Less than two weeks after a Meridian pet store opened its doors, two customers say puppies they bought there had parvovirus, prompting outcry on social media and raising questions about the business.
Two Treasure Valley families told the Statesman that they purchased miniature Australian shepherd puppies from the owner of Surf’s Up Puppy Shack earlier this month and then took the animals to veterinarians, who made a diagnosis of parvovirus in the dogs.
One owner’s story about his experience went viral on Facebook, where critics of the puppy store said its owner has a history of similar issues at pet stores he owned in Utah.
The owner, Matt Milligan, said he takes every precaution at his businesses to ensure the health and safety of the animals, and he said he tried to make things right for the families whose dogs had parvo. He refunded the purchase price for both puppies.
“I put my head on my pillow at night knowing I did the work to prevent (infection) beforehand and took care of the family afterward,” Milligan said.
Allegations of parvo
Wesley Atkinson said he and his wife, Regan, had been thinking of getting a miniature Australian shepherd for some time. After Atkinson lost his arm in a UTV accident earlier this year, the Boise couple thought a puppy would help them heal from a difficult period.
In a phone interview, Atkinson told the Statesman that he and his wife saw listings for mini Aussies on Craigslist and reached out to the seller, who was Milligan. He told them to come to his business, Surf’s Up Puppy Shack, at 3100 E. Florence Drive in Meridian.
On Oct. 7, Atkinson and his wife paid $600 for Finley, a purebred but “unpapered” puppy (meaning unregistered with the American Kennel Club, which refers to the breed as miniature American shepherds). By the following weekend, the couple realized something was amiss. On Oct. 12, Finley was lethargic and vomiting. The Atkinsons took him to WestVet on Oct. 13, where he was diagnosed with parvovirus.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, parvo is a highly contagious illness that spreads “by direct dog-to-dog contact and contact with contaminated feces, environments, or people.” It causes lethargy, fever, vomiting and severe diarrhea. In some cases, it can lead to death.
“Overall the prognosis (with parvo) is fair and most dogs will survive with supportive care,” WestVet medical director Daniel Hume said in an email. Officials at WestVet declined to discuss the Atkinsons’ case, citing patient privacy.
In addition to GI damage, Hume said, parvo can cause other issues.
“Parvovirus damages the bone marrow, leading to a deficiency in white blood cells,” Hume said. “This deficiency predisposes the puppies to septicemia. Most of the deaths from parvovirus are secondary to this secondary complication. The virus also destroys the lining of the GI tract, further predisposing the pets to septicemia.”
Finley spent four days at WestVet and ultimately survived. The Atkinsons left with their puppy and a $3,000 bill.
“We bought him to be kind of a therapy dog and start a new chapter in life,” Atkinson said. “And instead it turned into this ... ordeal.”
Did puppy get parvo from pet store?
Milligan received a text from Atkinson the afternoon of Oct. 13, informing him that the puppy had parvo.
“I stayed in communication and asked if I could help them,” Milligan told the Statesman.
Surf’s Up offers a “health guarantee” to buyers for conditions including kennel cough, giardia and coccidiosis. According to the terms of the guarantee, Surf’s Up will reimburse up to $100 in medication costs if the issue arises within seven days of the puppy’s purchase.
According to Milligan, the seven-day limit ensures that Surf’s Up is responsible for illnesses that could have originated in its care.
“Most viruses incubate about three to five days, so there’s a possibility that the virus had originated with us,” Milligan said.
Hume said the typical incubation period for most parvo cases in three to seven days.
For cases of canine parvovirus, the health guarantee states that “if CPV is detected in a puppy in the above time period (7 days) the puppy shack will Re-assume ownership of the puppy as well as retaining the right to make all medical decisions. ... As well as cover cost of the CPV detection test (not to exceed $100). The Puppy Shack is not responsible for bills or charges associated with discovery, veterinary care or emergency after hours care.”
The Atkinsons didn’t sign a health guarantee. They actually bought Finley three days before Surf’s Up officially opened on Oct. 10. Milligan said construction delayed the opening of the store, but due to contractual obligations to place certain litters, he listed them for sale on Craigslist, KSL Classifieds and Surf’s Up’s social media accounts.
Despite the lack of a health guarantee agreement, Milligan said he wanted to do right by the Atkinsons. He offered to refund them the $600 purchase price for the puppy, though he said it’s impossible to know where the dog contracted parvo.
“There’s a thousand places where a puppy could pick that up,” Milligan said. “But (the diagnosis is) within the margin of error.”
On Oct. 21, he refunded the Atkinsons the money they paid for Finley.
“There’s no way to prove (the puppy) got parvo here or there,” Atkinson said. “The vets have said, ‘Look, that probably came from (Milligan’s) shop.’ ”
Two cases of parvo
Wesley Atkinson decided to post on Facebook about his experience with Surf’s Up, thinking only that his friends and family would read the account. In the Oct. 21 post, he included a photo of Regan cuddling Finley at the vet’s office.
