When Brad Weigensberg was looking to bring another French bulldog into his family in Montreal's West Island earlier this year, he turned to what he had used before — online listings.
The pandemic had driven up both demand and prices from when he last bought a dog in 2019, but he saw on Kijiji that there were French bulldogs available in Southern Ontario.
"Most in Montreal are pre-sold already a year in advance," Weigensberg told CBC Montreal's Let's Go, with the wait even longer if you have a preference for colour.
He started communicating with the breeder, saw pictures of the cookies-and-cream-coloured puppy that his wife Joy Levy had been looking for, and then made an online transfer of $1,400 for a 40 per cent deposit on the dog.
"About 36 hours later I get an email from my bank saying please contact us, your bank account has been suspended," Weigensberg said.
He was told the address that he had sent the money to had a history of fraudulent activity.
The breeder soon stopped responding to messages after that.
While purchasing goods from strangers online can come with a risk of the item not existing, the story can become heartbreaking when a live animal is involved.
Veterinary consultant Dr. Jean Gauvin says he's seen many unhealthy dogs come in — with the breeder nowhere to be found.
"It was like a drug deal. And once the person is gone, that's it. You can't do anything," he said. "Frequently I would diagnose genetic diseases in these puppies."
When he told the owners that it's the breeder who should pay for treatment, he said they often replied that they have no way of contacting them.
Puppy in quarantine
In February, the Weigensberg family tried again to adopt a puppy from southern Ontario.
They reached out to a breeder on Instagram, and wary of being scammed again, they requested several photos of the litter, and checked reviews.
The family bought the puppy for $4,000, and brought it back home to Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Que. But within days, that puppy started to get very sick.
A veterinarian determined the dog had canine parvovirus, a highly contagious and deadly virus. The puppy was put into quarantine, and died days later.
Based on the timeline, the veterinarian told Weigensberg that the puppy likely already had the virus when they brought it home.
The loss was crushing to the kids and to his wife, Joy. Thankfully, the virus did not spread to their other dogs. But after the veterinarian bills and the cost of intensive cleaning, the family is out $12,000.
"We have text messages from the breeder that say 'we're going to get you a dog… you have a one-year health guarantee," said Weigensberg.
"Meanwhile, my dog didn't even survive one week."
After initially seeming like the breeder would make things right, it's now been weeks since they've heard from her. Weigensberg says they are taking legal action.
What to ask a breeder
Gauvin says it's important that prospective buyers ask the breeder several questions when they are looking at buying an animal. Are they a member of the Canadian Kennel Club? How long have they been breeding? Is the breeder testing the animals for genetic diseases and other viruses?
He says it's also a good idea to see for yourself where the animal is being housed.
And it's also important to consider the ethical implications of buying from a puppy mill or from a private broker, says Amélie Martel, the animal welfare director at SPCA Montreal.
"Puppy mills only exist because they have clients, they only exist because they're making money," she said.