Puppy Mills: Dogs Abused for the Pet Trade

It can be hard to resist the cute puppies and kittens for sale in pet-store windows. But a closer look into how these stores obtain animals reveals a system in which the high price that consumers pay for “that doggie in the window” pales in comparison with the cost paid by not just the animals who are sold in pet stores but also the animals who are forced to produce litter after litter in order to supply these stores.

That adorable little puppy in the store probably came from a “puppy mill,” a breeding kennel that raises dogs in cramped, crude, filthy conditions. The majority of these facilities are in the Midwest (there are an estimated 1,500 unlicensed kennels in Missouri alone), but they can be found throughout the country, and some dealers even import puppies from other countries.(1, 2) Constant confinement and a lack of adequate veterinary care and socialization often result in unhealthy animals who are difficult to socialize. Consequently, many puppies are abandoned within weeks or months of their adoption by frustrated buyers – further exacerbating the tragic companion-animal overpopulation crisis.

Cages, Filth, and Neglect

Puppy-mill kennels can consist of anything from small cages made of wood and wire mesh to tractor-trailer cabs to simple tethers attached to trees. A Pennsylvania breeder confessed that he kept his dogs in cages because it was “the only way to keep a lot of dogs – to keep them penned up.”(3) Female dogs are bred twice a year and are usually killed or abandoned when they are no longer able to produce puppies.(4) Mothers and their litters often suffer from malnutrition, exposure, and a lack of adequate veterinary care.

Puppies are torn away from their mothers and sold to brokers who pack them into crates for transport and resale to pet stores. Puppies who are shipped from mill to broker to pet store can travel hundreds of miles in pickup trucks, tractor-trailers, and airplanes, often without adequate food, water, ventilation, or shelter.

Even if a store claims that it doesn’t buy from puppy mills, there is a good chance that it buys from a broker who does.(5)

Young puppies who survive the unsanitary conditions at puppy mills and endure the grueling transport to pet stores have rarely received the kind of loving human contact that is necessary for them to become suitable companions. Breeders, brokers, and pet stores ensure maximum profits by not spending money for proper food, housing, or veterinary care.

Conditions do not improve much when the puppies reach pet stores. Dogs who are kept in small cages without exercise, love, or human contact tend to develop undesirable behavior and may bark excessively or become destructive and unsociable. Unlike many humane societies and animal shelters, pet stores do not screen buyers or inspect potential future homes of the dogs they sell. Poor enforcement of humane laws allows shops to continue selling sick animals, although humane societies and police departments sometimes succeed in closing down stores in which severe abuse is uncovered.

The Plight of Purebreds and ‘Designer Dogs’

Some people impulsively obtain purebred dogs, even though they may not be educated about the breed or ready for the commitment that companion animals require. Movies such as 101 Dalmatians and Beethoven, TV shows, and commercials have caused a jump in the popularity of certain breeds, yet very few potential dog caretakers take the time to investigate the traits and needs of the breed that they are considering. “Every time Hollywood makes a dog movie, the breed goes to hell,” says one caretaker of Bouvier des Flandres dogs. A Dalmatian fancier concludes that “the unscrupulous breeders will see there’s a profit margin there.”(6) When there is a surge in demand for a particular breed, puppy mills try to meet that demand. But when Jack Russell terriers don’t turn out to be just like Frasier’s “Eddie” or St. Bernards don’t act just like “Beethoven,” rescue groups and animal shelters become flooded with these breeds.

