Diva tells all -- the inside story of dog breeding
Diva shares images from her kennel
The economic truth of ethical dog breeding -- a labor of love, not profit.
My name is Diva and I’m a good representation of my breed – a mastiff. You see me sitting just outside of our kennel building, dirty from playing in the spring thaw (what fun – slushy piles of melting snow and mud puddles to romp in.) When I’m cleaned up, I’m downright gorgeous, if I do say so myself and I’m not the only one who thinks so.
I’m a champion -- which means that several dog show judges saw my combination of beauty, good health, sweet nature, and above all, my fantastic figure and skeletal structure, picked me out of the crowd and crowned me a winner. That happened enough times that I earned the required points to deserve the title, Canadian Champion. I don’t let that go to my head, though. It didn’t happen all by itself, and I had very little to do with it.
I am the product of thousands of generations of selective breeding -- in the case of my breed, right back to biblical times -- judgment, hard work, dedication and yes, the investment of a lot of money. No, I didn’t come about by the forces of nature alone.
Every day, when I sit out in my front yard, I see dogs walk by and most of them are the result of nature – and look it, not that I’m a snob or anything. I know how that happens. Twice a year, when I’m in my heat cycle, I’d mindlessly take on any dog that wanders along. I can’t help it; that’s how I’m made, and that’s why there are so many dogs in the world. Thankfully, the human that looks after us knows this about me, and keeps me safe during these times so I don’t have an accident. There’s far too much money invested in me to risk that.
My human won’t let me breed until I’m old enough (at least 24 months) and all my health and genetic testing is complete.
My mother, Shirley, was also a champion. So was my dad. Dog shows, scary at first but fun, are how humans decide what bitches are good enough to be bred and to which dog. The more shows we’re in -- we start at six-months of age -- the better we’re known to other humans, and then more humans apply to get our babies. This way, when we do have our pups, there’s a long list of humans wanting to adopt them, some for show and breeding in other kennels, but most for family companions ‘cause face it, that’s what we’re for.
My mom lives here, too (and is very bossy with me.) She was born here, as was her mother and so was I. Our human has kept only the best out of each generation, raised us, trained us for our jobs in the show ring, and when we grew up, put us through an extensive series of health tests before she even thought of breeding us.
First, at twenty-four months my hips and elbows were x-rayed, though I was drugged and asleep when it happened, and our x-rays were sent away to either the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals in the U.S., or to the University of Guelph, here in Canada. There, a radiologist studies our joints to see if we show any signs of skeletal problems that might be inherited by our offspring. They rate our skeletal health and send us certificates to show we are free of problems.
Next, our veterinarian draws out blood from the veins in our legs. I didn’t enjoy this at all, but like the good dog I am, I sat quietly and let her do it. The samples of blood go to various places to be tested for other problems: thyroid function, or a test to see if we carry the marker for Von Willebrands condition (a form of hemophilia,) and also to special labs where a full genetic screening is done to check for a number of potential inheritable conditions.
Next, we have our eyes examined by a specialist who looks for a number of problems, the worst of them being progressive retinal atrophy, an inherited condition leading to blindness in later life. We get certificates if we’re free of these conditions, too.
Then we go to a cardiac screening clinic, usually held at the major dog shows, where a specialist checks out our heart functions. This is very important because such tendencies run in families, and there is nothing sadder in this whole world than a family losing their beloved pup to heart failure.
By now, my file in the kennel office is very thick, holding my registration and pedigree, all my health certification, the history of my heat cycles and any notes made on growth and progress. Even thicker, is the pile of invoices paid for all of this testing, my vaccinations and check-ups, and my show entry fees.
Not to mention, I eat around $110 in food every month.
So here I am, over twenty-four months old, a show champion and the picture of health and I’ve cost my human around $5,500. I was born here, unlike Lizzy, my friend who was imported from another kennel as a puppy, to bring in a new line. Added to her costs (the same as mine,) is her initial purchase price, $2,500.
My human says I’m ready to breed, and she’s actively searched for a good mate for me. I know my human has made a decision; I heard her say so, on the phone. She was discussing his attributes with his human and I heard her say, “His head will improve the pups, and where he’s weak, his hind quarters being a little straight, Diva is strong.” Of course, I am! “It’s a good match and although there’s some commonality, it’s three generations back – not a complete outcross but not too close, either.”
She’s sent all my health information, pictures of me and copies of my registration to that other kennel, and received that of the dog, my intended.
But get this; he lives so far away I’ll never see him. Apparently, they’re sending his frozen semen by airplane to my vet here, Dr. Jodi (who is very nice, although I’m scared every time I see her.) I’m to be impregnated by frozen semen implant surgery – whatever that is.
Here’s what will happen. When I start my heat cycle, they will test my blood every day and chart my hormone increase until they see the spike, telling them I’ve ovulated. Then, exactly 72 hours later, I’ll go under anesthetic; a small incision made in my belly and his thawed semen will be placed right in my uterus, where my eggs will be waiting.
This is very expensive. First, the dog’s human charges a stud fee, between $2,500 to $5,000, depending on how famous he is, his pedigree, his show record and his previous breeding statistics. Then, the semen has to be shipped fast, in a canister of liquid nitrogen – costing around $500. All the testing they do on me costs around $400 and the actual surgical procedure another $1,100.
