Puppy Mills

There is an enormous demand for purebred puppies in the United States. As long as the demand for purebred puppies continues to exist, puppy mills will continue to operate.


There is no legal definition of the term “puppy mill.”  However, it can be described as a large-scale commercial dog breeding operation where profit is given a higher priority than the well-being of the dogs.  The health of the dogs is disregarded in order to maintain a low overhead and maximize profits. Veterinary care, nutrition, socialization, integrity of the breed/breed standard and sanitation are substandard in comparison to responsible breeders, who place the utmost importance on these aspects of husbandry.  Illness, diseases, fearful behavior, and lack of socialization with humans and other animals are not uncommon characteristics of dogs from puppy mills.  Breeding is performed without consideration for maintenance of genetic quality/breed standards, resulting in the passage of hereditary conditions and diseases from generation to generation. Female dogs are bred at every opportunity with little to no recovery time between litters, until they are no longer physically able to reproduce.  Puppies are typically sold through pet shops and marketed as young as 8 weeks of age.  The accuracy of their pedigree and purebred status is sometimes questionable (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals).

Conditions inside puppy mills have been documented for decades, with some of the most appalling scenes including dogs that are emaciated and near death from malnourishment, and dogs suffering from a variety of health issues ranging from Parvo Virus to heartworm and flea, tick, and parasite infestations to severe dental disease that has led to rotting teeth and jaws (Prisoners of Greed).  Dogs are housed in extremely small enclosures, where they live out their entire lives.  Under current US law, an average sized Beagle could legally live out his entire life in a cage about the size of an average dishwasher (Mainline Animal Rescue).

The puppy mill industry has a number of players who make the mass production and movement of puppies possible.  The typical “puppy miller” is the person who breeds the dogs on his/her property.  Most breeders then sell their puppies to a broker, or middleman, who then ships the puppies to pet stores throughout the country.  The largest puppy broker in the United States is The Hunte Corporation located in Missouri, followed closely by Lambriar, Inc., located in Kansas (PetStoreCruelty.org).  Some puppy mills sell their dogs directly to the public through newspaper ads and the Internet as well.   

Historic Roots

Historically, the number of puppy mills in the United States grew dramatically in the post-World War II era.  During that time, the United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) began encouraging struggling farmers to raise puppies as a “cash crop” in an effort to ease the strains on them during the Great Depression (Best Friends).  During this time, there was virtually no oversight or regulation of this industry.  The federal law which regulates commercial dog breeding, the Animal Welfare Act, was not enacted until 1966 (USDA National Agricultural Library). 

As a result of the encouragement by USDA, puppy mills became more prominent in agricultural areas.  Currently, the state with the highest number of large-scale commercial dog breeders is Missouri.  However, there is also an extremely high concentration of breeders in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which has the highest concentration of puppy mills of any county in the country (Last Chance for Animals).  Surprisingly, commercial dog breeding is very prevalent among Amish and Mennonite farmers, with pockets of Amish dog breeders found throughout the country, including Lancaster County (AWA Watchdog).


There is an enormous demand for purebred puppies in the United States.  Approximately 44.8 million American homes have at least one dog as a pet, with 74.8 million dogs owned as pets overall in the United States (APPMA).  Of those dogs, 16% are adopted from shelters, 31% are purchased directly from breeders, and about 6% are purchased from pet stores each year (Zawistowski, 2008).  As long as the demand for purebred puppies continues to exist, puppy mills will continue to operate.  If the market for their “product” disappears, so too would the mass production of puppies.  There are thousands upon thousands of homeless dogs throughout the United States who need homes.  However, many people insist on purchasing a purebred, registered puppy from a large commercial breeder or pet store rather than adopting a mixed-breed dog of unknown origins.

There is great debate among animal welfare advocates about the ethics of breeding dogs generally.  Animal rights advocates tend to posit that breeding should be banned altogether, while more conservative animal welfare advocates tend to hold the position that breeding is acceptable as long as it is done responsibly.  Ideally, every person desiring a dog would adopt a dog who needs a home from a local shelter or rescue group.  In the alternative, people would purchase dogs from responsible breeders rather than pet stores or large-scale commercial breeders (aka: puppy mills).  The question then arises whether shelters and responsible breeders would be able to produce enough purebred puppies to fill the increasing demand for dogs in this country.  As a result of the demand, as well as industry opposition, it is virtually impossible to ban large-scale commercial dog breeding.

