Just What Is A Puppy Mill?


The term “Puppy mill” means different things to different people:

Is a Puppy Mill. . .

  • A place where several breeds of dogs are raised and the breeder always has puppies for sale?
  • A dirty, trashy place where one or several breeds of dogs are kept in deplorable conditions and puppies are always available?
  • A place where a single breed of dog is raised in acceptable conditions and puppies are always available?
  • A place where lots of dogs are raised, where breeding is done solely for financial gain rather than protection of breed integrity, and where puppies are sold to brokers or to pet stores?
  • All of the above?

The answer depends on who you ask. . . .

A hobby breeder dedicated to promoting and protecting a particular breed or two might consider all of the above “breeders” to be puppy mills. Animal shelter and rescue workers who deal daily with abandoned dogs might agree. Operators of clean commercial kennels, licensed by the US Department of Agriculture, will strongly disagree, for the very mention of “puppy mill” damages their business and that of the pet stores they deal with.

John Q Dog Owner probably thinks of puppy mills as those places exposed on “20/20” or “Geraldo”. They have seen the cameras pan back and forth over trash, piles of feces, dogs with runny noses and oozing sores, dogs crammed into shopping carts and tiny coops, rats sharing dirty food bowls and dry dishes. They’ve seen the puppy mill owner captured on tape, dirty, barely articulate, and ignorant of dog care, temperament, genetic health, or proper nutrition. He’s belligerent, too, demanding to be left alone to earn his livelihood.

But is the television crew simply seeking the sensational and applying these appalling conditions to the entire dog producing industry? Just what is a puppy mill?

After World War II, when farmers were desperately seeking alternative methods of making money when traditional crops failed, the US Department of Agriculture encouraged the raising of puppies as a crop. Retail pet outlets grew in numbers as the supply of puppies increased, and puppy production was on its way.

However, the puppy farmers had little knowledge of canine husbandry and often began their ventures with little money and already-rundown conditions. They housed their dogs in chicken coops and rabbit hutches, provided little socialization, and often eschewed veterinary care because they couldn’t afford to pay. Animal welfare organizations such as the Humane Society of the US (before it became politicized by the animal rights movement) investigated conditions at these farms and eventually were successful in focusing national attention on the repulsive conditions at “puppy mills.”

Puppy mill conditions were a major impetus in the passage of the national Animal Welfare Act. However, as often happens, the appellation has been bastardized to mean any breeder who breeds lots of dogs, no matter what the conditions of the kennel or the health of the puppies. The AWA is administered by the US Department of Agriculture. The act lists several categories of businesses that handle dogs:

Pet wholesalers are those who import, buy, sell, or trade pets in wholesale channels, and they must be licensed by USDA to conduct business;

Pet breeders are those who breed for the wholesale trade, whether for selling animals to other breeders or selling to brokers or directly to pet stores or laboratories, and they must also be licensed by USDA to conduct business; and laboratory animal dealers, breeder, and bunchers must also be licensed, as must auction operators and promoters of contests in which animals are given as prizes.

Hobby breeders who sell directly to pet stores are exempt from licensing if they gross less than $500 per year and if they own no more than three breeding females.

The AWA does not list a definition of either “commercial kennel” or “puppy mill.” The American Kennel Club also avoids defining “puppy mill” but does label a commercial breeder as one who “breeds dogs as a business, for profit” and a hobby breeder as “one who breeds purebred dogs occasionally to justifiably improve the breed, not for purposes of primary income.”

AKC does not license breeders. The USDA issues licenses under the Animal Welfare Act after inspecting kennels to determine whether or not minimum standards for housing and care are being met. They require a minimum amount of space for each dog, shelter, a feeding and veterinary care program, fresh water every 24 hours, proper drainage of the kennel, and appropriate sanitary procedures to assure cleanliness.

USDA licensed more than 4600 animal dealers, more than 3000 of them dealing solely in wholsale distribution of dogs and cats, in 1992. Animal welfare proponents claim that there are many dealers (commercial kennels? puppy mills?) who have avoided the system, and that USDA does not have enough inspectors to seek them out and enforce the law. These welfarists have lobbied for stricter laws in the “puppy mill states” in the midwest.

It’s easy to say that John Jones or Mary Smith runs a puppy mill or that pet store puppies come from puppy mills, but the label is tossed about so frequently and with so little regard for accuracy that each prospective dog owner should ascertain for himself whether or not he wishes to buy a dog from John Jones, Mary Smith, a pet store, or a hobby breeder. Here are our Dog Owner’s Guidedefinitions to help you decide:

Hobby breeder: A breed fancier who usually has only one breed but may have two; follows a breeding plan in efforts to preserve and protect the breed; produces from none to five litters per year; breeds only when a litter will enhance the breed and the breeding program; raises the puppies with plenty of environmental and human contact; has a contract that protects breeder, dog, and buyer; runs a small, clean kennel; screens breeding stock to eliminate hereditary defects from the breed; works with a breed club or kennel club to promote and protect the breed; and cares that each and every puppy is placed in the best home possible.

Commercial breeder: One who usually has several breeds of dogs with profit as the primary motive for existence. The dogs may be healthy or not and the kennel may be clean or not. The dogs are probably not screened for genetic diseases, and the breeding stock is probably not selected for resemblance to the breed standard or for good temperament. Most commercial breeders sell their puppies to pet stores or to brokers who sell to pet stores.

Broker: One who buys puppies from commercial kennels and sells to retail outlets. Brokers ship puppies by the crate-load on airlines or by truckload throughout the country. Brokers must be licensed by USDA and must abide by the shipping regulations in the Animal Welfare Act.

Buncher: One who collects dogs of unknown origin for sale to laboratories or other bunchers or brokers. Bunchers are considered lower on the evolutionary scale than puppy mill operators, for there is much suspicion that they buy stolen pets, collect pets advertised as “Free to a good home”, and adopt unwanted pets from animal shelters for research at veterinary colleges or industrial research laboratories.

Backyard breeder: A dog owner whose pet either gets bred by accident or who breeds on purpose for a variety of reasons. This breeder is usually ignorant of the breed standard, genetics, behavior, and good health practices. A backyard breeder can very easily become a commercial breeder or a puppy mill.

Puppy mill: A breeder who produces puppies hand over fist with no breeding program, little attention to puppy placement, and poor health and socialization practices. A puppy mill may or may not be dirty but it is usually overcrowded and the dogs may be neglected or abused because the breeder can’t properly handle as many dogs as he has. Puppy mill operators often denigrate hobby breeders and their dogs in attempts to make a sale.

Unfortunately, some people who are well-ensconced in your local dog scene could be categorized as operating puppy mills. Prospective buyers should be careful to question anyone they are considering as a source for a puppy and not buy from a puppy mill.