A Closer Look at Puppy Mills

Puppy mills are large-scale commercial dog breeding operations where profit is placed above the well-being of animals. Bred without consideration of genetic quality, this produces generations of dogs with unchecked hereditary defects.

Some puppy mill puppies are sold to pet shops and marketed as young as eight weeks of age. The lineage records of puppy mill dogs are often falsified, and puppy mill dogs are often plagued with health problems.

A Look at Life Inside a Puppy Mill

The number of dogs in a puppy mill can vary significantly, ranging from 10 to 1,000 breeding dogs. Because not all puppy mills are licensed and inspected, it's impossible to know the true average.

To maximize profits, female dogs are bred at every opportunity with little to no recovery time between litters. When they are physically depleted to the point that they no longer can reproduce, breeding females are often killed. The parents of the puppy in the pet store window are unlikely to make it out of the mill alive—and neither will the many puppies born with overt physical problems.

Puppy mills usually house dogs in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, without adequate veterinary care, food, water and socialization. Puppy mill dogs do not get to experience treats, toys, exercise or basic grooming. Dogs are often kept in cages with wire flooring that injures their paws and legs—and it is not unusual for cages to be stacked up in columns. Breeding dogs at mills might spend their entire lives outdoors, exposed to the elements, or crammed inside filthy structures where they never get the chance to feel the sun or breathe fresh air.

Common Health Problems that Impact Puppy Mill Dogs

Illness and disease are common in dogs from puppy mills. Because puppy mill operators often fail to apply proper husbandry practices that would remove sick dogs from their breeding pools, puppies from puppy mills are prone to congenital and hereditary conditions. These can include:

  • Epilepsy
  • Heart disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Musculoskeletal disorders (hip dysplasia, luxating patellas, etc.)
  • Endocrine disorders (diabetes, hyperthyroidism)
  • Blood disorders (anemia, Von Willebrand disease)
  • Deafness
  • Eye problems (cataracts, glaucoma, progressive retinal atrophy, etc.)
  • Respiratory disorders

On top of that, puppies often arrive in pet stores and their new homes with diseases or infirmities, including:

  • Giardia
  • Parvovirus
  • Distemper
  • Upper respiratory infections
  • Kennel cough
  • Pneumonia
  • Mange
  • Fleas
  • Ticks
  • Intestinal parasites
  • Heartworm
  • Chronic diarrhea

Behavior Problems in Puppy Mill Dogs

Fearful behavior and lack of socialization with humans and other animals are typical of puppy mill dogs. Puppies born in puppy mills are typically removed from their littermates and mothers at just six weeks of age. The first months of a puppy's life are a critical socialization period for puppies. Spending that time with their mother and littermates helps prevent puppies from developing problems like extreme shyness, aggression, fear and anxiety.

Tips to Avoid Purchasing a Puppy Mill Dog

Many pet store owners will tell you they get all their puppies from "licensed USDA breeders" or "local breeders." In fact, in order to sell puppies to pet stores, a breeder must be licensed by the USDA. Pet stores often use this licensing to provide a false sense of security to customers, when what it really means is that they do, in fact, get their puppies from puppy mills. Being registered or “having papers” means nothing more than the puppy's parents both had papers. Many registered dogs, as well as pedigreed dogs, are sold in puppy mills. The only way you can be sure that a puppy came from a reputable source is to see where he or she came from yourself. Puppies sold online often come from puppy mills. Responsible breeders would never sell to someone they haven't met because they want to screen potential buyers to ensure the puppies are going to good homes.

Acquiring Purebred Dogs Elsewhere

Please make adoption your first option. Purebred dogs end up in shelters just like mixed breeds. Breed rescue groups exist for just about every breed possible. If you have your heart set on a purebred, please be sure to visit your local shelter or find a breed rescue group before searching for a breeder. If you can't find what you want through a shelter or breed rescue group, please learn how to recognize a responsible breeder. When buying a dog from a breeder, always be sure to meet the puppy's parents or at least the mother, and see where the dogs live. Never meet a breeder at an off-site location, and never have a puppy shipped to you sight-unseen.

Puppy Mills Across the United States

The highest concentration of puppy mills is in the Midwest, specifically in Missouri, but there are also high concentrations in other areas, including Pennsylvania, Ohio and upstate New York. Commercial dog breeding is very prevalent among Amish and Mennonite farmers. There are typically between 2,000 and 3,000 USDA-licensed breeders (commonly referred to as puppy mills) operating in the United States. This number does not take into consideration the number of breeders not required to be licensed by the USDA or the number of breeders operating illegally without a license. Because so many of these breeders are operating without oversight, it's impossible to accurately track them or to know how many there truly are. The ASPCA estimates that there could be as many as 10,000 puppy mills across the nation.

Puppy Mill Legislation

The federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA), passed in 1966, requires breeders who have more than three breeding female dogs and sell puppies to pet stores or puppy brokers to be licensed and inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In most cases, the standards that breeders are required to meet by law are extremely minimal. Under the AWA, it is legal to keep a dog in a cage only six inches longer than the dog in each direction, with a wire floor, stacked on top of another cage, for the dog's entire life. Conditions that most people would consider inhumane, or even cruel, are often legal.

With the evolution of Internet commerce, puppy mills have sprouted up all over the world to provide poorly bred puppies of every imaginable breed directly to the consumer. As a result, the U.S. market has seen 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 AWA—it is likely that many of these dogs are bred and raised in extremely inhumane conditions.

An amendment to the 2008 Farm Bill prohibits the importation of puppies less than six months of age for the purpose of resale. In August 2014, the USDA adopted regulations implementing the law at national ports of entry.

More than half of U.S. states have chosen to legislate higher standards of care for commercially bred animals beyond the bare minimums required by the AWA. Unfortunately, 21 states have no laws on the books regulating commercial dog breeders—and a number of states that do require breeders to be licensed and inspected by the state only require commercial breeders to meet USDA standards of care.