PAWS to the rescue

Local shelter takes on puppy mill refugees

The term "puppy mill" probably brings to mind matted, flea-bitten, diseased dogs in tiny wire crates — kind of like the worst episodes of "Animal Cops." And rightly so. Puppy mills, for the uninformed, are essentially dog-breeding operations with no mind for the well-being of the animals and a complete focus on profit. Dogs from these places often have terrible health and behavioral problems from inbreeding and improper health care.

But what about the smaller operations, the places you drive or live by and take a second glance at, wondering but not knowing if the animals on the property are being abused? Last month, in rural Georgia, a puppy mill was shut down that fit the technical definition of a puppy mill — overcrowded, minimal vet care, over-breeding — but without the endless rows of wire cages and sick, listless dogs.

Tara Mitchell, director of operations at PAWS Atlanta, and Michelle Collins, vet tech, took in 38 rescues from a property they estimate had about 90 small-breed dogs. "We got a call from someone we know at the Morgan County Animal Control who had just received 10 of the dogs and asked if we could help take more," Mitchell recalls. "I was going to take 20." She ended up with almost 40 dogs, mostly younger Chihuahuas, Yorkies, poodles and dachshunds.

"I thought it was not bad, as far as the setup," says Collins, who accompanied Mitchell and a couple of other PAWS Atlanta employees to the site. "The problem was that the owner had no clue about spay and neuter, or she didn't care. It didn't even enter into her mind."

While the dogs had adequate shelter and some measure of veterinary care, the owner had been told to cease selling puppies because her home was not zoned for a business. Mitchell wasn't given specific details on how her dogs came to the shelter, but she does know that the woman never stopped the dogs from breeding, which quickly became overwhelming. That's when Animal Control stepped in, and reached out for help.

PAWS Atlanta had never done a puppy mill rescue before, especially a rescue on such a large scale, but they devised an efficient way to process the dogs coming back from the property. As soon as each dog came off the van, it was seen by a vet, then given to a volunteer groomer, then a to photographer and assigned a number so all animals could be accounted for. "It went very smoothly," Mitchell says. They had a foster parent orientation the morning after the dogs arrived, and placed 20 of the dogs in foster care in less than two weeks.

The big problems for a rescued puppy mill dog, however, come after the dog is out of the environment and must then be tested for diseases, parasites and temperament issues, all common problems with dogs brought up in neglect. Surprisingly, the PAWS Atlanta rescues appear to have escaped mostly unscathed. "What we're seeing in general is that they're well-adjusted, sweet dogs," says Mitchell. "We're also seeing a lot of internal parasites and ear mites, and we saw some flea dirt, but luckily no fleas." The dogs are on medication for the parasites, and all of them dodged one of the biggest bullets: heartworm. "And the dogs are friendly," Mitchell says. "They wouldn't be this sociable if the owner hadn't spent time with them."

PAWS Atlanta is still adopting out dogs from the rescue; visit their website at www.pawsatlanta.org to see pictures of available dogs.