Candace Croney joined the faculty at Purdue University in 2011, thinking her job would focus on the welfare of livestock and poultry in Indiana. With bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in animal sciences, her work until then had centered on sheep, cattle, and pigs. She'd even had the esteemed animal behaviorist Temple Grandin help shape her master's research project.
Croney's research has become the first of its kind in the world—and it's challenging our understanding of how dog breeding is being done.
Then came an email from a new colleague asking Croney to discuss animal welfare with some of Indiana's commercial dog breeders, the kind who produce large quantities of puppies for sale in pet stores.
"I didn't even know the term commercial breeders," Croney says. "I'd heard the term 'puppy millers.' That's pretty much what I knew."
She went to the first few kennels and braced herself for an upsetting experience. She's a dog lover who has fostered shelter mutts and owned one, and she'd seen the stories: large-scale breeders being called cruel and evil, lawmakers trying to ban the sale of commercially bred puppies, and constant encouragement to rescue a dog instead of paying into a greedy, heartless "puppy mill" industry.
But when she got to the kennels, she was surprised. While she encountered a number of things she didn't like about the infrastructure at the older facilities—a lack of ventilation, a lot of noise, bad smells—most of the dogs themselves were clean. The majority didn't have physical problems. No open sores. No battered bodies. Nothing like what she'd seen online.
But still, the way the dogs acted gave her pause.
"Things were, in many regards, better than I thought they would be," Croney says. "Google told me the dogs would be physically a mess, and they weren't, but behaviorally, things were jumping out at me."
While she did note that some of the breeders had play yards for their pups, a number of the dogs feared new people and things like leashes because they hadn't been exposed to enough of them. Some of the dogs also seemed to lack adequate toys, activities, and games to keep them mentally and physically stimulated.
But she was there strictly as a representative of the university to ask questions and offer feedback, no more or less. A few times, she says, she felt like the breeders wanted her to endorse what they were doing, "and I immediately got my back up about that. I did not want my name used to validate things that I could tell I didn't agree with. It was uncomfortable from that perspective."
After sharing the animal-welfare information her colleague had requested, Croney figured that was that. She never expected to be in a commercial kennel again. But six months later, her phone rang. Some of the people she'd met were involved in legislative lobbying, and they were trying to write welfare standards for Indiana's commercial breeders to follow.
In the continuing battle over what is, and is not, a "puppy mill," they wanted somebody with a strong research background to set a baseline standard, somebody who would actually bring objectivity to the breeder-activist conflict without being on one side or the other.
In other words, they wanted Croney's help to figure out not only appropriate enclosure sizes, but also requirements for socialization and enrichment activities—stimulation she knew the dogs desperately needed.
"I thought, crap, how am I not going to help?" she recalls. "And they said, 'Well how long will that take? A couple of weeks? A month?'"
Dr. Croney with Theo, whom she calls "a beloved family member of our research team."
(Photo credit: Purdue University/Vincent Walter)
Six years later, Croney's research remains ongoing. It has become the first of its kind in the world—and it's challenging our understanding of how dog breeding is being done, and how it could and should be done for years to come.
How We Got Here
Americans have been breeding pet dogs in large-scale kennels since World War II. The federal standard that regulates those kennels is the Animal Welfare Act, which President Johnson signed into law in 1966. Back then, people thought it was OK to treat dogs a lot differently than they do today. The law has been updated, but it still allows a dog the size of a Beagle to be kept in a cage the size of a dishwasher all day, every day because for some dogs, when the law was written, having a cage that size meant an improvement in living conditions.
Countless commercial breeders, who are regularly inspected under the Animal Welfare Act, have long believed that as long as they followed the law, they were doing things right. And they've seen sales for their puppies go up and up over the years. About 38 percent of U.S. households now own one or more dogs, the highest rate since the American Veterinary Medical Association began measuring the statistic in 1982.
Consumers now demand eight million dogs per year, which has reinforced breeders' beliefs that despite what activists shout at protests, the breeders are actually running businesses the public supports. As one Ohio commercial breeder—long decried by activists as a "puppy mill" owner—told The Washington Post in 2016, "This is a customer-driven industry. If we weren't satisfying the customer, we'd starve to death. I've never seen prices like the ones we're seeing now, in my whole career."
That breeder, though, is also among leading industry voices who say they understand that public perception of what's acceptable and what's not in a breeding kennel has changed. Regardless of what the laws are, they say, kennels must change along with the public's wishes if the commercial breeding industry is going to survive. The question is how, exactly, to move from the past to the future, at a time when demands for change have reached a fever pitch.
"The Animal Welfare Act, that was gospel. It meant you were taking care of dogs," says Bob Vetere, former head of the American Pet Products Association and now chairman of the Pet Leadership Council. "That was, what, 40 years ago? Things have evolved. People understand much more since then—and back then, there were maybe 20 million dogs in the country. Now, there's 90 million. It's that dramatic. People love their dogs, and everybody is going to get one."
