By Jennifer Phillips
We’ve probably all walked past a pet store and had to stop for a moment to enjoy the silly antics of a playful puppy. They are so adorable and innocent as they look back out at you, hoping you’ll take them home. It may be really difficult for some people to resist the urge to want to buy one of these precious puppies. But the sad truth is that they are likely part of the appalling puppy mill industry.
After World War II, The United States Department of Agriculture began promoting puppy mills as a fool-proof cash crop in response to failing crops in the Midwest. Chicken coops and rabbit hutches became dog cages, supplying puppies to the growing pet industry, creating the first puppy mills. Since then, the number of puppy mills has grown significantly.
A puppy mill is a dog breeding facility, which is often a large-scale commercial facility that may be USDA-licensed, where profit takes priority over the health and well-being of the dogs. This is in contrast with to the ideals of a responsible breeder who takes great care in breeding healthy dogs that are well cared for and socialized before going to a good home. The numbers of dogs kept in a puppy mill can vary widely, ranging from small scale breeders that may only have 10 breeding dogs, to large scale breeders that may have over 1,000 breeding dogs.
Most of the puppies sold at pet stores, as well as those sold online, come from puppy mills. Despite what a pet store owner might say to make the situation sound better, such as that their dogs are from licensed USDA breeders or local breeders, the puppies seen in pet stores come from puppy mills. Responsible, reputable breeders do not sell their puppies to pet stores because this prevents them from screening potential owners.
There are approximately 2,000 to 3,000 puppy mills that are USDA-licensed in the United States, but the number of breeders that are exempt from USDA regulation and those that operate illegally likely means that the actual number is much higher. Although it is hard to say exactly how many puppy mills currently exist in the United States, the ASPCA estimates that there could up to 10,000 of them in operation throughout the country.
Puppy mills exist in varying concentrations throughout the United States. The highest concentration of puppy mills can be found in the Midwest, with Missouri being the leading puppy mill state in the U.S. Many are also located in Pennsylvania, Ohio and upstate New York. Amish and Mennonite farmers, particularly those in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and parts of Wisconsin are responsible for a large number of the puppy mills that are used for commercial dog breeding.
There are many reasons why puppy mills are unacceptable to anyone who cares about the welfare of animals. Puppy mills breed without consideration of genetic quality, which leads to generations of dogs with hereditary defects. Puppies born with obvious physical problems due to poor breeding practices are euthanized. Puppies that come from mills are usually taken from their littermates and mothers at only six weeks old and are also not handled regularly by humans, so they are lacking important socialization skills with humans as well as other animals. These dogs may develop problems such as extreme shyness, aggression, fear and anxiety.
Many dogs at puppy mills will also experience highly inadequate housing conditions. They tend to be overcrowded, living in small unsanitary cages that are arranged in stacks to house many dogs in a small area. Wire flooring that allows waste to fall through, minimizing cleanup effort, can cause injuries to their paws and legs. They often lack adequate veterinary care, exercise, basic grooming, toys, treats, food, and water. The breeding dogs at mills might spend their entire lives living outdoors, constantly exposed to the elements, or stuck indoors where they’ll never get a chance to enjoy sunlight and fresh air. In order to maximize profits, females are subjected to such frequent breeding that it is hard on their body, leaving them unable to reproduce after only a few years, at which point they are usually euthanized.
The Animal Welfare Act is a Federal law that was passed in 1966 and is enforced by the USDA, which regulates the treatment of animals in research, exhibition, transport, and by dealers (breeders). Loopholes within the system allow some breeders to operate without regulations, meaning that they are not required to be inspected or adhere to any standards. According to the Animal Welfare Act, breeders who have more than three breeding females must be licensed and inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). However, this allows breeders with fewer breeding females to operate without regulation. Wholesale breeders, those who sell puppies to pet stores or puppy brokers, must also be licensed and inspected by the USDA, but breeders who sell directly to consumers are exempt from regulation.
Even the facilities that are under regulation are allowed to keep their dogs in conditions that most would find unacceptable. According to the federal Animal Welfare Act, it is legal to cage a dog in a space that provides only six inches of room to move, and has an unsafe wire floor. These cramped cages may then be stacked on top of one another cage, forcing many dogs to live in very close quarters, usually for life. Even in licensed breeding facilities, one of the issues surrounding puppy mills is the lack of enforcement by the USDA, which allows inadequate and inhumane conditions to continue.
There are several ways that you can help put an end to the success of puppy mills. Most importantly, you can refuse to support stores that sell puppies by not shopping there. There are many wonderful dogs, including both mixed breed and purebred dogs that are waiting for homes in shelters and rescues across the country. If you are determined to find a purebred dog, and you’ve exhausted your efforts with adoption, choosing a responsible breeder is another option. You can also help advocate for the dogs by fighting for laws that protect them, and spreading the word to others who may want to help. Adopting a former puppy mill dog, who may have special needs, is another way that you can help these dogs.
There is much that still needs to be done to overcome the issues surrounding puppy mills. Although many problems with puppy mills exist at the Federal level, you can still make a difference at an individual level. You can help work toward ending the support of puppy mills and closing them by sharing knowledge about what they are and why they are unacceptable for man’s best friend.