced back to their breeder.

It’s that transparency, animal groups say, that will allow regulators to unearth underground breeding practices and track down unethical suppliers.

Puppy farms, defined by the RSPCA as places characterised by extreme confinement, unhygienic living conditions, overcrowded housing and inadequate veterinary care, have always been illegal. The RSPCA says the pet exchange register is the most effective tool yet in stamping out the farms.

How does that work?

The register will work much like paddock-to-plate traceability in meat animals such as cattle and sheep, minus the plate.

From 1 July 2019, anyone who either breeds animals for sale or passes on ownership of a dog or cat either by selling or free exchange needs to register with the pet exchange and acquire a source number.

The only exception is when a person is giving away a dog or cat without advertising it, such as giving it to a family member.

Advertising a dog or cat for sale without a source number in Victoria will be illegal under the new laws, with penalties for both the person who places the ad and the publication that runs it. The source number will be linked to the animal’s microchip and carried with it for life.

Buyers who have a bad experience collecting an animal can flag it with the department. That puts a lot of pressure on buyers to do their due diligence, but the RSPCA Victoria chief executive, Liz Walker, said most pet owners want to do the right thing.

“I think there are many, many stories that have been heard about highly informed, highly educated people who follow the smart puppy buyers’ guide from the RSPCA, and then when they are on their way to pick it up, they get a call saying, ‘it’s not convenient for you to today, we will meet you at a petrol station or somewhere else to where the puppy has been bred’,” Walker told Guardian Australia.

The ability to trace animals is the “jewel in the crown” of the new laws, Walker said. The Australian Veterinary Association of Victoria president, Dr Paul Martin, agreed, saying it would help improve monitoring and compliance.

Currently, Walker said, it is unknown where about about 70% of the dogs born in Victoria each year, or 60,000 puppies, actually come from. The register aims to change that.

What about cats?

Cats are problematic. This is part of their charm, but in the context of a pet exchange register, cats and kittens are problematic because they have a tendency to just appear – like Asbestos, the tiny kitten that fell out of the soggy ceiling cavity into the bedroom of Melbourne woman Ellie Haywood during torrential rain earlier this month.

It can be presumed that Asbestos does not have a source number. That is fine because he is not for sale, but humans who are less open to cats falling from the ceiling and moving in permanently will either have to surrender them to an animal shelter or register for a source number to sell or give them away privately.

The caps on the number of breeding females do not apply to cat breeding operations, because kitten farms are not perceived to be as big a problem as puppy farms.

However, the RSPCA says it has busted some. “We know that kitten farms are out there, not at the level that puppy farms are, but undoubtedly they exist,” Walker said.

Martin said large kitten farms breeding a specific type of cat to meet market demand were not as common a problem as puppy farms, because fewer cat owners sought out specific breeds.

“There is a never-ending supply of cats already,” Martin said. “There seems to be a chronic oversupply of kittens, so the same issues don’t really develop with cats.”

Is there a downside?

According to the Australian Veterinary Association of Victoria, the laws could have the unintended consequence of encouraging small-scale backyard breeders who do not have the experience of larger professional breeders, which could lead to negative animal welfare outcomes.

“What is going to happen is that people are going to see an opening to breed two or three dogs and sell them to the market,” Martin told Guardian Australia. “Because they are not at home for 40 hours of the week, those dogs are going to be left in a shed, in a yard, unsupervised.”

Martin said he had seen a number of dogs kept in similar situations over his veterinary career.

“They have been in whelp for more than 24 hours because the people who owned them were doing it as a part-time exercise,” he said.

There’s no evidence that connects animal welfare to the number of breeding animals.

Liz Walker

It’s an argument for allowing larger, professional breeders to remain in the market, because they have both the knowledge and the resources to watch pregnant animals closely.

Martin said capping the number of breeding females at 50 was “an arbitrary number that the minister has picked out for political reasons”. He said the number should remain uncapped but with the same strong new regulations and compliance measures in place.

“There’s no scientific reason for it. In fact, there is some evidence and scientific arguments for why large establishments can improve animal welfare standards more than small establishments,” he said.

However, he said it was difficult for the public to think of dog or cat breeding as a business to be conducted by professionals, in the same way that it might accept horse or cattle breeding as something best done by professionals.

“Large breeders like Banksia Park (a Gippsland dog breeder specialising in designer crossbreeds) are professionals,” he said. “They know what the pitfalls are and they avoid them.”

Banksia Park has been one of the most vocal critics of the new laws, which it says target large professional breeders. It has argued that the welfare of the animals should be the only metric under consideration.

The RSPCA says the number of animals is not in itself an indicator of a puppy farm.

“There’s no evidence that connects animal welfare to the number of breeding animals,” Walker said. “That’s a choice by government and, at the end of the day, we think the focus should be on the jewel of the crown, which is traceability.”

What are other states doing?

The Western Australian government has also pledged to introduce anti-puppy farming laws following the same model as Victoria, including a centralised registration system to identify dogs at point of sale, compulsory sterilisation of dogs unless an exemption is given for breeding purposes, an upper limit on the number of breeding females a breeder can have and a mandatory upper limit on the number of litters a breeding female can have in her lifetime.

The advisory group given the task of drafting the laws met for the first time in November.

The WA laws will not include cats, as they are already covered under the Cat Act 2011.

Queensland introduced compulsory dog breeder registration laws in May 2017 and dog breeders will face audits from the RSPCA.

New South Wales conducted a parliamentary inquiry into puppy factories in 2015, which recommended introducing a breeders licensing scheme for commercial cat and dog breeders, and requiring all pet sale advertisements to include the breeder’s identification and the animal’s microchip numbers.

The NSW government responded by conducting a review of the existing system and implementing a $200,000 education and compliance program.