I have always been a dog person. I had a couple of dogs growing up and couldn't wait for the chance to finally have one as an adult. Munich is a very dog-friendly city, but my lifestyle is not exactly conducive to having a dog. I live in the top floor of an apartment building without balcony or easy outside access, I work 40 hours a week and travel occasionally—but I was determined to make it work. I just needed to pick the right dog.
Dogs from the animal shelter here are, almost without exception, older and traumatised animals that require room to roam and someone with a lot of experience to properly train them, so I decided that perhaps buying a dog would be the best option for me. I searched for a breed that would fit my lifestyle and started searching for breeders.
Finding someone I could buy a dog from was far harder than I had thought. Breeders told me they already had enough people interested in their puppies, that maybe next year when they had another litter they could consider me (but not before meeting me in person to make sure I was a suitable candidate to buy one of their pups). After six months of getting 'no' for an answer, tired of waiting, I decided on a whim that maybe there was some other way of finding a dog. I had seen ads on eBay Kleinanzeigen (online classifieds) for canines before and while I suspected those puppies wouldn't grow up to be the best-behaved pets, I felt that, given enough love and attention from a young age, any puppy could become a great dog.
On Thursday, the beginning of a long weekend in Bavaria, I found an ad for 2-month old puppies, mongrels, who—the ad said—came from an animal rescue association in Slovakia, “TSV Dogasyl” (TSV is short for Tierschutzverein, the German word for animal care organisation). They were chipped, dewormed and had a EU pet passport. I had never heard of TSV Dogasyl before, but I knew about Rudozem Street Dog Rescue, an organisation founded by a British couple that rescues street dogs in Bulgaria and finds new homes for them in countries such as Germany or the Netherlands. It made sense that there was a Slovakian equivalent; the price, €250, was even similar to the contribution Rudozem asks from future dog owners. My alarm bells didn't ring.
I called up the number on the ad to find out more. My German is not great but I was able to understand that I could see the dogs, but I had to come by that day because there was a lot of interest and they would be gone by the weekend. “Sie sind sehr süß,” the man on the other side of the line told me commenting on how cute the puppies were. I decided to ask a couple of friends to drive me there, knowing I would probably not resist bringing one of the puppies home. It was a crazy and rushed decision, but I was starting to feel the dog dream getting further and further away from me, so maybe it was time for a desperate measure. And, hey, I would be rescuing a dog, right? That's got to be better than getting one from a breeder!
The puppies were indeed sehr süß, and there was a lot of interest: as we arrived at the man's house, in the north of Munich, we saw a couple leaving with a dog they had just gotten. After playing with the puppies for a bit in the man's yard, I decided on a very cute, small black-and-brown female puppy. The man gave me her chip number and showed me her EU passport, which indicated that she had been dewormed and vaccinated by a vet in Slovakia, who had stamped and signed the passport. He gave me food for her and then said that her poop could be a bit soft and gave me a pill to treat her. We left, me happily carrying the puppy on my lap, after I paid and profusely thanked the man for bringing her into my live. I didn't get any receipt or proof of payment, which made me think that maybe he didn't declare these sales to the tax office. That's the only thing I felt was weird about the whole situation—I could not have been more wrong.
Shortly after I got home with the puppy I noticed something was off. The poor thing pooped three times in just as many hours and her stool wasn't just soft, it was completely liquid. I thought it was probably just the stress of traveling (the man had mentioned she had been brought from Slovakia the day before), but decided to book an appointment with a local vet to make sure everything was OK. The next day, after buying some €150 worth of dog stuff at a nearby pet shop (I was excited to finally have a dog I could buy stuff for!), I took her to the vet.
“This is a very bad sign,” he said, after quickly examining the puppy and noticing that her passport was from Slovakia. He explained that there is a mafia that smuggles dogs, some taken away from their mothers far too young and most riddled with diseases, from Eastern European countries into Germany in terrible conditions, cramped in the trunks of cars. I mentioned that she had been dewormed and vaccinated, but the vet pointed out that what I thought was a vaccine was in fact a protein shot and that the entry on the passport didn't even have a sticker from a vaccine container, as it should. Even if the passport was not a fake (and there's a chance it was), it showed that she had been illegally brought into Germany. It's illegal to carry an unvaccinated animal across EU borders, the vet emphasised.
I was stunned. I could not believe how naive I had been. I could not believe I had inadvertently supported the activities of this “mafia” who couldn't care less about the animals they smuggle into Germany and other EU countries. I knew I had made a mistake, but my attention focused on the puppy: was she going to be OK?
In addition to the diarrhoea, she was too thin for a puppy and had dandruff-like flakes on her coat, all signs of disease, the vet told me. She could be infected with one or more of a series of viruses, bacteria and parasites that cause those symptoms and the only way to find out what treatment was appropriate was to examine her stool, which I was to collect over the weekend. After he had vaccinated her and given me a few tablets and rehydration and convalescence powders for her, I went back home.
A few hours later it was clear the puppy was getting worse. She was not eating and was vomiting almost constantly, she seemed depressed and all she did was sleep. I called up the vet later on that day who mentioned I should spoon-feed her the powders he had given me, dissolved in water, to avoid dehydration and low blood sugar. I was to give him an update the next day.
I did as told, but the puppy couldn't keep anything in her little stomach. When I checked on her in the middle of the night, she had vomited some liquid yellow stuff a couple more times, but she wagged her tail when she saw me, so I felt she was on her way to recovery.
