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What Exactly Is a “Puppy Mill”?

Chances are you’ve heard of “puppy mills.” You’ve probably been told not to get a dog or cat from a pet store. You might even know why you shouldn’t.

The problem: lots of people still don’t. All over the United States, legislation regulating “puppy mills” is being debated, passed, or voted down. Some cities, like San Francisco, don’t even allow puppies to be sold in pet stores. Other states, like Missouri, have gone against the will of the people to ensure that these facilities can carry on as usual. This is part one of a guide to these facilities, the pet stores these dogs go to, the legislation on the table, and what you can do to help these animals have better lives.

It’s important to understand what people typically mean when they use the term “puppy mill.” For the extents and purposes of this article, I’ll define puppy mill as a facility where multiple animals are bred and sold for profit without regard to the comfort, health and temperament of the animals being raised or sold, or the suitability of the home they go to. This is a fairly objective definition, and does not include responsible hobby or show breeders.

Why do puppy mills exist? Supply and demand. Owners of these operations often profit quite a bit. Also, a number of people consider pets an accessory, an impulse buy, an object. These people may not want to go through the process of adopting or rescuing an animal. Also, the demand for purebred or “designer dogs,” and the fact that many people want a puppy, ensures that there are simply some people who will seek out a dog the same way they’d seek out an iPad 2.

What goes on in a puppy mill

The primary problem with puppy mills is the conditions the dogs are kept in. Overcrowding is the norm, and to ensure a higher profit, as many animals as possible are often crammed into extremely small cages. Stacking cages is also the norm, and since the crates typically have only wire mesh as a floor, urine, feces and other bodily fluids often trickle down into other cages. Often, there is poor ventilation and temperature regulation, which can further endanger the health of puppies already exposed to the bacteria and viruses rampant in unclean conditions. Vet care is minimal if there is any; owners frequently take “treatment,” up to and including euthanasia, into their own hands. Water bowls can freeze, disallowing access to any water in cold climates, and food left in cages can rapidly grow bacteria in hotter climates.

A puppy mill cannot exist without grist, and sexually mature females are just that. A bitch will often have her first heat at around six months of age. While best practices dictate that a dog should not be bred until 2 years of age (for the same physical reasons an 11-year-old should not get pregnant), owners disregard this and breed bitches every heat cycle, twice a year, until the dog either dies as a result of pregnancy or can no longer conceive. When she survives, she is often killed or sold to a laboratory for testing.

These dogs are bred even if they give birth to litters that exhibit obvious physical deformities or higher fatality rates. Part of a true “breed standard” is a lack of congenital defects and a sound temperament, in addition to appearance. None of these things matter in a puppy mill. Dogs prone to hip dysplasia, bleeding disorders, and severe aggression are bred over and over, ensuring plenty of their progeny will go out into the world to unsuspecting buyers.

Once the puppies are born, they are often separated from the mother as soon as they can eat solid food. This creates a temperament problem that will often follow them through the rest of their lives. When a dog or cat is taken away from their mother or litter-mates too soon, they often do not learn basic things like bite inhibition and social behavior, and the window for such learning is very small. In many cases, they will not be able to “learn” to behave appropriately in certain situations.

What puppy mill rescues look like

In Missouri, I have worked for a shelter that raided several notorious puppy mills. It’s not a simple process to seize dogs from a mill; these facilities need only be licensed by the USDA to be “legal.” After that, it is difficult to track and prove animal cruelty that would result in the license being taken away, and many facilities have nearly one hundred reprimands on their record from the USDA and remain licensed.

When we receive dogs from a puppy mill, their condition is, across the board, abhorrent. In one rescue, all thirty-plus dogs seized had to be completely shaved. Not only were mats pulling the dogs’ skin and hiding abscesses (including one dog who had a gaping, bleeding hole in his muzzle), it was literally impossible to guess what breed they were. Many of the animals are covered in their own urine and feces.

Some dogs have infected and necrotic limbs that need to be removed. Some are so emaciated that they are days from dying. Some are so full of mange or other parasites that their lives are comprised solely of suffering. Puppies, because their immune systems are young and weak, may have parvo-virus, a highly contagious and deadly disease when not treated immediately and aggressively. Worms of all kinds and kennel cough, an upper respiratory infection, are par for the course.

Many of these dogs are terrified and some are aggressive. They receive little to no human interaction in their cages and have no idea what to expect when a rescue worker reaches into their enclosure. Because, as mentioned above, they’ve lived this way since puppy-hood, it can take months or longer to rehabilitate them socially. Many may never be “normal.”

Many of the older dogs rescued have severe dental disease due to poor nutrition. Poor dental hygiene can lead to the same problems in animals as it does in humans, up to and including heart disease. Some females may have serious reproductive issues, such as mammary tumor, pyometra, or a prolapsed uterus (the first is often cancerous, the last two disgusting, painful and usually deadly).

Some of these dogs, despite being rescued, are so ill, are in so much pain, that rehabilitation is not possible. In all honesty, some animals must be euthanized because they are so sick or deformed that they can never live a normal life according to “humane” standards.

Most of these dogs are the “breeding stock,” and those adorable puppies in the window are already at the pet store. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll talk about what their lives are like.

Training Corner: Thinking Inside the Box

Cat lovers! Your time is finally here. Sorry about the wait, but let’s just be honest: Cats are easier than dogs. Dogs are the “athletic sister” in the family, cats are the “smart sister.” (I’m the cat in my family, obviously. I’m fine with that.)

However, one thing almost all cat lovers struggle with at one point or another: the damn litterbox. Cats, being finicky creatures of habit, aren’t as likely as disgusting dogs to use the entire house as a giant pee pad, but once they have a preference, it’s hard to shake it. If they dislike even one thing about their litterbox setup, they won’t use it. Also, they’re super-sensitive to changes. Moving the box, changing the litter, a super moon, or a new pet can cause the cats to freak out. So, if your cat is having issues, here’s what you can do.

