The ASPCA defines a puppy mill as "a large-scale commercial dog breeding operation where profit is given priority over the well-being of the dogs." There is no legal definition of "puppy mill," and puppy mills aren't necessarily illegal. It is difficult to create laws that effectively crack down on puppy mills, but commercial breeding of dogs is regulated on the federal level and on the state level—but only in some states (see interactive U.S. map of state dog breeding laws).
The laws discussed below, which concern puppy mill-related standards and rules, are administrative laws—they are distinct from animal cruelty laws, which are criminal laws. (Commercial kennels that violate these kennel standards can be cited, kind of like how restaurants that violate health codes can be cited.)
Typically, commercial kennel owners that violate the cruelty laws of a state are subject to criminal charges, but law enforcement cannot always obtain probable cause to enter a kennel to identify cruelty violations.
The Animal Welfare Act
The Animal Welfare Act (AWA), a federal law passed in 1966, regulates certain animal activities, including commercial dog and cat breeding. The AWA defines the minimum standards of care for dogs, cats and certain other species of animals bred for commercial resale, research, and exhibition. It also requires that certain commercial breeders be licensed and routinely inspected by the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA). However, the standards are far from what most people would consider to be humane. They are merely survival standards for dogs. For example, dogs in federally licensed breeding facilities can legally be kept in cages that are only six inches wider than the dog in each direction for their entire lives. Violations often go unpunished. Lack of enforcement by the USDA overall means thousands of dogs are left to suffer in inadequate and inhumane conditions year after year, even in federally licensed facilities.
There is also a massive loophole in the AWA. Only animal-breeding businesses considered "wholesale" operations—those that sell animals to brokers or pet stores for resale—are subject to oversight by the USDA. The AWA does not apply to facilities that sell directly to the public, including the thousands that now do so via the Internet. The result is that no one regulates these facilities. There are no inspections, no standards that they are required to meet and no consequences for providing inadequate care. Since 2008, Congress has considered bills that would effectively close this loophole in the AWA and bring direct sales breeders under federal oversight. Before Congress acted to pass a bill, in May 2012 the USDA proposed a change to the AWA regulations that aims to close this loophole once and for all. To learn more about the proposed rule, please visit the ASPCA Advocacy Center.
Read more about the Animal Welfare Act.
The 2008 Farm Bill
With the evolution of Internet commerce, puppy mills have sprouted up all over the world to provide poorly bred puppies of every imaginable breed and "designer mixed breed" directly to the consumer. As a result, the U.S. market began to see an increase in imported dogs in bad health and/or possibly carrying diseases that could harm people and other animals. Because foreign puppy mills are not subject to U.S. regulations—such as the standards set forth in the Animal Welfare Act—it is likely that many of these dogs are bred and raised in extremely inhumane conditions.
In a major victory, in May 2008 the ASPCA and other animal welfare groups successfully fought for an amendment to Congress' Farm Bill that prohibits the importation of puppies under six months of age for the purpose of resale.
States have the power to legislate higher standards of care for commercially bred animals beyond the bare minimums required by the federal Animal Welfare Act. Some states have chosen to take advantage of the ability to regulate commercial breeders, while others have not. Over the past few years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of states considering and enacting bills to regulate the commercial breeding industry.
In 2008 Pennsylvania enacted the most stringent standards of care in the country for commercial breeders, requiring them to provide dogs with twice the USDA-regulated cage space, constant access to an outdoor exercise run and annual veterinary exams. The Pennsylvania law also prohibits the use of wire flooring and stacking cages on top of one another, both of which are legally permissible under the federal law. A number of states, including Kansas and Texas, have laws in place requiring breeders to be licensed and inspected by the state, but only require commercial breeders to meet USDA standards of care.
In addition to laws that set forth standards of care and require breeders to be licensed and inspected, a handful of states have enacted laws that limit the number of dogs a breeder may keep. In 2008, Virginia became the first state to pass such a law, limiting breeders to 50 breeding dogs. The bill went from introduction in the Virginia Legislature to the governor's desk in just four months. Louisiana also passed a law in 2008 to limit the total number of animals a commercial breeder may possess, and in 2009, Oregon and Washington State followed suit. As the voting public objects to the plight of puppy mill dogs more vocally, political action and legislator support will likely increase in the years to come.
Unfortunately, some states have absolutely no laws on the books addressing the "commercial use of dogs"—an umbrella phrase that includes pet stores, breeders, kennels and dealers. Among the states that do regulate, each government defines the preceding terms differently. To fully understand how producers and sellers of puppies are regulated in each state, careful attention must be paid to each law's precise wording. To learn how your state stacks up, see a table of state laws concerning breeders, kennels and puppy mills.
Nearly 20 states also have laws dictating how old a puppy must be before he or she may be offered for sale or adoption.
Laws to Protect Consumers
If you buy a puppy from a pet shop, you are not only supporting the cruel puppy mill industry, but you also run the risk of taking home a sick animal. In fact, the ASPCA, through its No Pet Store Puppies campaign, advises people not to purchase puppies, or even pet supplies, in pet stores that sell puppies. Respiratory infections including pneumonia, as well as hereditary defects like hip dysplasia and severe allergies, are common among the indiscriminately bred puppies from puppy mills.
If you have purchased a pet store puppy who turned out to be sick, you have may have some recourse—as of January 2010, 20 states have enacted laws, commonly called "lemon laws," that make pet stores financially responsible for sick animals purchased from them. See a state-by-state list of lemon laws and know your rights.
The ASPCA's Involvement with Puppy Mill Legislation
For many years, the ASPCA has been active in drafting and promoting legislation that would strengthen regulations and raise minimum standard of care for dogs in puppy mills. For instance, in 2008 we helped write Pennsylvania House Bills 2525 and 2532, landmark legislation to prohibit some of the worst abuses in Pennsylvania's commercial dog kennels and strengthen enforcement of the state's animal cruelty law. Pennsylvania House Bill 2525 was passed in October 2008 and signed into law by Governor Ed Rendell almost immediately.
In 2009, we were particularly active in Connecticut and Tennessee, and in 2010, we were a lead organization working to pass a puppy mill-related ballot initiative in Missouri, known as the "Puppy Mill Capital of the U.S."
The ASPCA will continue to tackle puppy mills on both the state and national levels while fulfilling our mission to raise awareness and educate the public. Recent national media attention to puppy mills has created strong momentum, and the ASPCA has seen a spike in legislators' requests to help draft, introduce and pass puppy mill legislation.
"In terms of where we will take the fight next, there are many factors that could shape our plans," says Cori Menkin, Senior Director, ASPCA Puppy Mills Campaign. "An area's political climate or available resources can dictate how much success we can achieve on an issue. This might mean having to hold off on battling in certain areas that have very high concentrations of puppy mills, and instead focusing on where there is the most potential for change. We know that the road might be long, but we are hopeful that if we keep enlightening more and more people about puppy mills, the desire to push for stronger laws to protect the dogs will become contagious."
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