Monday, February 24, 2014

Finding a Mastiff Breeder; The Story of Mack and Murph

Written by my friend Kelley Watkins

Hello fellow Mastiff lovers… A few posts I’ve read recently inspired me to share our story about our two boys, Mack and Murph, whom we lost this past November. My husband Scott and I have talked to so many Mastiff breeders these last three months, and we have been following several Mastiff groups on FB.

So please excuse my very lengthy story below, but I was reading a post on Facebook by another member this past week about finding a reputable breeder and about health testing, and I was so motivated to try to make a DIFFERENCE. I can tell you from firsthand experience – if you do not find a reputable breeder, if you do not do your research, and you do not insist on the health testing that is recommended for this breed (you can refer to, you are doing yourself and this glorious breed a huge disservice. There are countless back yard breeders and puppy mills out there – please do not support them (and yes, many of them do have fancy websites and even some show titles, and naturally they are going to be very kind so they can sell you a puppy). You MAY have to pay a bit more from a reputable breeder, but the truth is, mastiffs are expensive, and if someone is offering you one for cheap, it is a RED FLAG. Also, be concerned more with how much it costs to OWN a mastiff, not how much to buy one. Please make sure, financially, not only can you maintain the regular costs, but the possible and unexpected costs as well. Please do not allow yourself to end up in a position where you must surrender your mastiff because of these ‘unexpected’ issues. I am not trying to scare you away; if anything I have tried to convince everyone I know that the mastiff is the most glorious breed you will ever have the honor of knowing. But if you are not prepared to manage the expenses and commitments that are associated with owning a giant breed, simply wait until you can.

Scott and I were so naïve 11 years ago when we bought our first mastiff, and second mastiff, from a back yard breeder guy/wife near Pittsburgh. We are sharing our experience for many reasons; one being that hopefully others won’t make the same mistakes we made and also so potential owners have realistic expectations of just how difficult it can be if you don’t do your due diligence. I will say right now that I definitely do not believe our experience is typical or even close to average. But it DID happen to us, and the expenses and heartache can be very difficult; we never spent a moment complaining (maybe crying) and certainly never a moment spent on regret. And while nothing is guaranteed (no matter who the breeder or the length of the health testing), I urge you to commit to doing it right from the beginning, supporting the right folks, and starting out with the best possible chances if you are going to purchase a mastiff puppy.

We are hoping that by sharing our story, we will help raise awareness, which will decrease support of BYBs and PMs, which will decrease the number of unhealthy mastiffs being bred, which will FINALLY, in turn, greatly reduce illness and suffering in our breed – AND turnovers to shelters. Also, we have obviously been through a lot of health issues with our mastiffs; and while we are not experts of any kind, we do have quite a bit of knowledge and experience in certain areas. It would be our pleasure to help anyone we can, especially because we see it as a way to HONOR OUR TWO BEAUTIFUL BOYS and everything they were through.

So, our story: We decided we wanted a mastiff in 2003 and almost immediately found a breeder online - awesome website, super nice guy/family, lots of pictures of beautiful dogs, cute puppies and stories from happy owners. We bought a fawn male from him in May, Mack, and we were instantly in LOVE. So much that we decided on a second apricot mastiff, Murph, who we brought home the following February. They were instant best friends. According to the breeder they had the same father - but we were never able to obtain the promised and paid-for AKC papers for Mack. We later learned he came from North or South Carolina, not Pittsburgh where this breeder was from.
At 1.5 years old we noticed Mack was straining to pee; we took him to an emergency clinic where they found his urethra was completely blocked with cysteine stones and he was diagnosed with Cystinuria within a few days. The clinic did emergency surgery to remove the stones and kept him a few days with a catheter. They removed the catheter and we brought him home, only for his urethra to block again from swelling. He spent a few more days at our regular vets office with the catheter, hoping the damage from the stones would heal, but it didn't. Next we went to Veterinary Referral Center (VRC) near Philadelphia for a CT scan and they confirmed that he wasn’t healing… So we took him to Cornell on another emergency basis. They did yet another MAJOR reconstructive emergency surgery and said it could go either way. He was hospitalized for over a week in ICU but he pulled through. They had to give him a stoma - which is when they re-route a male’s urethra to go straight down so they pee like a female dog. He had a very tough recovery, severe bruising at the surgical site, and they told us they were sure it was because he also had Von Willebrands disease.

