Puppy Mills and the Inadequacy of the Animal Welfare Act

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Here’s something that all of us can agree on: No one should ever buy a puppy from a puppy mill. Puppy mills are horrific and should be put out of business. 

An estimated 2 million puppies are “produced” annually in puppy mills in the U.S. Since the number of dogs who are euthanized by shelters in this country every year is estimated to be 1.2 million, you can see why simply shutting down puppy mills is such an alluring idea to those of us who have worked in shelters. But it’s difficult to put an end to any practice that some people profit from, no matter how cruel it is.

That’s why we try to educate people – to make sure they understand, first of all, that any “purebred” or “designer-mix” puppy that’s for sale in a pet shop has been produced by a puppy mill, no matter what the store employees have been told to say. 

We also try to make would-be buyers understand that when they pay for a puppy from a pet store, they are directly supporting canine suffering at the hands of all the shady breeders, brokers, and scammers that supply pet stores. 

Most of us have seen photos and videos taken by animal protection groups following a raid on the worst kind of puppy mill, where the living conditions of the dogs are unspeakably horrendous, with cages crammed with sore-covered dogs stacked on top of more cages, and all of them full of filth. No one would argue for ”businesses” like this to be allowed to continue operation.

It’s much more difficult to recognize the cruelty of puppy mills that advertise how many veterinarians they have on staff, discuss their healthcare and socialization programs, and display pictures of shiny-clean facilities alongside their United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) licenses. The conditions look better – but their breeder dogs are still puppy-producing machines who have no semblance of quality of life. And the puppies will be sold to anyone willing to pay for them and shipped anywhere in the country at too-early ages. 

The bottom line for mills is that puppies are simply “products” – and the puppy miller’s bottom line will always be more important than the welfare of the dogs.

The USDA’s Animal Welfare Act (AWA) establishes legal requirements for the care, handling, housing, transportation, and sale of animals at licensed breeding facilities. Puppy-millers and their downstream co-conspirators like to claim that their USDA licenses and unannounced AWA compliance inspections keep the industry honest. But the reality is, these laws are woefully inadequate. For example, under the AWA: 

• There is no limit to the number of dogs on the premises. A puppy mill could have hundreds or even thousands of dogs.

• There is no minimum requirement for the number of staff that must be available to care for the dogs.

• Dogs may be kept in stacked cages.

• Mesh or wire flooring is allowed.

• Dogs may be forced to relieve themselves in their cages.

• Dogs may be confined in spaces only six inches longer than their bodies, not including the tail.

• A dog may be caged 24 hours a day for his or her entire life, only removed from the cage to be bred.

• There is no exercise requirement if dogs are housed with other dogs and minimum size requirements are met for the dog’s enclosure.

• Dogs can be housed indoors or out with minimal temperature regulation.

• Human interaction is not required.

• Breeding females at the first heat cycle and every heat cycle thereafter is permissible.

• Unwanted animals may auctioned off or killed in a variety of ways.

• There is no transparency to consumers or the public about the results of USDA inspections.

And finally, it should be obvious that the USDA can’t adequately inspect the entire puppy mill industry; currently there are only an estimated 110 inspectors on staff to inspect all the animal facilities under its supervision, including zoos and research labs, in addition to commercial dog breeders and brokers. 

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WDJ's Training Editor Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.

10 COMMENTS

  1. No question t hat puppy mills are horrendous operations and the conditions in which they keep their dogs is dreadful. I have adopted to rescued dogs from puppy mills. The first one was a brood bitch that was bred from her first heat cycle until she was too ill but probably not too old at 9 years to breed. She was rescued by a good Samaritan who knew she was going to be killed and this person took her to a vet who stabilized her, looked after her immediate ailments and made sure she was healthy enough to leave his clinic. Then she took her to an Alaskan Malamute Rescue. This good Samaritan would not accept a penny for her expenses. She just wanted to help.. This poor bitch had been kept in such a small cage, that her hips never developed properly and she lived in constant pain which I managed until her death. When i brought her home. she was so frightened of humans it took me two weeks to get close to her. I was told at the rescue she had never seen grass before and was afraid to enter the very large outdoor kennel she was given. She was terribly skinny and they said she already had gained some weight since she arrived there.
    She had mammary tumors which I was able to reduce with holistic remedies and she was spayed to stop the hormone production. She was a very sweet girl that never gave up and welcomed every bit of attention she received.

    The next puppy mill dog was a stud dog who arrived with no training whatsoever and of extremely suspect breeding. Somehow they called him an Alaskan Malamute but he was so badly conformed, it would have been amusing if it had not been so bad. Imagine the puppies he threw. Honestly, he looked like a Clydesdale from the hips and had quite a lovely front end.
    Each dog arrived with a “pedigree” stating the previous previous dogs came from such kennels as Happy Valley Kennels, Sunny Dog Kennels – you know whatever they think the average pet owner would believe.

    Now, the worst of all of this is no matter how much I tell some of my friends about the terrible conditions of puppy mills, the next thing I know is they went out and bought a puppy from a pet store. Some of these people have seen the condition of the dogs I have rescued and then off they go to support these stores. Go figure!
    I questioned the staff at one of these “pet” stores and was told “Oh no, these are very well cared for puppies and they are all brought by the same nice man.” How can the same “nice” man have access to whatever breed the store wants at the time?