Early the next day, I found out she wasn't. There were a few speckles of blood in her stool and she had vomited a few more times. I force fed her again and thought that maybe she could make it if she didn't vomit that. An hour later, I heard her get up and I run to the bathroom to see bloody, liquid diarrhoea come out of her. I knew this wasn't good.
When I finally managed to reach the vet on the phone about an hour after that, he told me she probably had parvo, a highly contagious and very dangerous disease, and that due to her age and weakened immune system, she was not going to make it. He gave me the details of a clinic I could take her to where they would put her down. I run as fast as I could to the metro station, thinking that maybe she could still make it if I got to the clinic fast enough, but it took me almost an hour to get there. When I arrived, I said in tears: “I think she's already dead.”
What followed felt like a scene from an ER-like drama series. The receptionist quickly checked the puppy and said she was still alive. She run to get the doctor and, after just a few seconds, three people were treating the pup, shaving the back of her neck and her little legs to administer IV fluids, sugars and salts. Her temperature was at 34, very low they said, so they covered her with rubber gloves filled with hot water to try to warm her up. The aim was to keep her alive, at least long enough to figure out whether she could survive treatment for whatever disease she had.
I cried in shock through the entire thing. I cried as the vet confirmed on examining the stool sample I had brought that the puppy was indeed infected with parvo virus. I cried as she explained the options I had: the vet said she could put her to sleep, but that she felt any animal would be worth trying to save, even if at high financial cost. Once I calmed down and finally managed to bring myself to face the situation I had in hands, I agreed.
Parvo is a horrible virus that, when left untreated, kills some 90% of the dogs affected. It starts by causing depression and loss of appetite and, in the later stages of infection with the intestinal form of parvo, the virus affects a dog's digestive track in such a way that they are unable to keep anything in their bodies, vomiting constantly and having runny, often bloody, diarrhoea. It leads to severe, often fatal, dehydration. Treatment consists in replacing the dog's fluids frequently and giving the animal antibiotic and other injections to avoid secondary infections and to boost its immune system until it can fight the disease on its own. The procedure is expensive because the dog has to be monitored and treated continuously over a period of a few days to a couple of weeks. Success depends on how quickly the disease is diagnosed, on the age of the animal and on how strong its immune system is.
The canine virus—which does not affect humans—has an incubation period of about a week and is highly contagious, easily spreading from dog to dog by direct contact, or through the faeces of an infected animal. Vaccination is effective at protecting most dogs, but puppies who may not yet have developed immunity to the disease following vaccination are especially vulnerable. Even with treatment, mortality rate can reach 20% in young pups affected with parvo: if the animal is only a few weeks old, weak, and stressed, and if the disease is not detected early enough, the chances of survival are slim.
Even after the IV therapy and the efforts to raise her body temperature, the puppy was hardly showing signs of life. The doctor told me the probability of her surviving was low, but that they should keep her under observation for a few hours to see how she would react. I signed a paper authorising the treatment, at an initial estimated cost of €300 to €500 for the weekend. I hoped for the best, but deep down I knew she would probably not make it.
I came home and thoroughly cleaned my flat with a bleach solution (bleach is the only household cleaning product that can kill the virus), washed the clothes I'd been wearing for the past couple of days as best as I could, and threw away or bleached nearly everything that had been in contact with the puppy. The virus is extremely hardy, surviving in the soil for up to a year, possibly more in an indoor environment. I was advised not to go near young dogs for a while, and avoid bringing unvaccinated animals or puppies into my flat in the near future (1-2 years).
That afternoon, I told what had happened to me in the past 48 hours to a few close friends. Everyone was in disbelief and were as surprised and shocked as I was that something like this could happen in a place as safe and law-abiding as Munich. The dog had been smuggled sick, weak and unvaccinated into Germany—and I bought her without knowing any of this.
In the evening, I got a call from the vet: despite the doctor's best efforts, the puppy died at about 5pm that day, just a couple of days after I had first brought her home.
Sadly, my story is one of many. Dogs like my puppy are brought into Germany and other countries, including the UK, on a regular basis by people who make money at the expense of unhealthy, poorly treated animals and the wellbeing of future owners, not to mention public health in the countries the dogs are brought into. Yet, there are a lot of people, even informed individuals like me, who have no clue how common-ground dog smuggling is. I am writing this because I want to do everything I can to prevent other people from inadvertently financing this sort of illicit activities.
Dog smuggling seems to be more common with pure-bread dogs, but the “rescue story” I was sold is not a one-off either (or so told me one of the vets). So, whether you are thinking of getting a pure or a mixed-breed, please avoid as much as you can buying online so that you don't fall into the same trap I did. Be patient, like I wasn't, and get a dog from a recognised breeder, or get one from a proper animal shelter. Make sure the puppy has been seen by a vet and that it is vaccinated, dewormed and chipped. If you really must buy an animal that was brought from abroad, make sure it isn't less than 16-20 weeks old since a puppy will only have all of its vaccines after that age. Carefully check whatever passport the dog may have to see whether it is a fake.
If you have any doubts, don't get that puppy. You probably can't save her anyway.
Update (12/06/2014): I managed to get back the money I paid for the puppy, as well as the amount spent on vet treatments. I've donated it all to the Tierschutzverein München.