The petite pooches who steal the show in the hit Disney movie "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" are smart and brave and completely adorable.
So adorable that many people who fall in love with Chloe, a pampered pup who must find her way home to Beverly Hills, might decide to buy a cute little dog just like her for their kids. Made impulsively, experts say, this decision can lead to heartbreak.
"These dogs are not what you see in the movies," said Barbara Backhaus, a longtime Chihuahua owner who is active in the Western New York branch of Chihuahua Rescue and Transport. She loves the breed but is the first to admit that they are not a good fit for every family.
Ironically, given the enormous appeal of both the movie and the tiny animals to young children, a Chihuahua is not a great choice for active families with youngsters, experts say. "This is not a dog for little tiny kids," Backhaus said. "Little dogs can get hurt easier -- they can be dropped and their bones will break."
Disney apparently learned a lesson when the "101 Dalmatians" movies sparked a huge demand for dalmatians, a high-energy breed prone to some specific physical problems that were dumped in shelters for years afterward. The producers added an explicit warning at the end of "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" that "Owning a pet is a major responsibility," and suggesting that people adopt from shelters or rescue organizations. Other themes promoting responsible pet ownership were woven throughout the film.
"I was very surprised to see the movie and find all these great messages in it," said Barbara Carr, executive director of the SPCA serving Erie County, who attended the movie with her 4-year-old grandson. "What I anticipated was seeing a lot of Chihuahuas as accessories, but that was a very small part of the movie, which overall was about this accessory dog [Chloe] becoming a real dog. As the plot progresses, the homeless dogs she meets find homes with responsible people."
But some people will look right past the messages and rush to buy a Chihuahua -- often a puppy -- from a pet store or a Web site.
And when that happens, says Michael Markarian, a Buffalo native who is executive vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, they are supporting puppy mills, inhumane operations where puppies are raised as a "cash crop" and their parents are confined for life in appalling conditions.
Puppy mills are packed with small breeds, including Chihuahuas, says Markarian. "These animals are so small, it's easier for them to be crammed into wire cages that are stacked on top of each other," in filthy environments. The dogs are not exercised or socialized, and, he says, "live for 10 years sometimes confined in cages doing nothing but breeding."
How likely is it that puppies sold on Web sites, in pet stores or at "kennels" where dozens of breeds are offered, actually come from puppy mills? "As close to 100 percent as you can get," says Markarian.
And people who feel compelled to "rescue" the cute puppy from the cage in the pet store may be buying trouble.
"Because the animals are often inbred, there are often genetic problems," says Markarian. "Because they're kept in filthy cages with no exercise, they can have bone deficiencies, diseases can spread very rapidly, and people who buy these dogs unsuspecting that they came from puppy mills end up spending thousands of dollars on veterinary bills. Or the dog might die at a very young age, leaving the family heartbroken."
Some pet stores or kennels, aware of the growing opposition to puppy mills, now lie about where their dogs come from, Markarian says.
"Many of these pet stores say, 'We don't buy from puppy mills, they're all USDA licensed.' But look at the paper trail. We've investigated pet stores in New York and California and Florida, and we've traced the dogs back to Missouri, Arkansas and Kansas, where they're all puppy mills."
In fact, Markarian says, the Humane Society recommends that anyone interested in buying a dog "visit the breeder in person, ask to see all the dogs to see how they are raised and how they are treated.
"There are a lot of good breeders out there," he said, "and they treat the dogs like family -- they might have one or two litters a year, the mother and the puppies live inside the home, that's a fine situation. But when you can't visit the location, it's usually because they don't want you to see what's going on."
"If somebody is going to sell you a dog without sitting down in their living room with you, they are not what we would call a responsible breeder," says Barbara Carr. "If you can buy it over the Internet, if you can buy it in a pet store, without ever seeing where it lives, it's from a puppy mill."
Like responsible breeders, shelters and rescue groups often require quite a bit of information from people who want to adopt dogs.
"Just because you want one of our dogs doesn't mean you can have one," said Laurel Townley, assistant to the regional coordinator for the New York/New Jersey branch of Chihuahua Rescue and Transport. Because the group wants to place each dog in a perfect, permanent home, "We have a six-page application, we do a home visit, we call your vet and make sure you've taken care of your previous pets, we ask for personal references -- we're thorough."
When a family decides -- independent of recent movie viewing -- that they are ready for a dog, "We encourage people to think about adoption first," says Markarian, praising mixed-breeds as "wonderful dogs that don't come with the genetic problems of purebreds."
But if people decide they prefer a purebred whose needs, activity level and size mesh with their household, "they can find that breed at their animal shelter or from a breed rescue group," Markarian says.
Chihuahua Rescue and Transport works nationally to rescue Chihuahuas and Chihuahua mixes, then place them in foster homes, where they get needed medical care and each dog's individual needs are considered. "It might need a fenced-in yard because it's a high-energy little dog, or maybe it never learned to walk on a leash," said Townley. "We get to know them and know what they need, whether they have to be an only dog, whether they get along with kids, whether they can be home alone and for how long."
Many people think the tiniest dogs are cutest, Townley says, so "fly-by-night breeders" boast that they offer "teacup Chihuahuas," which she says don't exist. "A 2-pound Chihuahua is not a healthy Chihuahua," she says. The 4- to 5-pound dogs she sees are "quite a bit more wired" than the bigger ones, who might weigh up to 10 pounds, she says. "Some of the bigger ones, you could place in a family with, for example, 8- and 10-year-old girls."
While some people think shelter dogs always have problems, Markarian says dogs go into shelters or rescue for many reasons, ranging from getting lost to losing their home due to job loss, divorce or death.
That happened just this month to two 12-year-old Chihuahuas when their owner died. Tia, who is being fostered by Backhaus, "just looks at the door and cries," pining for her owner. For Tia, the group is looking for a quiet home where she can live out her remaining years. And she has some good years left -- like other small dogs, Chihuahuas can live to age 18 or so.
"Any breed can be a good dog, it just depends on what breed fits in with you and your family," says Markarian. "If you really have your heart set on a Chihuahua, and you adopt one from rescue or a shelter, you are saving a life of an animal in need rather than financially perpetuating a cruel and inhumane industry."
Chihuahua Rescue and Transport has a Web site at chihuahua-rescue.org; Backhaus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org