His post quickly gained traction online. By Wednesday, it had been shared more than 800 times. That’s how Rebecca and Steven Randall first learned that their miniature Australian shepherd puppy had come from Surf’s Up Puppy Shack.
Like the Atkinsons, the Randalls saw Milligan’s post on Craigslist about mini Aussies. They contacted Milligan on Oct. 6 and were told to meet him in the Red Robin parking lot at Eagle and Fairview.
The Randalls said Milligan met them with two puppies, one male and one female. They chose the female puppy, paid $500 for her and named her Kaycee. The Randalls said Milligan never told them that he operated a nearby pet store.
“We thought he was a home breeder,” Rebecca said. “We didn’t put it together until last night when we saw (Wesley’s post).”
Rebecca quickly noticed that Kaycee wasn’t eating much or being very active. When the puppy started vomiting on Oct. 9, the Randalls took her to the vet, where she was found to have parvo. Rebecca told Milligan about the diagnosis, and he offered a refund for the purchase price.
“He had no obligation to give us our money back,” Rebecca said. “I thought that was an honorable thing to do.”
Kaycee stayed at the vet overnight and was released the next day. In all, her veterinary care cost the Randalls $700.
According to Rebecca, her vet believes it’s likely the puppy contracted the illness before the Randalls got her. Rebecca said she doesn’t believe Milligan intentionally sold her family a sick animal, and she hopes it prompts him to double-check sanitation standards at the store.
“Things happen, I get that,” Rebecca said. “As a business owner, if there’s parvo in your building, why not take the time to clean everything, your whole building.”
Milligan said he already goes to great lengths to prevent parvo. When sourcing puppies from local breeders (Milligan said he gets animals from Idaho, Utah and Oregon, primarily), he said he does site visits to confirm the health of the puppies’ parents and the suitability of the home. He also conducts surface tests at breeders’ homes for diseases such as parvo.
Before the puppies come into his store, Milligan said, he does a visual wellness test as well to assess their health. He also keeps the puppies on a vaccination schedule after they’re weaned from their mother’s milk, which provides them antibodies for the first few weeks of life.
Milligan said he vaccinates at six, eight, 10 and 12 weeks, including a parvo vaccination “when appropriate.” If puppies are sold before that schedule is complete, he tells buyers to be certain to finish all rounds of vaccinations.
“By and large, almost every puppy that comes here has had at least one vaccination,” he said, adding that 90% of puppies have had two vaccinations.
Milligan said the mini Aussies puppies were seven-and-a-half weeks old when they were sold and had received two rounds of the NeoPar vaccine. (Wesley Atkinson said Milligan gave the dogs’ date of birth as Aug. 27, which would have made them six weeks old at the time of sale. Atkinson also said Milligan provided proof of only one vaccination.)
According to Milligan, the double dosage of vaccine likely contributed to the fact that both Kaycee and Finley survived.
At the store, Milligan said, he cleans with bleach and a disinfectant designed for animal-care facilities to kill parvo and other viruses, which can survive on surfaces for weeks. All of the surfaces at Surf’s Up are nonporous, meaning they don’t harbor bacteria.
“Every surface we have is wiped down four times per day,” Milligan said.
The store features several dispensers of hand sanitizer, and guests are asked to use the sanitizer before touching or picking up any of the puppies. They should sanitize their hands again before petting or holding puppies from a different litter.
Hume, the WestVet medical director, said people can spread the illness “via clothing, hands, shoes, etc.”
Puppy Barn in Utah
Prior to opening Surf’s Up, Milligan owned and operated a trio of stores in Utah called the Puppy Barn. He opened Puppy Barn in November 2014 and said he has sold nearly 11,000 dogs since then.
“You don’t expand to four stores in five years because every puppy you sell is sick,” Milligan said. “Sometimes living things do get sick. If a normal person were to adopt out thousands and thousands of puppies, you’d expect to see a lot more parvo than we’ve seen.”
When the cases do come up, Milligan said he’s diligent about informing customers. “We immediately retest every puppy in the store (for parvo),” he said.
Any remaining pups in the affected puppy’s litter are then quarantined for three to five days.
“We contact anybody who may have purchased a dog from that litter,” Milligan said. “It’s kind of scary for folks. They want to know their baby is going to be safe.”
Milligan said there were four puppies in the mini Aussie litter. He said he contacted the rest of the buyers by text message after the Randalls’ dog, Kaycee, was diagnosed with parvo on Oct. 10. According to Milligan, the other two puppies in the litter, as well as the rest of the dogs he’s sold from Surf’s Up, have been healthy.