In the meantime, after some extensive allergy testing, we were treating our apricot dog, Murph, with monthly allergy shots. Then at 3 years old he blew out his cruciate ligament... Back to Cornell for TPLO surgery and several days in the hospital, plus months of follow up and rehab. During this time, the specialists at Cornell told us he also had hip dysplasia. Murph recovered from the surgery beautifully and never had another problem with either cruciate ligament, thankfully, although he did live with and we were able to manage his arthritis with medications and supplements for several years.

Next, at 5 years old, Mack was diagnosed with diabetes. First we had to regulate his insulin dosage (Vetsulin, insulin for dogs), which meant 2-3 days a week twice-a-day glucose checks at our vet’s office @ $70/day, times several months to start, down to weekly visits, monthly visits – but he never did regulate on the Vetsulin and we were in for glucose checks constantly. Mack was on Vetsulin for his diabetes for YEARS – his dosage was SO HIGH because of his size that I would buy 10 vials at a time just to be sure we never ran out, and I think the vials were around $50 each – one vial lasted not even a week. Eventually Vetsulin was taken off the market because animals couldn’t regulate on it, and we switched to a human-grade insulin and had excellent results. Anyway, the worst part of all of it was that the diet for diabetes and Cystinuria are in DIRECT contrast to one another, therefore we struggled for the rest of his life trying to keep the diabetes under control and with constant urinary tract infections. So for 9 years we had been paying for veterinarian prescribe prescription diet for Mack – along with an costly food because of Murph’s grain allergies. (Interesting to mention here that we have since learned that neutering males with Cystinuria basically stops stone formation. We did consult with 2 dieticians over the years, but they apparently, unfortunately, were unaware of this).

At age 8 Mack lost his vision due to the diabetes. At first we were crushed, but soon learned that veterinary ophthalmologists can replace a dog’s cataracts the same as is done with humans. We met the wonderful ophthalmologist at Veterinary Referral Center (VRC) and Mack had his sight back a few weeks later. It felt like a blessing!

Immediately after the surgery, however, noticed Mack was having trouble with his hind legs, dragging his feet, obviously loss of strength. The concern was an issue with his hips or back so the specialist sent him for an MRI. When he came out of the MRI he could barely walk - he had almost zero use of his hind legs. We met with an orthopedic surgeon at VRC and he believed Mack's problem was neuropathy from the diabetes, somehow complicated and exasperated from being under deep anesthesia – first with the eye surgery and then with the MRI. We carried Mack with 2 slings for almost a week, and then sure enough, he started to regain strength, and within 2-3 weeks he was back to okay.

At 8 and 9 years old Murph and Mack both went in for removal of 'lumps'. Mack had one on his thigh, which turned out to be benign. The tumor on Murph's chest, however, was a malignant soft tissue sarcoma. After 18 rounds of radiation and 3 weeks stay at Cornell (home on weekends), we did achieve a cure for Murph. Yeah!

At almost 10 years old Mack developed another lump in the exact same spot on his thigh; unfortunately, this time the tumor was malignant - another soft tissue sarcoma, level 3. The entire story surrounding the surgery our local vet did is another story in and of itself, but in short, he left a diabetic dog with an open wound and sent him home without use of his hind legs (we told him not to do the surgery if he had to use deep sedation, that we would just go to Cornell, but he did it anyway). We were furious. We once again carried Mack with the slings and nursed him back to health for a week, but he took an ABRUPT turn for the worse in about 12 hours time and we had no idea why, except that his wound suddenly smelled and he could hardly walk or breath. My husband drove Mack to Cornell at 2am where he stayed in ICU for 8 days. They had to completely reopen the wound, perform yet another surgery, and place a vacuumed catheter to remove the infection. The doctors didn't think he would make it do to the severity of his infection (as it turned out, Mack already had a urinary tract infection and our vet should have check first given Mack's history with recurring UTIs; that surgery never should have been done in the first place). Again, after lengthy anesthesia, he lost use of his back legs, and it was another 2-3 weeks of slings to get the big guy around. But he pulled through once again, and once again proved to us that he had a stronger will to live than any soul we've ever known. I always teased he was secretly a cat, with 9 lives.

