Puppy Mills: What to Look Out For When Picking Your Next Puppy

Lea Jarataz

Puppy Mills

I’ve had a fair bit of secondhand experience with puppy mills. One of my first jobs out of high school was working for a national chain of pet stores that was, at that time, one of the largest sellers of puppies, which I now know were sourced from puppy mills. A few days into the job, I sold a Whippet puppy to a young man and stood watching as they walked out the door. Seeing that puppy leave made me realize how many puppies and other pets were homeless in shelters. I didn’t last a week at that job. I eventually took a position in a large animal shelter here in Ohio, which took in a number of puppy mill cruelty cases from throughout the Midwest. Once I knew about puppy mills, I could see that their impact was far reaching. As I was at work to find foster homes for some of the 1,000 Dachshunds that came out of a mill in West Virginia, I learned that my husband’s beloved childhood Dachshund had come from that same mill 20 years earlier. She had been loved by their family, but that realization made me begin to understand the long running and far reaching impact of puppy mills.

What I don’t have, exactly, is firsthand experience with puppy mills. So, while I’ve always imagined a puppy mill or a puppy farm to be a barn with a bunch of cages and a few dozen animals in bad conditions, I never fully understood how many mills existed and what their “output” was like. Let’s look at some of the facts about puppy mills:

What is a puppy mill?

A puppy mill, sometimes known as a puppy farm, is a large-scale breeder of animals, which can include cats, horses, and even exotics. In these operations the goal is to maximize profit, so conditions are poor and often to the detriment of the animals’ health and socialization. The HSUS estimates roughly 10,000 puppy mills exist in the U.S.

Females in the mill are typically bred as frequently as possible, and the puppies are separated from her at an early age and sent to vendors or pet stores, passed off as coming from a respectable breeder. However, animals kept in puppy mills lack even the most basic veterinary care, grooming, and socialization. They’re often fed through their kennel bars and live on wire-floored crates, never being touched, handled, or allowed to leave their confines. With as many as 1,000 animals per facility, without heat or air conditioning, their health is in serious peril.

Due to the fact that small dogs are easier to house and tend to be more popular, puppy mills frequently breed toy or small breed dogs, but some have a large variety of breeds in their facilities. It’s estimated that puppy mills produce 2 million animals in the U.S. each year.

A puppy mill should not be confused with a backyard breeder, where there are “oops litters” or small numbers of puppies bred with the intent to sell. They should also not be confused with reputable breeders who give the utmost concern to the health and wellbeing of not only the individual animals, but the breed overall.

Where are puppy mills and when did they start?

Public knowledge about the terrible conditions in large-scale breeding operations has increased rapidly in the past decade or more, possibly due to PR campaigns from organizations like HSUS and ASPCA. But, they originated shortly after WWII. So, while there was a baby boom going on, there was also a puppy boom happening.

Puppy mills are an international issue, though in the U.S. they’re most common in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arkansas, Missouri, and Kansas. While the number of retailers selling puppy mill dogs has declined drastically, in large part due to public outcry, puppy mill dogs are still sold regularly at auction, online, or even at roadside stands, under the guise of “adoption.”

What is being done about the puppy mill problem?

State governments are slowly addressing the puppy mill issue within their state by implementing laws to address licensing and the need for inspection. Many of these laws include mandates that require a minimum size for the cage or health and safety requirements. However, the puppy millers have pushed back, citing that additional costs and fees to operate their business will further reduce their profit margins and will negatively impact the animals. In areas where the puppy mills are most prevalent, locals see these laws as harming respectable business people or “hobby breeders.” Changes to the puppy mill industry are progressing, but many operations still function in secret, without any oversight.

What can I do about puppy mills?

The most important tool in the fight against puppy mills is you. Don’t buy animals online, from a classified ad, or from a pet store. Adopt from a reputable rescue or a breeder where you can see the parents yourself. If you have your heart set on a particular breed, breed rescues exist and can be found on Petfinder.com

I don’t plan to have any firsthand experience with a puppy mill, unless, that is, I happen to adopt a dog who’s been rescued from the puppy mill machine. But armed with this knowledge, and by practicing smart spending, we can reduce the puppy mill population.

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