Although an outright ban would be nearly impossible to accomplish, there is legal regulation of the dog breeding industry.  Federally, many dog breeders are regulated by the USDA pursuant to the Animal Welfare Act.  Breeders must be licensed by the USDA if they own more than three breeding females and sell dogs to brokers, research labs, or pet stores.  However, the law exempts out any breeder who sells dogs directly to the public.  When Congress enacted the Animal Welfare Act, they created an exemption for anyone deemed to be a “retail pet store” or making “direct retail sales.”  The rationale behind the exemption was that consumers would be able to witness the conditions at breeding facilities if they buy a dog directly from the breeder.  Congress believed that consumers would act as quasi-regulators to this sector of the market, because they would not purchase dogs from breeding facilities that appeared to be substandard.  However, Congress did not contemplate sales of dogs via the Internet at the time of enactment of the Animal Welfare Act.  As a result of the direct retail sales exemption, breeders selling dogs over the Internet are not regulated by the USDA and no consumers are seeing the breeding facilities because the dogs are typically shipped to the buyer.  This loophole in the Animal Welfare Act leaves a large sector of the commercial dog breeding industry completely unregulated. 

In addition to the USDA, many state departments of agriculture regulate dog breeders through state laws similar to the Animal Welfare Act.  The Animal Welfare Act and similar state laws set standards of care for dogs housed in commercial kennels for things like sanitation, housing, food and water, and temperature control.  However, the standards are usually minimal at best, and are not enforced consistently by the departments of agriculture.  As a result, the dogs in commercial breeding facilities are often left to suffer. 

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Humane organizations have been in existence for hundreds of years.  The oldest humane organization in the United States is the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), which was founded in 1866.  Since then, more groups have continued to come into existence, including the Humane Society of the United States (“HSUS”), the Animal Legal Defense Fund (“ALDF”), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (“PETA”), and countless state and local SPCAs and humane societies.  Many of these groups have joined forces in an effort to combat puppy mills.  Many groups have formed to lobby both state and federal legislatures in order to enact stricter laws and regulations for dog breeders.  There are also small local advocacy groups that have been working to eliminate puppy mills in their area.  North Penn Puppy Mill Watch in Lansdale, Pennsylvania (http://www.nppmwatch.com/) is an example of a local group fighting puppy mills.  Other groups have also come into existence with the purpose of taking in dogs rescued from puppy mills, rehabilitating them, and re-homing them.  Examples of such groups are No More Tears Rescue (www.nomoretearsrescue.com), which is based in Staten Island and rescues dogs from Lancaster County, PA’s puppy mills, and A Tail to Tell Rescue (www.atailtotell.com), which also operates in Pennsylvania. 

Key Related Ideas

  • Animal Cruelty:  Commercial kennels are typically regulated by the state and federal departments of agriculture.  However, kennel owners are also subject to state cruelty laws, which are usually part of the state’s criminal code.  Cruelty laws vary from state to state, but most include provisions which make it illegal to neglect, abandon, or cruelly beat a dog.  Although there is some overlap between the kennel laws and the cruelty laws, it is often difficult for law enforcement officers to enforce the cruelty laws against commercial breeders.  Kennel facilities are often kept behind closed doors, and police and other law enforcement cannot enter the property to search for illegal activity without first obtaining a search warrant.  It is usually quite difficult for law enforcement to get probable cause, which would allow them to obtain a search warrant, because most kennel owners do not allowed people into the kennel facility to witness any crime that might be occurring on the property. 
  • The departments of agriculture, in contrast, are typically permitted into the kennel facility to inspect for violations of the kennel laws.  Kennel inspectors who work for the state or federal department of agriculture are authorized under the kennel laws to inspect commercial kennels periodically to insure compliance with the laws.  If they witness activity that rises to the level of a criminal violation of the animal cruelty law, they can then notify the police or other law enforcement officers who are authorized to enforce the cruelty laws.  Unfortunately, not all kennel inspectors do so, and not all departments of agriculture cooperate with law enforcement on an ongoing basis.  As a result, cruelty law violations are not enforced against commercial kennels as frequently as they could be. 
  • Consumer Education:  Educating consumers not to buy dogs from puppy mills or pet stores is one of the most important ways to impact the puppy mill industry.  If there is no demand for their “product,” breeders will stop mass-producing dogs.  As a result, those who advocate for an end to puppy mills regularly encourage people not to buy dogs from large-scale commercial breeders or pet stores.  Instead, animal welfare advocates strongly encourage potential dog owners to adopt a dog from their local shelter.  Typically, one in four shelter dogs is a purebred, so it is possible to adopt a purebred dog from a shelter.  If a person is unable to find the right dog at a local shelter, breed rescue organizations exist for just about every breed of dog.  They can be found by doing a simple Internet search.  If a person is still unable to find the right dog, as a last resort, he/she should purchase a dog from a responsible breeder.  To learn how to recognize a responsible breeder, log on to www.aspca.org/puppymills