Vetere became an early supporter of Croney's research, which, unbelievably, became the first ever to focus on what it actually means to run a good commercial breeding kennel. At the start of her research, Croney found that the scientific literature underpinning many existing laws and opinions was not just lacking, but outright nonexistent.
"We kept finding it over and over," she says of the literature gaps, citing common but uninformed beliefs about appropriate kennel size as just one example. "I can't find any research about how much space they're supposed to have. People said, 'Yeah, we had a meeting and a bunch of people made some recommendations.'"
She started filling in the research gaps with her team at Purdue, building relationships with dog breeders until she had more than 100 kennels letting her methodically figure out what was actually working for the dogs.
"The measurable successes in animal welfare over the past 50 years began from a foundation in science."
Creating Standards from Scratch
Other industry players soon took notice. One was Ed Sayres, who had served as CEO of the ASPCA for nearly a decade before turning his attention to lobbying efforts regarding the "puppy mill" issue. He recognized that what Croney was doing for commercial breeding mirrored the early work researchers started a half-century ago in the effort that led to better shelters all across America today.
"The measurable successes in animal welfare over the past 50 years began from a foundation in science," Sayres says. "Whether it was the transition to more humane euthanasia methods or how to manage dog and cat overpopulation, we found success from rigorous examination of facts and emerging science."
Sayres, Vetere, and others began pushing for the industry to support Croney's work, moving the goalposts beyond Indiana to the entire United States.
"If you don't have commercial breeding, you have people importing dogs from overseas with no restrictions, or farming in their backyards to make money," Vetere says. "You need commercial breeders with standards—and that's what Candace is trying to create, those standards."
Croney ended up with a $900,000 grant from three industry organizations: the World Pet Association, Pet Food Institute, and the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council. With their support, she created a nationwide program called Canine Care Certified, like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for a kennel. The program focuses on outcome-based standards, meaning she looks at what the dogs tell her about how well they are doing through their health and behavior. For the most part, beyond baseline requirements, the program lets a breeder achieve those goals in whatever ways work for the dogs.
The approach is different from many legislative efforts, with laws stating a cage must be made three feet larger to be considered humane. Instead, Croney walks through kennels with breeders and points out, for instance, which puppies in a litter seem to be shy or fearful, and then teaches the breeders how to give those puppies better socialization. She helps the breeders find ways to introduce dogs to strangers and objects like umbrellas that may not be part of regular kennel life, but will need to become familiar when the breeding dog retires and gets adopted into a home as a pet. She helps breeders understand that dogs need mental as well as physical stimulation, whether it comes from playing with balls and toys or running up and down slides.
The breeders can't learn fast enough, Croney says, and she remains stunned at how they constantly ask for more information—an attitude that made her stop using the term "puppy mill" to describe them at all.
"Now, full disclosure: Given that all of these kennels had volunteered, the odds were that we were seeing a skewed population, and that it skewed positive," she says. "But if you read what was in the media at the time, we shouldn't have been able to find any. We're told that all these kennels are terrible. Clearly, it was possible to get a positive outcome."
To Buy or Not to Buy?
Today, she says, she's shocked at how quickly some of the kennels have improved. Facilities that appalled her at first sight now have dogs greeting people with wagging tails.
"Not only would I get a dog from them, but would I put my dog there in that kennel temporarily? Yeah, I would."
"The most horrifying thing I learned was that some of these people weren't doing what I'd like to see, not because they didn't care or only wanted money, but because nobody had ever told them," she says. "As it turned out, they didn't know any different, and no one would help them."
For Americans who want to know whether it's OK to get a commercially bred puppy, Croney says she thinks about her own dogs. When she started working with the breeders, there were plenty of kennels that, she says, she would not have wanted to patronize. But now she's changing her mind about more and more of them.
"I'm just speaking as somebody who loves dogs and wants to make sure I'm not subsidizing anything inhumane or cruel," she says. "Not only would I get a dog from them, but would I put my dog there in that kennel temporarily? Yeah, I would."
She says the most important thing is for consumers to find out how a pup was raised, and how the pup's parents were raised. As with most industries, commercial breeders run the gamut, from barely legal to above and beyond.
Not everyone agrees with Croney's take on the situation, or with her approach to improving commercial breeding kennels. In its publication "Puppy Mills and the Animal Welfare Act," the Humane Society of the United States writes that while Croney's Canine Care Certified program supports "common areas of agreement" with animal-welfare lobbyists, her work has been funded by the pet industry—suggesting that it's impure—and a voluntary program is not enough to incentivize breeders to improve.