If I do get pregnant, and that is a very big if, my human has already accrued costs of a minimum of $10,000. All this to ensure my pups will be the best possible – boggles the mind, doesn’t it?
And that’s just the beginning. We’re big dogs (I weigh 175 pounds and my brother Dick, 235, but our babies aren’t much bigger than any other breed. We weigh less than a pound at birth; the average is 10 or 11 ounces. So you can see how hard it is to tell if we’re pregnant until late in our gestation period, which is, by the way, 63 days. In order to find out if I am, she’ll do an ultrasound, at a cost of $150 - $250. When I’m past 45 days, my pups are beginning to calcify (grow bones) and she’ll do some x-rays to see how many I have and also to confirm my expected delivery date – cost $120, per plate.
During this time, my human changes me over to a richer diet, feeds me vitamins and supplements like omega oils and sea kelp, and yummy treats like yogurt and liver to keep me strong. I need six to ten cups of high quality food every day just for me, and if I’m growing pups, I’ll need lots more -- but not too much. If I get fat, that will affect the health of my babies. My human says it’s a fine line.
Then the big day arrives, but we mastiffs aren’t very good at giving birth. I don’t know why that is, exactly, but it has something to do with our size. Our pups have so far to go, and we have lazy bodies. They often die on the way out. With all this planning, the number of people wanting our babies and the financial investment, every pup is precious. In order to get them out safely, my human plans a caesarian section. This will cost around $1,400.00 and if I surprise her and go into labor by myself in the middle of the night, making it an emergency, it will cost more. My vet doesn’t like to do surgery when she should be sleeping and charges accordingly.
My mom, Shirley delivered my littermates and me by c-section, giving my human nine healthy pups. We came out of there fast and furious, not one at a time over hours like a natural birth. No, a c-section is like an explosion, and the vets work as quickly as they can. When Mom is under anesthetic so are we, and the longer we’re in her, the more drugged we become. The humans work hard to wake us up and keep us awake, otherwise we’d just drift off to sleep and die.
It takes many hands to look after us. Because Mom’s asleep in the operating room, she can’t lick and stimulate us, as she would normally, so the humans have to do this job -- though I don’t believe they licked us. By the time Mom was waking up from the surgery down on the floor on a blanket, we were already with her and suckling on her teats. Just as we started to feel happy, and who wouldn’t, getting their first ever meal, we found ourselves loaded into a box, on a towel covered hot water bottle to keep us warm for the trip home.
Once there, the work for our human is just beginning. There are so many things can go wrong in the first few hours. Neo-natal puppies are extremely vulnerable to infection, to something called fading puppy syndrome, to adverse reaction to the drugs used during surgery, to chills, and once started, reversal through treatment is rarely successful and recovery unlikely. In our case, we faced another, greater danger. Mom weighed 180 pounds and she was drugged and dopey. The chance of one, or all of us dying, crushed by her bulk was a high possibility.
For the next three weeks, our human would ensure we had round the clock supervision, sleeping beside us at night, with an ear always tuned in to us. Mom didn’t recover fully enough to look after us for almost a week, leaving only our human to place us close to our mom’s mammary sacs, now fully swollen and warm, so we wouldn’t chill and die; to stimulate our defecation and urination with a warm, wet rag; and to ensure we all drank of Mom's colostrums, and later milk. From these early meals, we received her anti-bodies. Within a few days, we were ravenous feeders, suckling every two hours at minimum.
Our human didn’t get much rest, or anything else accomplished during those weeks.
At three weeks, we were able to get around quite well, more developed and aware of our surroundings, and with the ability to dodge our mom, provided we were awake. Now, we could go four hours between feedings and Mom and our human could leave us alone in our pen, and sleep deeply for a few hours at a time.
When we celebrated our fifth week of life, we noticed Mom didn’t want to come in and feed us as often as she had. Four times a day our human brought us trays of sloppy gruel made by soaking high quality puppy food in hot water, until it dissolved. The cost of a bag of puppy kibble is around $52. Over the next several weeks, we’d devour ten 18kg bags of this food -- $520.00.
One day, when we were six weeks of age, Dr. Jodi and her assistant arrived -- it was time for our first check-up, our initial round of vaccinations and, much to our horror, our identification tattoos and microchips. The cost of this visit for all nine of us was approximately $900.00.
Unhappily, one of my sisters was found to have a heart murmur. When all the other pups went to their new homes at ten weeks of age, my poor sister stayed behind with me. My human would never place a puppy with a problem like that, and decided to let her live out whatever time she had at home with us. One day, at five months of age, she fell over -- dead -- and I missed her for quite a while.
So, here I sit, ready for breeding and will only be bred twice in my life. When and if I get pregnant, if my pups are live born, if they survive and if they are healthy enough to place in a home, my human will charge $2,000 for the pet puppies and $2,500 for the show puppies.
Considering she will have spent a minimum of $13,360.00, (with no value put on her time) how many pups will she have to sell to break even? Come on, you do the math. I’m a dog, for crying out loud.
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