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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 to the cost paid by animals who are sold in pet stores or forced to produce them.
That adorable little scamp 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 kennels 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 animals who are unhealthy and difficult to socialize. As a result, many 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 or simple tethers attached to trees. One Arkansas facility had “cages hanging from the ceiling of an unheated cinder-block building ….”(2) Female dogs are bred twice a year and are usually destroyed 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.
Puppies are taken 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/or airplanes, often without adequate food, water, ventilation, or shelter. Two men faced charges after 38 puppies were found to be confined to a feces-filled van without food, water, or space to exercise. The men were transporting the animals from Oklahoma to Florida when a passerby noticed the dogs’ distressed barking and the foul stench emanating from the van, which was parked at a Daytona Beach motel.(4) In Tennessee, 150 overheated puppies, who were traveling from a Missouri puppy mill to pet stores on the East Coast, were found in a cargo truck without air conditioning; four died.(5) Even if a store claims that it doesn’t buy from puppy mills, there is a good chance that it buys from a broker who does.(6)
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 behaviors and may bark excessively or become destructive and unsociable. Unlike many humane societies and shelters, pet stores do not screen buyers or inspect the 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 where severe abuse is uncovered.
Farms and Brokers Do Big Business
When PETA conducted an undercover investigation at Nielsen Farms, a puppy mill in Kansas, PETA’s investigator found that the dogs had no bedding or protection from the cold or heat. Some dogs were suffering from untreated wounds, ear infections, and abscessed feet. Confinement and loneliness had caused some mother dogs to go mad. PETA’s investigator witnessed one USDA inspection, during which the officer glanced at the cages but did not examine the dogs. Our investigation led to the Kansas facility’s closing and a $20,000 fine from the USDA. The Nielsens are also “permanently disqualified from being licensed” by the USDA.(7)
There are thousands of breeders and dealers across the country. In Missouri alone, there are more than 1,400 licensed dog-breeding operations, although so many illegal breeders are in business that a state audit advised that the program designed to regulate commercial breeding was ineffective.(8) The nation’s largest puppy broker is the Hunte Corporation in Missouri, which also exports dogs overseas.(9) The company has been linked to numerous negligent pet stores and breeders and has sponsored American Kennel Club (AKC) meetings.(10) The USDA has loaned the company more than $4 million for expansion and upgrades in recent years—taxpayer money being used to bring more misery to dogs and puppies.(11)
The Plight of Purebreds
Some people impulsively obtain purebred dogs, even though they may not be educated about the breed or ready for the commitment that animal companions require. Movies such as 101 Dalmatians and Beethoven, TV shows like Frasier, and commercials such as those for Taco Bell 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 Bouvier des Flandres dogs. A Dalmatian fancier concludes that “… the unscrupulous breeders will see there’s a profit margin there.”(12) When there is a surge in demand for a particular breed, puppy mills try to meet that demand, but when Jack Russell terriers don’t turn out to be just like Frasier’s “Eddie” or St. Bernards don’t act just like “Beethoven,” rescue groups and animal shelters become flooded with these breeds.
The AKC, which opposes mandatory spay/neuter programs for purebred dogs, receives millions of dollars from breeders who pay AKC registration fees.(13) The AKC registered more than 421,000 dogs in 2005, some of whom will join the millions of animals who end up in animal shelters every year.(14) 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.”(15) The AKC has minimum care standards for “high-volume breeding” facilities, but with 14 inspectors and an operating budget that is directed toward registration and dog shows, the AKC can only manage to inspect its registered kennels once every two years.(16) By its own admission, some of the more problematic kennels have simply sought registration services (such as Dog Registry of America, Sporting Dog Registry, American Hunting Dog Registry, and All American Dog Registry, to name a few) that don’t perform inspections.(17)
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 … people sobbing in extreme emotional pain over having to decide whether to euthanize their dog because of some serious behavioral problem.”(18)
The USDA is supposed to monitor and inspect kennels to ensure that they are not violating the housing standards of the Animal Welfare Act, but kennel inspections are a low priority. In the U.S., there are more than 1,000 research facilities, more than 2,800 exhibitors, and 4,500 dealers that are supposed to be inspected each year.(19)
There are three APHIS sector offices with a total of approximately 70 veterinary inspectors who are supposed to inspect, unannounced, the various types of facilities covered by the AWA.(20)
This means that 70 inspectors have to cover more than 8,300 facilities nationwide.
Puppy mills are rarely monitored by state governments, and existing regulations vary from state to state. In Missouri, for instance, each of the 2,100 facilities is supposed to be inspected once a year, but there are only 12 inspectors employed to handle the task.(21) Even with an estimated 1,300 puppy mills in Wisconsin, inspections of breeder facilities that sell at least 50 dogs and cats are voluntary, and there is no funding for enforcement of these regulations.(22,23)
The Puppy Pipelines
Dealers who want to avoid relevant U.S. laws—the few that exist—look elsewhere to continue doing business. Says one Canadian lawyer, “[P]uppy mill operators in the States buy from us. And crossing the border isn’t a problem either. They cross them all the time.”(24) For example, there is a network of breeders and smugglers who bring puppies into the U.S. from Mexico. A Los Angeles woman was arrested during a sting operation on suspicion of selling underaged puppies and for failure to provide proper veterinary care for the animals; one of the officers involved in the capture of the woman said that the smuggler fit the description of a puppy smuggler: The person uses an alias and a throwaway cell phone and sells puppies from the backs of cars or on street corners.(25) A New Hampshire breeder, who was arrested for cruelty to animals when dozens of dogs and cats were found living in filth, was selling puppies from Russia for as much as $1,900 each on the Internet.(26)
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 Airport told the CBS affiliate that she had seen “a couple of cases where they (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 underaged, sick puppies who are crammed and shipped 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 dogs’ age and transport conditions do not apply to foreign shipments.(27)
Some states have enacted “puppy lemon” laws that give caretakers the right to return sick or dead puppies for replacement or that offer the option of having veterinary expenses paid by the seller. Unfortunately, depending on the state, the law may not clearly say to whom it applies, or it may affect only pet stores or breeders that sell a certain number of animals each year. Check with your state’s attorney’s office to find out about your state’s laws.
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-shop 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 an animal companion is through an animal shelter or rescue group.
For more information on pet stores and puppy mills, please click here.