by Jeff Fleischer
Pet guardians find their dogs in many ways, from pet stores to local breeders to classified ads. And in many cases, they are unknowingly buying a dogs from puppy mills.
Puppy mills—large-scale commercial breeding operations in which dogs are raised in substandard conditions—exist around the country. The Humane Society of the United States estimates between 8,000 and 10,000 such facilities are in operation, breeding hundreds of thousands of dogs each year and contributing significantly to pet overpopulation.
Because of the conditions in which mill puppies are often raised, guardians run the risk of purchasing sick or ill-socialized dogs, not to mention the fact that these dogs are most likely inhumanely treated. Stephanie Shain, director of the HSUS’s “Stop Puppy Mills” campaign, says these dogs are particularly vulnerable to communicable diseases such as pneumonia, often receive insufficient veterinary care, and often are not screened for hereditary diseases. “Behavioral issues are another problem when you have a puppy who is spending their first six to eight weeks in a cage without a lot of human interaction,” she says. “And they’re also being raised by a mother who has not had the benefit of a lot of socialization.”
Dogs are transported from the mills to people’s homes in several ways. Historically, puppy mills were known for selling to pet stores, or to brokers who would buy animals from several breeders and distribute them to stores. “That used to be the absolute majority,” Shain says. “What we’re seeing now is a shift toward direct sales to the public.”
The key issue with this is regulation. Breeders who sell dogs wholesale (such as to pet stores) are licensed through the United States Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for enforcing the minimum standards for animal care set by the 1966 Animal Welfare Act. While the USDA only has about 100 inspectors, the department does conduct random, unannounced inspections of licensed breeding facilities. Meanwhile, breeders who sell directly to the public aren’t registered with or inspected by the USDA. “So from a regulatory standpoint, someone running a puppy mill will want to move toward public sales because it frees them up from anybody looking at their operation,” Shain says.
The Internet is one reason for that boom, Shain says, as anyone with a digital camera and Web access can create an online store to sell puppies. The HSUS has seen an increase in online advertisements where multiple ads about different animals all lead back to the same central site, and has found a similar situation in newspaper classifieds, with the same operation running separate notices advertising different breeds. “We’ve heard of cases where someone answers a newspaper ad and arranges to meet someone in a parking lot to pick up the puppy,” Shain says. “Then they get there and there are 20 other families, and a van pulls in from out of state loaded up with puppies. So it’s a large breeding operation representing itself in the ads as a small local breeder. Obviously, if someone is breeding 10 or 20 different breeds of dog, that is probably not a good home environment for those animals.”
Puppy mills are big business, with dogs selling for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Mills that sell directly to the public can make even more money because there’s no pet shop acting as middleman and they can raise prices accordingly. And mills can falsely claim to sell purebred dogs because the customer never sees the breeding facility. “One big red flag when it comes to irresponsible breeders [is] if they don’t let you come to their house or if they want to meet in a third-party area or a public place,” explains Lisa Peterson, a spokesperson for the American Kennel Club. Run the other way, she says, “…if they don’t ask you any questions about your living arrangement or lifestyle—if all they want to know about you is your Visa number.”
What can people do about the problem? Anyone aware of substandard conditions at a facility should report them to the USDA and contact a local animal shelter for assistance. While the USDA is the federal authority in charge, some states have additional licensing requirements and enforcement agencies, and Shain encourages citizens to write state and federal legislators to urge new laws or enforcement of current ones.
But the easiest way to stop puppy mills from succeeding is not to buy from them, and to educate others about their existence. “It really comes down to individual action and responsibility,” Shain says. “The place where we have to stop this cycle is at the consumer point. Puppy mills would not produce those animals if there wasn’t a market for them, and when you buy that puppy in a pet store or on the Internet, you’re perpetuating an industry that’s based in cruelty.”
If you’re 100% certain that you’d be unhappy adopting from a shelter or a breed rescue group, the very least you can do to combat puppy mills is to go to a responsible breeder. The American Kennel Club, which represents 153 dog breeds, says a guardian should always meet the puppy at the breeder’s home. The breeder should welcome you into his or her facility with open arms and be proud of the operation.
“You want to see one or both parents,” AKC spokesperson Lisa Peterson says. “Usually the mother will be at the breeder’s home, and the stud dog may or may not. You want to look at the temperament of the mother, to make sure she’s friendly and outgoing. You want to make sure the puppies are well cared for in a clean environment. And you want to ask the breeder about health clearances or screenings they have done, checking for inherited diseases.”
A responsible breeder will also ask you a lot of questions about your home, future care of the dog, and will require proof of spay/neuter if you will not be showing the dog. Stephanie Shain of the Humane Society of the United States agrees that an on-site visit is a must. “Always see the place where your puppy came from,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how nice the person is on the phone or what they tell you about how they treat their dogs. It’s really easy to say all the right things or to have a beautiful website that hides a puppy mill.”
Her organization has a breeder checklist online at www.HSUS.org that explains what standards of care guardians should expect. “And, of course, we also encourage adoption,” Shain says. “One of every four dogs in a shelter is a purebred, and there are rescue groups devoted to every kind of purebred out there.”