After Mack's diagnosis of a grade-3 soft tissue sarcoma in March of 2013 we were at a loss for what to do. Due to the aggressiveness of his tumor the doctors gave us 3 months. We were devastated beyond words. We always did anything and everything we could for our boys, but anything we did at this point for him was simply palliative. We did have the option of amputating his leg, but the doctors advised strongly against it because of his diabetes, neuropathy, and issues with deep sedation. Our only other option was palliative radiation, which would give us an additional 0-3 months, and we didn’t want him gone, in a hospital, for 3 weeks if we only had 3 months left with him. The tumor continued to grow but Mack was doing great. After a few months we heard of a drug called Palladia, it's not chemotherapy but a very new and exciting anti-cancer drug. Palladia is typically used to treat mast cell tumors. It is VERY expensive; from a specialty clinic clients will pay up to $40/50mg pill. Mack, because of his size (yet only 155 pounds at the time) was on 9 of these pills a week. And that was only one of the SEVERAL medications he was on. (I mention the costs because there are less expensive ways to acquire this medication, so if you or anyone you know needs or uses it, PLEASE just ask and Scott or I will share our experience…) Anyway, we started Mack on the Palladia and noticed the tumor stopped growing and his very enlarged lymph node in his belly did as well. Once again we felt very blessed.

But the Thursday before Thanksgiving, Murph had a seizure. We took him to a local emergency clinic - he was acting very strange and we noticed his belly was sensitive. The doctor there told us he was just acting post-ichtal, or post-seizure, and sent him home, but the following morning we were just not feeling good about Murph's condition. We brought him to a different emergency clinic where the discovered gastric torsion; he had surgery immediately. He was in the hospital for 5 days, and developed pneumonia, but was recovering well so we were able to bring him home the night before Thanksgiving. Two days after Thanksgiving however, he took a rapid turn for the worse, so we went back to the clinic, where they discovered he was throwing blood clots into his lungs and intestines. We had no choice, he was suffering and there was nothing they could do. We held our beloved big red dog as we cried and said goodbye.

When we got home we could tell Mack knew... he wouldn't leave Murph's bed and was obviously heartbroken. Two nights later Mack had a seizure - we were not too worried as he'd had two seizures previously and recovered immediately. (At his age and health condition - and once again complications due to anesthesia – our doctors didn't want to sedate him for an MRI of his brain. Because the seizures were 'innocent', they told us to just keep an eye on him). The following morning he had two more seizures, 45 minutes apart, and they left him with no use of his back legs. We went back to the emergency clinic and the neurologist believed the cancer had metastasized to his brain, and that the final seizure/s had caused and embolism to travel down his spine, and that was why he couldn't use his hind legs. We were beyond devastated, how could we be here again, 2 1/2 days later? He had fought his fight and outlived everyone’s expectations - 9 months. It was time to say goodbye to our first baby, and it was the hardest thing we've ever done. I would do anything to have our two boys back - I would do it ALL over again if I could just have them. That would be heaven.

Over the past 8 years I have made countless trips to Cornell, a 2.5 hour drive, and to VRC near Philadelphia, 2 hours - on average once a month. So much so that I can truthfully say I have made some true friends in some of the doctors, nurses and technicians. During this entire time we also welcomed into our family 4 beautiful children, which definitely made a lot of the traveling and lengthy appointment times stressful and difficult - but we found doctors that were wonderful and compassionate. The truth was, Mack and Murph were our first babies and we were committed to doing anything and everything we could to keep them stay happy and healthy. We did what we had to, to make it work.

So… we encourage you to find a breeder who is honest, kind and knowledgeable, someone who has vast experience and understands the breed, someone who is willing to communicate and stay in touch after you purchase a puppy, and of course someone who is responsible and committed to taking advantage of the health testing available. I’m here to tell you the great news is they are out there! Just do your research and ask a lot of questions.

THANK YOU for taking the time to read our Mastiff Love Story, all the best to our mastiff friends! Kelley and Scott


  1. Thank you for sharing your story, and I truly hope others take the time to read it.

  2. Wonderful story. I've owned 3 English Mastiffs. Our last one died 2 years ago. Still miss him. We saw a Dorito's ad and it welled up sooo many wonderful memories. Thank you for sharing.