When the phone rang at 7pm, I knew something was wrong. The Day Vet always called in the morning and then again at 5pm before she left. She always asked the same question: ‘Your puppy might pull through but we can’t be sure. We can put her to sleep now or we can wait a little longer.’
I always replied with the same teary question: ‘Is there still hope?’
And she repeated her usual words, ‘There’s always hope but another night will cost another £800.’
We weren’t insured. Our beautiful blond puppy had arrived two days before Christmas and buying insurance had been the last thing on my mind. Not because my head was full of Christmas shopping or turkey recipes. But because I had just buried my father who had died, suddenly and unexpectedly, from a heart attack. His death had come a mere three weeks after the death of my mother’s partner of 20 years. This was the end of the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic and, like many other families, we were reeling from a tsunami of loss.
My children had wanted a dog ever since our fourteen year old black lab died two years earlier. For months we’d been scrolling dog shelter sites, hoping we could rehome a dog. But this was the height of Covid canine madness and the only available dogs needed a calmer home than ours.
In the aftermath of so much loss and rattled by grief, I felt a desperate need for new life. When my children suggested we buy a puppy, it seemed the right thing to do. A puppy would ease our grief, and bring a note of cheer to a Christmas that looked heart-wrenchingly bleak. For a few days we scrolled around on pet sites, oohing and ah-ing over tiny bundles of fluff. When we found a litter of golden retriever puppies not far from our home, I felt as if they had been dropped directly into our grieving laps.
The price tag was hefty so we agreed there would be no Christmas presents. The puppy was to be a family gift. And then we arranged a visit. Puppy farms were in the news, so we did all the things you’re supposed to do: checked the breeder home (a cul-de-sac in a smart little village), asked to see the puppy at home with its mother, and checked there was vaccination paperwork.
With two of my children I drove to the breeder’s home. Everything seemed perfectly normal – indeed the cul-de-sac of houses was so cramped it seemed unlikely anything illegal could ever happen beneath so many twitching pairs of curtains.
The breeder welcomed us into her kitchen which was completely taken over by a large lolling retriever, and her seven gorgeous puppies. The puppies were very docile but the breeder explained they were tired from playing in the garden all day. Eventually we chose one. She had a head shaped like an egg, huge liquid eyes and soft floppy ears. We called her Sappho, after my father’s favourite poet. We were smitten. Suddenly there was a tiny beam of hope in our lives.
It was only when we got home that my youngest daughter said something I should have taken note of. It was the first hint of the horrors that were to unfold. ‘The breeder’s house smelled funny,’ she said, wrinkling up her nose.
‘Don’t be silly,’ I snapped, ‘that’s just puppy litter smell.’
‘No,’ she persisted. ‘The smell wasn’t right.’
My daughter had unknowingly recognised the distinctive smell of sickness. But I ignored her, paid the deposit and then went on a spree to the pet shop: basket, toys, puppy treats, blankets. Sappho would want for nothing.
Early warning signs
The day after my father’s funeral, I drove pink-eyed, to collect Sappho. My son and eldest daughter came with me. The breeder asked us to wait a few moments while another family collected their puppy. From our car we watched as a smiling girl came out, cradling a blanketed puppy in her arms.
She and her father drove away, and suddenly it was our turn.
‘She’s the last to go,’ said the breeder, tipping Sappho into my son’s arms. She gave us a blanket bearing the mother’s smell, a bag of dog food (one of the more up market brands – surely another sign that Sappho had been well-raised?) and the paperwork that showed our puppy had been vaccinated.
Things started to go wrong 10 minutes into our journey home.
‘She’s been sick!’ yelled my daughter from the back seat.
‘Travel sickness,’ I replied. ‘Probably her first time in a car.’
‘But it’s full of blood!’ cried my daughter.
I pulled over and surveyed the bloody mess on my daughter’s white top. ‘Nerves,’ I said, suddenly feeling very sorry for little Sappho, wrenched from her mother, her home. I called the breeder who breezily told me there was nothing to worry about, adding ‘It’s probably the worming tablet I just gave her.’
Little Sappho peered at me – and her eyes seemed full of sadness. Later, much later, I would understand that she was already unwell, already dying.
Over the next two days, Sappho grew more and more listless. We tempted her with morsels of specially poached chicken and liver. But she just looked at us with an expression I assumed was homesickness. She drank a little water, nibbled a corner of chicken, came out and sniffed the grass.
‘Why won’t she play?’ asked my son, who had started sleeping on the floor beside her crate.
‘I think she’s got a tummy problem,’ I said remembering all the stomach upsets our black lab had had as a puppy. ‘I’m sure it’ll pass.’
By now it was Christmas Eve. We took it in turns to sit with Sappho and rush her outside every time she vomited. But by Christmas morning I knew she needed a vet. Trying to find a vet on Christmas Day, with Covid surging, was almost impossible. But our nearest city had an emergency veterinary hospital and they agreed to see her. I drove over, handed Sappho through an open window to a masked nurse, and waited.
Eventually the nurse reappeared and said I could go home and the vet would call me, but that Sappho was to stay – in isolation. ‘She might infect other animals,’ explained the nurse.
‘She’s never been alone,’ I sobbed.
‘Oh, the nurses will be with her,’ said the nurse patting my arm. ‘But the vet thinks she might have parvovirus – it’s highly contagious.’
Anger and anguish
That was the last time we saw our puppy. For five days she was kept in the hospital and drip fed with antibiotics. Because of Covid, we weren’t allowed to visit her. So when the phone rang at 7pm, I knew why the night duty vet was calling.
‘I think we should put Sappho to sleep now,’ said the vet. ‘She’s not going to pull through and your bill is nearly £4,000.’ Later, she told me the whole litter had probably been infected and that every puppy was quite probably dead or dying.
The next day, in a sobbing rage of anger and anguish, I contacted dog charities, the police, the local trading standards officer, my MP. The RSPCA said they’d just taken another call about the same litter. As I sat in front of my laptop, furiously emailing, I noticed the vaccination paperwork on my desk. I looked at it, and saw that the breeder name and number were different from those of the breeder I’d bought Sappho from. I called back one of the charities I’d been talking to.
‘What’s the name of the vet who did the vaccinations?’ asked the welfare officer.
I gave the name. ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘Puppy farmers always go there. Cheap. No questions asked.’
I should have felt stupid. But I just felt unimaginably sad – for the families who’s puppies had died, for all the dogs and puppies treated with such cruelty and contempt, and for little Sappho who I had failed to protect.
To my surprise, the RSPCA – working closely with the local trading standards officer and the Kent Police – nailed the real culprit with astonishing speed. Within days of my calls and emails, they uncovered a farm where 20 dogs and 10 motherless puppies were found – all now in good, loving homes.
And my family? We decided that if we ever took the plunge again we’d rehome a dog rather than buy a puppy. But never at Christmas.