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Puppy Mills: The Dark Side of That Doggie in the Window

By Christy True
published: September 16, 2020 - updated: September 2, 2022 • 5 min. read
Rescued dogs being unloaded

Many potential pet parents don’t know that when they buy a puppy from a pet store or on the internet, that dog almost certainly came from a puppy mill, which is a sort of inhumane, high-volume “factory farm” for dogs.

While there are responsible breeders that treat their dogs well, many dogs from puppy mills live in small cages, often in the minimum legal size allowed (only six inches larger than the dog on all sides). Female dogs are bred frequently and for many more years than would be considered healthy and humane. In the worst cases, the dogs have serious, even life-threatening medical issues, many are parasite ridden, suffer from matted fur and long, twisted nails, and most have not received socialization with humans.

At eight weeks of age, puppies born in puppy mills are shipped to pet stores across the country. Many puppies already show signs of fear, sickness, malnutrition, and/or behavioral issues, any of which can become chronic challenges for both the dog and its owner. As these challenges become more difficult for pet owners to manage or afford, some of these pets wind up in shelters, significantly contributing to pet overpopulation.

As well, breeding parent dogs often suffer from minor, or in some cases, major genetic defects. These defects may not yet be apparent or visible in their puppies, but big veterinary bills may be coming in the not-so-distant future.

“Puppy mills are a cruel betrayal of our relationship with dogs,” said Theresa Strader, founder and executive director of the nonprofit National Mill Dog Rescue in Peyton, Colo.

Saturday, Sept. 19 is National Puppy Mill Awareness Day. To mark the occasion, the Healthy Paws Foundation is donating $10,000 to the National Mill Dog Rescue, which rehabilitates and rehomes retired commercial breeding dogs. The rescue reports it has saved and adopted out more than 15,000 dogs since its founding in 2007.

The foundation’s mission is to provide grants to animal rescue organizations to fund medicine, food, shelter, and operating costs for taking care of homeless pets. Strader said her group would use the foundation grant for two heart surgeries and one orthopedic surgery on three dogs, two of whom would otherwise not survive.

Man hugging a dog on his lapWhile awareness of puppy mills’ terrible conditions is growing, there are still about 10,000 dog mills in the U.S. and about two million puppies sold each year from mills, according to the Humane Society of the U.S.

National Mill Dog Rescue takes dogs that cannot be sold because they are no longer able to produce profitable litters. Most of the dogs they rescue are between five and ten years of age. They occasionally get puppies who are unable to be sold, most often due to genetic defects, Strader said.

“This is the only chance these dogs will ever have at knowing the life they always deserved. Otherwise, they are destroyed,” Strader said.

Once or twice a month, Strader personally travels to locations throughout the Midwest to pick up dogs and transport them to their kennel near Colorado Springs. Dozens of staff and volunteers provide medical care, grooming, training, and socialization before the rescued dogs are available for adoption. The greatest pride of staff and volunteers is their dedication to ensuring all the dogs they rescue and care for are placed into loving homes, even if their rehabilitation takes years.

The organization was forced to halt rescue and transport in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic but has now resumed operations, with masking and distancing precautions in place.

What does the law say about puppy mills?

In 1966, Congress passed the Animal Welfare Act, which outlines specific minimum standards of care for dogs, cats, and some other kinds of animals bred for commercial resale, according to the Humane Society.

Under the law, large-scale commercial breeders must be licensed and regularly inspected by the Department of Agriculture. But rescue groups say there are many loopholes and lax enforcement in some states. Also, breeders who sell dogs to the public directly are not required to adhere to the Animal Welfare Act or any federal humane care standards.

The Humane Society of the United States has obtained inspection records that show many licensed breeders get away with repeated violations of the Animal Welfare Act. Rarely are these violators fined, nor are their licenses suspended. Facilities with long histories of repeated violations for basic care conditions are often allowed to renew their licenses.

Unloading rescued dogs
Theresa Strader of National Dog Mill Rescue unloading rescued dogs.

How to identify a reputable breeder

If you have your heart set on adopting a purebred dog from a breeder, there are some ways to tell a reputable breeder who cares for their dogs from a profit-driven puppy mill breeder, according to the Puppy Mill Project. Also, keep in mind that about a quarter of the dogs in shelters are purebreds.

A reputable breeder will:

  • Have nothing to hide. They want you to meet the puppies’ parents and see the environment where the puppies were raised. If the breeder won’t let you view where the dogs and puppies live, it’s a bad sign.
  • Provide appropriate food, water, shelter, veterinary care, and sanitary conditions, and they spend time socializing the dogs.
  • Usually, focus on one or two breeds and maintain a small number of dogs. Their goal is to bring the bloodlines closest to the breed standard. They claim membership in breed clubs.
  • Carefully screen buyers to place their puppies in permanent, loving homes. They will also take any of the puppies they’ve bred back into their care for the dog’s lifetime, taking full responsibility for the dogs they have produced.
  • Wants to know about you and develop a relationship with you. They enjoy updates and photographs of their puppies as they grow and are always available to help with any questions or concerns about their puppies.
  • Take proper care of breeding dogs and only breed them a limited number of times.
  • Wants to know about you and develop a relationship with you. They enjoy updates and photographs of their puppies as they grow and are always available to help with any questions or concerns about their puppies.
  • Take proper care of breeding dogs and only breed them a limited number of times.

People rescuing a bulldog
The good news

Groups such as the National Mill Dog Rescue and The Puppy Mill Project raise consumer awareness of the issue with social media, billboards and advertisements, community events, and peaceful demonstrations. They believe people don’t want to support cruel animal practices; they simply are not aware.

Strader said awareness is much higher than it was when she started in 2007, and at least in some states, enforcement of animal abuse laws has helped curb some of the worst offenders.

Starting in January 2019,  California became the first state to prohibit the sale of dogs, cats, and rabbits in pet stores unless the animals are from a rescue organization and have been neutered or spayed.

Also, 202 cities in 18 states have passed a ban on selling puppy-mill dogs in pet stores. The list includes big metropolitan cities, including Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Philadelphia.

What can you do to fight puppy mills?

  • Don’t buy dogs from pet stores or on the internet, including sites like Craigslist. Adopt from your local shelter or rescue instead. When you adopt, you’re not only refusing to support puppy mills, you’re saving a life and giving an animal in need a second chance.
  • Spread the word: teach others about puppy mills.
  • If you know of or suspect a puppy mill, you can report it to the Humane Society to investigate and report to local law enforcement if appropriate. Or call 1-877-MILL-TIP
  • If you have purchased a puppy that becomes sick and you suspect he came from a puppy mill, you can report it to your local animal control or law enforcement agencies, your state agriculture department, or the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

If you want to support the Healthy Paws Foundation, we will make a donation for each person who requests a quote for pet insurance. Start by getting a quote.

Christy True and Tomas
By Christy True

Christy has been writing about pets for Healthy Paws for 21 dog years. She previously worked in journalism, hence her penchant for writing about offbeat animal studies and the latest viral pet trends. She has been owned by several dogs, and right now, Tomas, a Mexican street dog rescue, is staring at her because he wants a walk. Outside of work, she can usually be found sliding down a mountain near her home in Bend, Ore.

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