A similar phenomenon is happening with so-called “designer dogs,” such as Labradoodles and cockapoos, who can be sold for thousands of dollars to unsuspecting people who know nothing about the breed. Says one veterinarian, “People just see a designer breed and say, ‘I’ve never heard of that dog, but it sounds cute.’”(7)

At puppy mills, dogs are bred for quantity, not quality, so unmonitored genetic defects and personality disorders that are passed on from generation to generation are common. This situation results in high veterinary bills for people who buy these dogs and the possibility that unsociable or maladjusted dogs will be disposed of by their unprepared “owners.” “There is virtually no consideration of temperament,” says one dog trainer. “I wish legislators could sit in my office and watch … people sobbing in extreme emotional pain over having to decide whether to euthanize their dog because of some serious behavioral problem.”(8)

The American Kennel Club (AKC) opposes mandatory spay-and-neuter programs for purebred dogs and receives funding from breeders who pay AKC registration fees.(9) Buyers may be swayed by talk of “papers” and “AKC registration,” but these papers cannot ensure good temperament or good health. Says one veterinarian, “The best use of pedigree papers is for housebreaking your dog. They don’t mean a damn thing.”(10)

The Puppy Pipelines

Dealers who want to avoid relevant U.S. laws – the few that exist – look elsewhere to continue doing business. For example, there is a network of breeders and smugglers who bring puppies into the U.S. from Mexico. While investigating what he called this “multi-million dollar industry,” Capt. Aaron Reyes of the Southeast Area Animal Control Authority reported finding “puppies stuffed in speaker boxes, screwed into the car door panels and wrapped in blankets with their little legs taped to their bodies and stuffed under seats.”(11) At Los Angeles International Airport, 30 puppies were found in a shipment from South Korea. Twenty either died or had to be euthanized after the arduous journey.(12)

While no federal agency tracks the number of puppies that enter the U.S., an investigation by a New York TV station concluded that thousands of puppies arrive every year and that many are sick or dead when they get here. A staff member at a private veterinary clinic at John F. Kennedy International Airport told the CBS affiliate that she had seen “a couple of cases where [the puppies] were shrink-wrapped.” The station also found that although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other federal agencies have been alerted to the problem of underage, sick puppies being crammed for shipping into filthy, crowded kennels for hours at a time, none has jurisdiction over the animals’ care. The CDC only checks animals for rabies, and the USDA regulations for dogs’ age and transport conditions do not apply to foreign shipments.(13)

Some states have enacted “puppy lemon laws” that give caretakers the right to return sick or dead puppies for replacement or that offer the option of having veterinary expenses paid by the seller. Unfortunately, depending on the state, the law may not clearly say to whom it applies, or it may affect only pet stores or breeders that sell a certain number of animals each year. Check with your state’s attorney’s office to find out about your state’s laws.

What You Can Do

With millions of unwanted dogs and cats (including purebreds) dying every year in animal shelters, there is simply no reason for animals to be bred and sold for the pet-store trade. Without these stores, the financial incentive for puppy mills would disappear, and the suffering of these dogs would end. The best way to find a companion animal is through an animal shelter or a rescue group.

1) Josh Shaffer, “Bill Targets Squalid ‘Puppy Mills,’” Fort Worth Star-Telegram 13 Apr 2002.
2) “Lawmakers Strengthen ‘Puppy Mill’ Law,” Kearney Courier News 20 Apr 2011.
3) Suzanne Smalley, “A (Designer) Dog’s Life,” Newsweek 13 Apr 2009.
4) Natalie Lariccia, “A Warning on Puppy Mills,” The Vindicator 25 Apr 2000.
5) Lariccia.
6) Chuck Haga, “Every Dog Has Its Day,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune 7 Sep 1999.
7) Smalley.
8) Richard P. Jones, “Panel Weakens Pet Industry Rules,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 19 May 2003.
9) American Kennel Club, “Hollister, CA to Consider Mandatory Spay/Neuter of Chihuahuas and Pit Bulls,” AKC News, 12 May 2010.
10) Michael D. Lemonick, “A Terrible Beauty,” Time 12 Dec 1994.
11) Chris Sweeney, “Inside the Black Market: Puppy Smuggling,” DVM Newsmagazine 25 Mar 2010.
12) Carrie Kahn, “Shipment Shows Dark Side of Foreign Puppy Mills,” NPR Morning Edition 30 Dec 2008.
13) “Puppy Pipeline: Many Shipped to America Are Abused,” WCBS TV, 17 Feb 2006.