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, but they can be found throughout the country, and some dealers even import puppies from other countries.1 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.”2 Female dogs are bred twice a year and are usually killed or abandoned when they are no longer able to produce puppies.3 Mothers and their litters often suffer from malnutrition, exposure, and a lack of adequate veterinary care. A puppy mill operator in New York used a makeshift gas chamber to kill 93 dogs and puppies, putting groups of five or six at a time into a sealed “whelping box,” which he had hooked up to a tractor engine. He told a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspector that he gassed the dogs after being told that he would have to test and treat them for brucellosis.4
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.
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 don’t 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.
Of the millions of puppies born at mills every year, an estimated half of them are sold over the internet. Rolling Stone called online sales of puppies “the perfect crime…Courts don’t care about out-of-state victims, and the feds don’t even fine breeders, much less arrest them, for selling sick pups on bogus sites.”5
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, 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 bouviers 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 the dogs don’t turn out to be just like their fictional counterparts, rescue groups and animal shelters become flooded with these breeds.
A similar phenomenon happens 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 breeds. Says one animal geneticist, “Cute as they may be, when you mix dog breeds, you really don’t know what you’re going to get.”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 intelligent, articulate, hardworking 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 transport conditions do not apply to foreign shipments.13,14
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.
1Saryn Chorney, “23 French Bulldog Puppies Found Inside Moving Van in 121 Degree Heat Get Second Chance,’” People, 23 Aug. 2018.
2Suzanne Smalley, “How Puppy Mills May Benefit from Obama Dog Choice,” Newsweek 3 Apr. 2009.
3Natalie Lariccia, “A Warning on Puppy Mills,” The Vindicator 25 Apr. 2000.
4Scott Rapp, “Seneca County Kennel Owner Accused of Using Homemade Gas Chamber To Kill 93 Dogs,” The Post-Standard, 15 Sept. 2010.
5Paul Solotaroff, “The Dog Factory: Inside the Sickening World of Puppy Mills,” Rolling Stone, 3 Jan. 2017.
6Chuck Haga, “Every Dog Has Its Day,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune 7 Sep 1999.
7Elizabeth Fiedler,”Americans Love Designer Dogs But Health Problems Are Common,” WHYY, 23 Jan. 2017.
8Richard P. Jones, “Panel Weakens Pet Industry Rules,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 19 May 2003.
9American Kennel Club, “Issue Analysis: Why Breed-Specific Legislation Doesn’t Work,” AKC News, 7 Apr. 2015.
10Michael D. Lemonick, “A Terrible Beauty,” Time 24 Jun. 2001.
11Chris Sweeney, “Inside the Black Market: Puppy Smuggling,” DVM Newsmagazine 7 Mar 2015.
12Carrie Kahn, “Grim Puppy-Mill Shipment Makes L.A. Take Notice,” NPR Morning Edition 30 Dec 2008.
13Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Bringing a Dog into the United States,” 18 Dec. 2018.
14United States Department of Agriculture,”Importation of Dogs Regulation,” 10 Aug. 2018.