New laws, the Humane Society states, must be enacted to impose change: "Many commercial dog breeding operators will not raise their standards voluntarily, and even if they were to agree to do so it is not clear whether there would be any independent mechanism for enforcement or transparency for the public's sake. ... The logical conclusion is that improved standards must be codified."
Croney says that type of attitude has long created resentment between breeders and animal-welfare activists, as opposed to actual kennel improvements. Both sides have a point; for years, there have been examples of bottom-of-the-barrel kennels that changed their ways or shut down only after regulators smacked them with violations, or after lawmakers raised operating standards in ways that required improvements for the kennels to remain legally in business.
At the same time, though, powerful organizations including the Humane Society—which had revenue of more than $165 million in 2018 alone—have routinely pushed for bans on stores that sell commercially bred puppies, and have decried "puppy mills" in marketing and fund-raising literature, without offering financial grants or educational programs to kennels that are willing to improve.
Croney believes that the reflexive demonization of all commercial breeders is a mistake. Change is more effective, she says, when breeders "want to do better, want to learn, want to grow, and you treat them as advocates and allies in doing something good for animal welfare, as opposed to treating them like they're your enemies."
"If you're watching undercover videos about people treating animals in bad ways, I'm telling you, change is happening."
She adds that anyone who says all commercial breeders are "puppy mills" needs to take a look at the kennels she's seen and the changes her work has brought—and is continuing to bring.
"The ones we work with are working really, really hard to improve and open their doors so that if somebody wants to get a dog from them, they can be assured that those dogs were treated with a level of care and compassion that wasn't there five or 10 years ago, but that is there now and will be better in a year and will be much better in five years," she says. "If you're watching undercover videos about people treating animals in bad ways, I'm telling you, change is happening. It is so much better than people realize, and it continues to get even better yet."
Amber Freed felt she was the happiest mother on earth when she gave birth to twins in March 2017. But that euphoric feeling began to fade over the next few months, as she realized her son wasn't making the same developmental milestones as his sister. "I had a perfect benchmark because they were twins, and I saw that Maxwell was floppy—he didn't have muscle tone and couldn't hold his neck up," she recalls. At first doctors placated her with statements that boys sometimes develop slower than girls, but the difference was just too drastic. At 10 month old, Maxwell had never reached to grab a toy. In fact, he had never even used his hands.
Thinking that perhaps Maxwell couldn't see well, Freed took him to an ophthalmologist who was the first to confirm her worst fears. He didn't find Maxwell to have vision problems, but he thought there was something wrong with the boy's brain. He had seen similar cases before and they always turned out to be rare disorders, and always fatal. "Start preparing yourself for your child not to live," he had said.
Getting the diagnosis took months of painful, invasive procedures, as well as fighting with the health insurance to get the genetic testing approved. Finally, in June 2018, doctors at the Children's Hospital Colorado gave the Freeds their son's diagnosis—a genetic mutation so rare it didn't even have a name, just a bunch of letters jammed together into a word SLC6A1—same as the name of the mutated gene. The mutation, with only 40 cases known worldwide at the time, caused developmental disabilities, movement and speech disorders, and a debilitating form of epilepsy.
The doctors didn't know much about the disorder, but they said that Maxwell would also regress in his development when he turned three or four. They couldn't tell how long he would live. "Hopefully you would become an expert and educate us about it," they said, as they gave Freed a five-page paper on the SLC6A1 and told her to start calling scientists if she wanted to help her son in any way. When she Googled the name, nothing came up. She felt horrified. "Our disease was too rare to care."
Freed's husband, a 6'2'' college football player broke down in sobs and she realized that if anything could be done to help Maxwell, she'd have be the one to do it. "I understood that I had to fight like a mother," she says. "And a determined mother can do a lot of things."
The Freed family.
Courtesy Amber Freed
She quit her job as an equity analyst the day of the diagnosis and became a full-time SLC6A1 citizen scientist looking for researchers studying mutations of this gene. In the wee hours of the morning, she called scientists in Europe. As the day progressed, she called researchers on the East Coast, followed by the West in the afternoon. In the evening, she switched to Asia and Australia. She asked them the same question. "Can you help explain my gene and how do we fix it?"
Scientists need money to do research, so Freed launched Milestones for Maxwell fundraising campaign, and a SLC6A1 Connect patient advocacy nonprofit, dedicated to improving the lives of children and families battling this rare condition. And then it became clear that the mutation wasn't as rare as it seemed. As other parents began to discover her nonprofit, the number of known cases rose from 40 to 100, and later to 400, Freed says. "The disease is only rare until it messes with the wrong mother."