  2. Very well said. Your comments will MAYBE make people think about about where their sickly or problematic pups come from as a lot of the puppy mill puppies have never been socialised 😡😡😡😡😡😡😡😡😡😡😡😡😡😡😡😡

  3. I suppose the 1 million+ dogs of questionable background imported by rescues every year are a good substitute for commercially bred ones? The reason people buy puppies from commercial sources is AVAILABILITY1 Preservation breeders could not possibly fill the demand even if they stepped up the numbers. That isn’t going to happen because of all the ‘must dos’ to be considered responsible plus state/local regulations on numbers kept thanks to AR efforts. Want to eliminate something care must be taken to put something in its place that will work but no one seems to think about that in their zeal to eliminate breeders. Sorry, adopt don’t shop is not the answer unless you are looking for a pit bull type adult dog and another addition to questionable background. Besides, since when does anyone have to explain why and where they get a dog? Would *I* buy a dog from a pet shop? Not on your life but I don’t have to. Not everyone is in that exalted position and not everyone wants a mutt from a shelter. I am sure my position is not popular on this forum which is extremely AR oriented and not breeder friendly at all unless said breeder can prove two pages of requirements compared to the shelter dog who basically just shouldn’t bite the buyers hand off. If it were not for the good articles on health, care and feeding I would have been gone long ago.

    • Christine, I totally agree that eliminating the responsible low volume breeders is not the answer. Eliminating the huge manufacture high volume breeder HAS to happen. Time for the government to step up. We are getting there. At least getting the word out about puppy mills is happening. More work to do to protect the innocent dogs in their care.

  4. Where I live and operate a dog services business, pretty much everyone knows better than to buy a puppy from a pet store. Our local PetCo gets a lot of unofficial oversight from customers concerned about all the creatures they sell, even though they don’t traffic in puppies or kittens and have adoption events with local shelters and rescues.
    What is much less known is the way the more sophisticated mills have learned to use the internet, bypassing stores altogether. All it takes is a little marketing know-how to turn a terrible operation into what looks like the most loving of small, home breeding facilities. They have a host of ruses to prevent any potential buyer from ever seeing their actual premises, from having paid “set up” staging sites, to having sincere-sounding medical, health and safety “reasons” for not allowing anyone to visit. They sound oh-so folksy when they tell a buyer that they require them to pick up the puppy from an off-site location – because, of course, they would never ship a puppy by air! Horrors! And they they call just in time to save you a trip to tell you that one of their family members just happens to be traveling through, or near to, your home and would be happy to meet you with your puppy.
    I can’t imagine any good reason for a person seeking a pet to EVER search for one online! I’m the secretary of an AKC all-breed club, and I know how the actual good breeders operate! But to look for a pet where you can’t meet the animal’s family and see where he was bred and reared, forge an ongoing relationship with the breeder for support – well, there is no shortage of dogs, anywhere! If your heart is set on a rare breed, do the traveling research yourself, in person, before you even begin to discuss purchase.
    But dogs, wonderful dogs, including those who would be perfect for you, are available right now in less than a few hours’ drive from where you live.
    Dogs should never be considered merchandise. Never.

  5. All make excellent points, and they are spot on. I have been a rescuer of puppymill dogs for many many years now, and of course have given a lot of time trying to figure out how to stop the millers.
    There are so many different ways to operate a rescue. We are all very different. Some are all breed rescues, some are breed specific. Some rescues are primarily “rehoming” dogs, either from owner surrenders or their local shelters. Some, like me, focus specifically on getting dogs out of puppymills, whatever it takes. Some rescuers, God bless them, focus entirely on saving the abused, sick, and injured dogs. Difficult as it may be to believe, there are many people in rescue who are not aware of puppymills. They are involved in rehoming dogs and never come into contact with a puppymill dog. If we have not educated people already active in the field, how can we ever expect to educate the general public?
    Then there are so many people in rescue who are not clear on the mission of rescues. A great many people think part of rescue is working to shut down the puppymills. While it may be our hearts desire, nothing any rescue can do will ever have any influence on the future of puppymills or commercial breeders. That is a job requiring legislation, to be done by people with the power to form laws and regulations. Have you ever seen a politician run on a platform for cleaning up commercial dog breeding industry? Wonder why? Occasionally a bill gets passed with new attempts to help, but they miss the mark, or just make a show of doing something while only creating controversy and compounding the problem. Not that it hardly matters because they never get the job of the enforcers funded, so it is all just a gesture with no results showing any progress.
    People are always going to want puppies, and most, I think, want a purebred. Of course there is some controversy there, too. The millennials are of the opinion that the designer breeds are purebreds, while the pre millennials have always known those “breeds” as mutts. The point I want to make here is that until we figure out a way to make sound, healthy, humanely bred dogs at a price affordable by the average middle class family and easy to locate, there will remain a market for puppymill product. You can’t eliminate an undesirable thing without replacing it with the better alternative. Until that happens, the rescuers will continue to do what we can to help the dogs here now.

  6. This statement “that any “purebred” or “designer-mix” puppy that’s for sale in a pet shop has been produced by a puppy mill, no matter what the store employees have been told to say.” is a lie that the H$U$ put out years ago. All of us that run reputable pet stores hate puppy mills too! Animal Right groups want to stop pet ownership. Animal Welfare groups want the animals treated well throughout their lives and pet stores are in this group. It’s why they own pet stores because they love animals. Animal Right groups want to make money and deceive us into thinking they want to protect pets but they don’t. Their actions are the proof. But the national AR groups have the money so they can say and do what they want. Please don’t believe their lies or give they donations. Give to you local shelter and know pet stores do care but they don’t have the millions of dollars to let the pubic know the truth.

  7. The USDA could do their job much better if adequately funded. Just like most federal agencies, their budget has been DRASTICALLY cut in recent years. But that’s because MOST Americans don’t give a d*** about ANY group that has science as it’s guiding principles. And,yes, the Animal Welfare Act has scientific principles behind it’s regulations!

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