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Kim Townsend lives in rural Missouri, a state known as the "Puppy Mill Capital of the World."  In 1997, after buying her first home computer, she began her mission of educating the public about the commercial dog industry.  In 1998, she purchased the domain name NoPuppyMills.com, and in 2002 she began researching the origin of puppies purchased in pet stores.  Convinced that consumer education and collecting data on puppies sold in pet stores were where she needed to focus her energy, she formed a non-profit organization called PetShopPuppies, Inc. (www.petshoppuppies.com).  Her organization offers "free puppy reports" to consumers who have purchased pet store puppies, with the mission of helping consumers understand the cruel but legal dog industry that is fueled by the demand for puppies in pet stores.
  • Bob Baker has been active in animal welfare since 1977, and is a nationally recognized authority on animal cruelty investigations. During his extensive career, he has served as Chief Investigator for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and, most recently, as Field Investigator for the Humane Farming Association. Bob joined the ASPCA in January 2007 as Investigator, Anti-Cruelty Initiatives, where he will be a key player in the ASPCA’s ongoing efforts to combat the cruelties of puppy mills and large-scale commercial breeding operations.  He spearheaded an extensive probe into the commercial dog breeding industry visiting more than 700 “puppy mills” throughout the country from 1980 to the present. These investigations led to a rash of publicity, the closing of numerous puppy mills, a probe by the federal government’s General Accounting Office, and the closing of the nation’s largest pet store chain, Docktors Pet Center.
  • Bill Smith opened Mainline Animal Rescue (MLAR), a private non-profit organization, in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania in 1998.  He began doing small scale Golden Retriever rescue and transport with his sister prior to opening MLAR.  MLAR is currently operated on a 58 acre conservation area and has the capacity to house 100 dogs and 30 cats.  MLAR adopts out over 400 animals a year, including many dogs rescued from puppy mills, and rehabilitates them to make them adoptable.  Bill is especially known for his willingness to take on dogs with special needs or special veterinary problems and putting in the time and expense necessary to rehabilitate those dogs and find them loving homes.  Puppy mill rescues, in particular, can often take 6 months or more to socialize and rehabilitate.  Additionally, Bill has been a champion for puppy mill dogs in Pennsylvania.  He is extremely knowledgeable about the breeding industry as well as particular breeders and the reality of conditions at particular facilities.  Over two years ago, Bill started a billboard campaign against commercial breeders to help educate the public about the reality of the puppy mill situation in the state and push the state government to take enforcement action against those who violate kennel laws.
  • United States Secretary of Agriculture:  The current Secretary of Agriculture is Edward T. Schafer, who was confirmed by the Senate on January 28, 2008 (Wikipedia).  The Secretary of Agriculture is charged with enforcement of the federal Animal Welfare Act and its regulations.  Within the USDA, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has been given oversight of animal welfare issues by the Secretary (United States Department of Agriculture). 

Related Nonprofit Organizations

Nonprofit animal welfare and animal rights groups throughout the country have taken on the fight to end puppy mills.  Some of the most prominent are:

  • The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) was founded in 1866.  It is the oldest humane organization in the country.  With more than one million supporters nationwide, the mission of the ASPCA is to provide effective means for the prevention of cruelty to animals throughout the United States.  In 2006, the ASPCA made overhauling the puppy mill industry its number one federal initiative.  (www.aspca.org)
  • Last Chance for Animals (LCA) was founded in 1984 by actor Chris DeRose.  LCA’s puppy mill efforts are focused on Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and aims to educate consumers, enact legislation, and shut down puppy mills for good.  (www.lcanimal.org)
  • PetShopPuppies.com is an organization dedicated to educating consumers about where their dogs came from.  If a consumer has purchased a puppy from a pet store, he/she can fill out a webform on petshoppuppies.com and the administrator of that sight, Kim Townsend, will send back any information she has on the breeder, including USDA inspection reports of the breeding facility.  (www.petshoppuppies.com)
  • The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) was founded in 1954 and is the nation’s largest animal protection organization.  The organization’s state mission is “Celebrating animals.  Confronting cruelty.”  (www.hsus.org; www.stoppuppymills.org)
  • Local Humane Societies and SPCAs:  There are state and local humane societies and SPCAs throughout the country that are on “the frontlines” of the battle against puppy mills.  It is often these smaller local organizations that take in dogs rescued from puppy mills when the laws are enforced and dogs are seized. 

Related Websites

Bibliography and Internet Sources