It took one mother to find another to start looking into what's happening inside Maxwell's brain. Freed came across Jeanne Paz, a Gladstone Institutes researcher who studies epilepsy with particular interest in absence or silent seizures—those that don't manifest by convulsions, but rather make patients absently stare into space—and that's one type of seizures Maxwell has. "It's like a brief period of silence in the brain during which the person doesn't pay attention to what's happening, and as soon as they come out of the seizure they are back to life," Paz explains. "It's like a pause button on consciousness." She was working to understand the underlying biology.
To understand how seizures begin, spread and stop, Paz uses optogenetics in mice. From words "genetic" and "optikós," which means visible in Greek, the optogenetics technique involves two steps. First, scientists introduce a light-sensitive gene into a specific brain cell type—for example into excitatory neurons that release glutamate, a neurotransmitter, which activates other cells in the brain. Then they implant a very thin optical fiber into the brain area where they forged these light-sensitive neurons. As they shine the light through the optical fiber, researchers can make excitatory neurons to release glutamate—or instead tell them to stop being active and "shut up". The ability to control what these neurons of interest do, quite literally sheds light onto where seizures start, how they propagate and what cells are involved in stopping them.
"Let's say a seizure started and we shine the light that reduces the activity of specific neurons," Paz explains. "If that stops the seizure, we know that activating those cells was necessary to maintain the seizure." Likewise, shutting down their activity will make the seizure stop.
Freed reached out to Paz in 2019 and the two women had an instant connection. They were both passionate about brain and seizures research, even if for different reasons. Freed asked Paz if she would study her son's seizures and Paz agreed.
To do that, Paz needed mice that carried the SLC6A1 mutation, so Freed found a company in China that created them to specs. The company replaced a mouse SLC6A1 gene with a human mutated one and shipped them over to Paz's lab. "We call them Maxwell mice," Paz says, "and we are now implanting electrodes into them to see which brain regions generate seizures." That would help them understand what goes wrong and what brain cells are malfunctioning in the SLC6A1 mice—and help scientists better understand what might cause seizures in children.
Bred to carry SLC6A1 mutation, these "Maxwell mice" will help better understand this debilitating genetic disease. (These mice are from Vanderbilt University, where researchers are also studying SLC6A1.)
Courtesy Amber Freed
This information—along with other research Amber is funding in other institutions—will inform the development of a novel genetic treatment, in which scientists would deploy a harmless virus to deliver a healthy, working copy of the SLC6A1 gene into the mice brains. They would likely deliver the therapeutic via a spinal tap infusion, and if it works and doesn't produce side effects in mice, the human trials will follow.
In the meantime, Freed is raising money to fund other research of various stop-gap measures. On April 22, 2021, she updated her Milestone for Maxwell page with a post that her nonprofit is funding yet another effort. It is a trial at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, in which doctors will use an already FDA-approved drug, which was recently repurposed for the SLC6A1 condition to treat epilepsy in these children. "It will buy us time," Freed says—while the gene therapy effort progresses.
Freed is determined to beat SLC6A1 before it beats down her family. She hopes to put an end to this disease—and similar genetic diseases—once and for all. Her goal is not only to have scientists create a remedy, but also to add the mutation to a newborn screening panel. That way, children born with this condition in the future would receive gene therapy before they even leave the hospital.
"I don't want there to be another Maxwell Freed," she says, "and that's why I am fighting like a mother." The gene therapy trial still might be a few years away, but the Weill Cornell one aims to launch very soon—possibly around Mother's Day. This is yet another milestone for Maxwell, another baby step forward—and the best gift a mother can get.
This virtual event will convene leading scientific and medical experts to discuss the most pressing questions around the COVID-19 vaccines for children and teens. A public Q&A will follow the expert discussion.
Thursday, May 13th, 2021
12:30 p.m. - 1:45 p.m. EDT
Virtual on Zoom
You can submit a question for the speakers upon registering.
Dr. H. Dele Davies, M.D., MHCM
Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean for Graduate Studies at the University of Nebraska Medical (UNMC). He is an internationally recognized expert in pediatric infectious diseases and a leader in community health.
Dr. Emily Oster, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics at Brown University. She is a best-selling author and parenting guru who has pioneered a method of assessing school safety.
Dr. Tina Q. Tan, M.D.
Professor of Pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. She has been involved in several vaccine survey studies that examine the awareness, acceptance, barriers and utilization of recommended preventative vaccines.
Dr. Inci Yildirim, M.D., Ph.D., M.Sc.
Associate Professor of Pediatrics (Infectious Disease); Medical Director, Transplant Infectious Diseases at Yale School of Medicine; Associate Professor of Global Health, Yale Institute for Global Health. She is an investigator for the multi-institutional COVID-19 Prevention Network's (CoVPN) Moderna mRNA-1273 clinical trial for children 6 months to 12 years of age.
About the Event Series
This event is the second of a four-part series co-hosted by Leaps.org, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and the Sabin–Aspen Vaccine Science & Policy Group, with generous support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.