Wesley Atkinson said Milligan “absolutely did not contact us” about Kaycee’s diagnosis.
“If she was diagnosed on the 10th, then he knew (parvo was an issue) before our dog was diagnosed,” Milligan said.
It’s not the first time Milligan has been under fire for his businesses. His Puppy Barn stores faced similar complaints.
According to the Better Business Bureau’s website, the Puppy Barn had an F rating for failure to respond to multiple complaints. The business also had a one-star rating and multiple reviews through the Better Business Bureau website from users who claimed they bought puppies that had parvo or developed other health issues.
Milligan said he decided to let the BBB complaints “be a bygone issue.” He believes they’re from the same people who created Facebook groups and protests outside previous stores.
“They’re armchair activists,” he said.
Milligan said the same people are leaving negative Google reviews for Surf’s Up, threatening his family and calling his business to harass him. The store owner said he’d like to see Wesley Atkinson remove his viral Facebook post now that he’s issued the family a refund.
“It was rather unfortunate. I’m a little embarrassed that he went on Facebook and used my family’s name,” Milligan said. “I was a little upset that he used my family’s name and said some things that were a little slanderous.
“They call you shady, they say you have a checkered past. I’ve probably done more good for keeping dogs out of the shelter than 99% of the dog-loving population.”
Milligan told the Statesman that he sold the Puppy Barn businesses to a competitor, The Puppy Store, earlier this year and followed through on existing plans to open a store in Meridian, where his wife has family ties.
Puppy sales thriving in Meridian
Detractors accuse him of selling sick puppies or supporting mills, but Milligan said his business does quite the opposite — and said other customers are happy.
“We don’t promote puppy mills or anything like that,” he said.
Instead, he focuses on a “home-to-home model” of selling puppies from local families. He looks for parents that are family companions, hunting dogs or working dogs. Milligan said he won’t pay for accidental litters, but he will help find homes for the puppies, and pay to spay and neuter the parents, he said.
“I’m a big dog advocate,” he said. “I don’t get credit for that.”
According to Milligan, since opening his business earlier this month, he’s sold more than two dozen puppies. On Tuesday, he had a dozen more at the store ready for new homes.
Some of those puppies have come from Kimbers Kiddos, a Meridian-based goldendoodle and “doubledoodle” breeder. Dennis Robinson, who owns Kimbers with his wife, Cyndi, said he’s been impressed with Surf’s Up so far.
“We know when we bring (our puppies) in here, they’re safe,” Robinson said.
Parvo and animal code in Boise
Both Wesley Atkinson and Steven Randall said they’re frustrated by Idaho’s lack of oversight for puppy sales.
“We had no idea going into this guy’s shop who he was, his history,” Atkinson said. “In a way, I feel responsible to say, ‘This is not OK.’ ”
The Idaho State Department of Agriculture does not oversee “nonproduction animals” such as cats, dogs and horses unless specifically asked by cities or counties to do so. The city and county codes that do exist in the Treasure Valley don’t directly address retail operations like Surf’s Up.
Atkinson said he’s been in touch with Boise City Councilman TJ Thomson, who earlier this year tried to introduce amendments to the city’s animal codes and spoke out against puppy sales in the parking lot of the Boise Cabela’s, where there were also reports of parvo last spring.
Thomson said in a phone interview on Tuesday that he hopes to implement “pretty sweeping animal codes ... one aspect (of which) is to say pet stores cannot sell dogs or cats.” Of course, those Boise codes would not affect Surf’s Up because it is in Meridian.
Thomson said the proposal may sound tough, but it would be the only way to prevent inhumane operations.
“We know there’s plenty of good shops that do the right thing,” he said. “It’s impossible to tell the good eggs from the bad ones.”
Future of Surf’s Up Puppy Shack
On Tuesday, the Idaho Humane Society said it has opened an investigation into Surf’s Up.
“The Idaho Humane Society has received several reports of puppies suffering from (parvo) originating from this Surf’s Up Puppy Shack,” IHS spokeswoman Kristine Schellhaas said in an email. “IHS Animal Care and Control met with the owners on Tuesday who are cooperating in our ongoing investigation.”
Schellhaas encouraged potential pet owners to be cautious and do research prior to purchasing any dog or pet.
“Owners looking to purchase a puppy should work with responsible breeders and conduct an interview,” she said in the email. “Ask questions about where the puppy was bred, visit the breeding facility (don’t rely on photos!), ask to meet the puppy’s parents, ask to see the bloodline paperwork while also including medical history of not only the puppy, but the parents and grandparents as well. It is highly recommended that you ask for references as well.”
Milligan said he hopes that Idahoans will give the business a chance despite the widespread claims being made against him. He cited a track record of happy customers and healthy puppies here and in Utah.
“If health problems weren’t in the minutiae (of our sales), I couldn’t afford to be in business,” he said.