As Canada faces a surge of thousands of puppies imported from eastern Europe, where puppy mills are rampant, the very organization Canadians might expect to be cracking down appears to be lending legitimacy to questionable sellers.
Brenda Comeau-Watson, a long-time member of the Canadian Kennel Club (CKC), is among those warning the organization’s member breeder list has been infiltrated by those who, she believes, often aren’t breeding at all. She says about three-quarters of the listings for one of the most popular breeds, French bulldogs, are from sellers who either import from abroad, or don’t breed to the standards expected of CKC members.
“It tells me that people pay [the CKC’s fee] for the privilege of being included on that list,” Comeau-Watson said, adding that as a result the list doesn’t, “mean anything at all.”
Puppy importation is a booming business in Canada, estimated by some experts to be worth millions of dollars each year.
The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association has sounded the alarm repeatedly about what it calls “large-scale puppy mill importation,” insisting there are many “concrete examples of parasitic, viral and bacterial diseases having entered Canada by way of dogs, and directly impacting animal and human health.”
And sick dogs can be enormously costly.
Beverley Guinness’ son thought he’d found a deal for his parents, a French bulldog puppy named Stella, for only $1,500. But, Beverley said, “you make up that cost with vet bills afterwards because of where they’ve come from.”
Those illnesses can be discovered within hours of purchase. Stella was imported from Ukraine, and was infected with giardia and a series of other viruses and parasites. She had to be put on a drip because she was losing fluids.
“Being such a small puppy, it’s difficult to get fluids into them. They can die,” Guinness said.
“It just makes me angry, very angry.”
CBC News has confirmed the seller, Anastassia Kibzoun — who also answered emails as Anastassia Shtefan — is connected to the sale of other sick, imported puppies.
In addition to the breeds she’s been known to import, she’s also among the names listed on the Canadian Kennel Club’s member breeder directory for two breeds — akitas and samoyeds. That puts her on the CKC’s official breeder directory known as the Puppy List, a resource to connect potential buyers with CKC member breeders.
While the CKC says, “Member Breeders are required to adhere to mandatory standards and requirements relating to the proper breeding, maintenance and selling of their puppies outlined in the CKC Code of Ethics and Code of Practice for CKC Member Breeders,” CBC News has learned its Puppy List is unvetted.
Yet many puppy purchasers rely on the list to find a reputable breeder. The original owner of a Chihuahua named Titan was one of them. She says the list led her to buy from Kibzoun.
Things went badly soon after.
“He actually was down to 0.9 of a pound at one point, because we couldn’t get him to eat or drink,” said Maureen Woods, a volunteer with a Chihuahua rescue organization.
Woods became involved with Titan during that time to support Titan’s owner, who was not in the position to continue with such intensive care. Sick almost immediately, Titan required three weeks in the veterinary hospital, and months more care at home to keep him alive.
Woods says she wants the CKC to crack down on who is permitted to be on its breeders list, which she believes puppy buyers rely on for guidance.
“To me, [being a CKC member breeder] puts you in a higher esteem than someone who’s not. It’s a higher standard.”
Titan’s seller, who responded to a CBC News email as Anastassia Shtefan, says, “The fact that the purchased puppies were imported was never hidden from the buyers. They were well aware of this fact prior to purchase as well they all had been given supporting documents upon pickup of their puppies.”
CBC News asked follow-up questions, specific to the health problems and where her dogs are sourced. Shtefan did not respond.
Canadian Kennel Club: Lists are not licences
The Canadian Kennel Club stands behind its Puppy List as a resource, and says the onus is on the purchaser to do more research.
“We do recommend that any purchasers follow the articles we have on our website, with respect to choosing a puppy and how to identify a reputable breeder,” said Richard Paquette, a CKC board member.
“For the most part, there is a good assurance that you will have a nice, healthy, happy puppy when dealing with a CKC member breeder.”
But as outlined to Titan’s owner in an email from the Canadian Kennel Club’s regulatory manager Diane Draper, “A common misconception is that breeders are in some way ‘licensed’ or ‘registered’ by the CKC; this is not the case.”
Paquette said breeders on the list can be investigated, and admits the club is aware of “bad apples.”
“It is a problem. And we have had several removed from our list,” he said. “There are always people trying to beat the system, and especially in these COVID times … demand is so high that these brokers and individuals that do not follow best practices are taking advantage of the system that’s been in place for decades and has worked extremely well for the general public.”
Health problems often associated with imported dogs
The CKC Puppy List is just one of the sources people use to find a dog. There are many breeders and sellers marketing purebred puppies, and experts warn that buyers should be particularly cautious when a puppy is immediately available.
“Breeders don’t work on demand. Good breeders have things planned out, and they suss you out,” says Scott Weese, chief of infection control at University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College.
He says imported puppies — while legal — can come from puppy mills, and may have health problems.
Justin Teperman found his imported French bulldog Peaty from a broker on Kijiji.
He was out at a concert in Toronto when he received a call from his dogsitter about Peaty. Teperman said the dog’s “rectum had fallen out of his bum … that’s a very serious thing, and it could lead to some serious trauma.”
The condition, known as anal prolapse, would repeat itself twice more — and cost thousands of dollars for veterinarians to put Peaty’s digestive system back inside his body. Much of that cost has been covered by insurance.
Teperman has taken to social media and found, he says, other pet owners who bought their dog from the same woman who sold Peaty. “Some pretty scary stories, and pretty sad stories of longevity being cut short because of surgeries that were needed.”
All the puppies either came from or were suspected to have been born in eastern Europe.
According to Teperman, the seller said he could pick out a new puppy when he confronted her about the problems. He chose to keep Peaty, worried about what would become of him.
Debbie McQueen of Port Perry, Ont., also bought a puppy from that same seller. Her dog Eddie was diagnosed within days of purchase with a serious heart defect, one her vet insisted was there at birth.
Eddie’s health paperwork, provided by the seller, showed no diagnosis of a heart defect. So McQueen contacted the Ontario vet who had done that paperwork and asked for a copy. She was stunned to discover the heart murmur had been noted — but removed on the copy provided to her by the seller.
McQueen took both reports, the copy provided by the seller and the original from her vet, “and I took it over to the police station, and they did an investigation and charged her with forgery.”
The charges were later withdrawn after the seller, Oksana Medvedev, agreed to a peace bond. She also sent a cheque to McQueen for $2,395, a fraction of the expenses the family has incurred.
In a statement through her lawyer, Medvedev disputes that she “acted improperly, negligently or dishonestly in the sale of puppies,” saying that she “never knowingly sold a dog which she knew to have health issues.” She also says the forgery charges were based on allegations that “were false” and that by entering into a peace bond, she “did not acknowledge any wrongdoing.”
She continues to sell puppies now from her Newmarket home, some for as much as $4,000.
Meanwhile, McQueen has been told by her veterinarian that Eddie’s life is at risk because of his heart defect, and he cannot overexert himself.
“You know, it’s not even about the fact of what it’s costing me. It’s the emotional part every day,” McQueen said.
“My whole family’s going to suffer when he goes.”