Take the cat to the vet.

One of the major reasons a cat will eliminate in places other than its litterbox is illness. A UTI or systemic illness can cause cats to act strangely, including changes in their litterbox habits. So the first thing you need to do is get them checked out. Do a full workup; blood, urinalysis, stool sample. Yeah, it may all come back negative, but a physical ailment is typically easy to resolve and then, at least, you’ve ruled out one huge cause of inappropriate elimination.

Consider the variables of your setup.

Is your box covered? Uncovered? What kind of litter do you use? Where is the box located? How often do you clean it? If you have multiple cats, how many litterboxes do you have? Do you like the color pink? I DO.

All these things can screw up the fragile balance of a cat’s day. A box that’s located where there’s a lot of foot traffic, or even in a place they feel is less than private, can cause them to stop using it. After all, your toilet isn’t in the hallway of your building, and for good reason. Try relocating the box to a more out-of-the-way area or try a covered box. Don’t rule out this cause just because you think it’s a private place. If you share the bathroom with the cats, that in and of itself can be much too public for them. Think like a cat. Follow your cat around a little. Put in a nanny cam for them (fun drinking game: drink every time they lick themselves. Not for amateurs). Watch “Cats.” You get the idea.

Some cats are fairly OCD and won’t use a box unless it is totally devoid of all urine and fecal matter. Others like to have a little bit in there to reassure them it’s their box. But no cat likes to have to dig around pounds of old poop to find a small clean place to go. So err on the side of clean to very clean. Don’t lie to me and pretend your box-cleaning schedule is beyond reproach; we all slack once in a while. So if they’re going near the box but not in it, the cleanliness is the first thing to check.

If you have more than one cat, the general rule of thumb is one box per cat plus one. However, if you live in a studio apartment, this is insane, and you might as well just cover all your floors in a thick layer of kitty litter. If one cat is “guarding” the box, though, or a cat has developed an aversion to marking it’s territory where the other already has, you may still want to find a way to squeeze another box in the place; preferably, somewhere far away from the first one so there are no disputes.


Multiple cats usually require multiple boxes.

If you have no idea which of these circumstances apply to your cat, you can try and change one thing at a time, slowly. Changing the place of the box/litter/taking the cover off all at once is just going to make Chairman Meow have a coronary. And while that means your litterbox problems are solved, that’s just sad.

Life changes: Help your cat deal.

Though you’re aware that having your significant other move in or having that kid is going to throw the cats for a loop, you may not know how to deal with it. Some cats stop using the box purely because of changes in the rest of their daily life, or begin “marking” in other places to reassert that everything in their purview is theirs, not yours or that of  the new screamy thing that looks like a large naked mole rat.

Try and keep as much of their routine the same as possible. If you’ve just had a kid, set aside a few minutes a day just with the cats. I know they’re no longer your actual “babies,” but they’ll still want the love. If you’re moving, or someone else is moving in, try to keep the general layout/placement of the litterbox area the same, and again, give a little extra love to kitty. They’re stressed. They don’t know that you decided to move because the ceiling in your last place was caving in; they think you’re moving because you hate them.

On that note, make sure your carpet or any other place your cat’s been eliminating (or in the case of moving,where someone else’s cat was eliminating) is clean, clean, clean. Use a cleaner specifically formulated for ammonia-based pet odors, like Nature’s Miracle. And don’t half-ass the cleaning process. If there’s even a hint of scent there, the probability that ol’ Ernesto is going to visit again is very high.

Another helpful hint when you’re in a situation where you know your cat is stressed: using Feliway. It’s basically a Glade Plug-In with feline facial pheromones instead of “Pina Colada Passion.” Plug it in near the litterbox; it’ll create a more soothing, welcoming environment; in fact, it’s great for any stressful event even if Purrtis Sittenfeld is using her box.

If all else fails: Start over.

If there’s nothing medically wrong, you’ve pretty much ruled out all the common behavioral causes, and your cat is still refusing to come within a foot of the litterbox, you need to start littertraining all over again. Most people never even “trained” their cat to use the box in the first place; I just kind of put a litterbox in a corner and hoped for the best and didn’t have any issues at first.

What you’ll actually need to do is confine your cat to one room with its food, water, and litterbox; a small room like a bathroom is best. Ideally, you’ll want to do this in the room the box is currently in, but this is also a great way to acclimate a cat to a new placement. Obviously, you’ll want the food to be as far away from the box as possible; “you don’t shit where you eat” is a good rule of thumb for both you and your cat.

Kittens especially need to be watched when first introduced to the box.

Keep your cat confined to that room. Make sure they’re using the box. Go in and hang out with your cat, bring him treats, get him some cool toys, but keep your cat confined until you know he’s reliably using the box; at least three days, but I’d even recommend longer if you’ve been having problems. Once you’ve confirmed that he’s regularly using the box, you can start to allow him access to the rest of the house, one room at a time; if he’s the type that pees when you’re gone, you may still want to confine him when you’re not home.

Hopefully, problem solved.  There is always a reason your cat is not using its litterbox, I promise. It’s not because Clawed Monet is mad at you or doesn’t care for the color of those shoes you wore yesterday, either. If these steps don’t work or don’t apply to your situation, finding the cause may be more difficult, but it can still be done.

If your cat will not use the box (or whatever you want it to use; maybe it’s the bathtub) and it remains a problem, you have a few options, but surrendering the cat is often not one. In a shelter with hundreds of great cats that do use a litterbox, no one is going to adopt the one who habitually does not. Sad but true. So persevere, put up with it, or rehome the cat with someone who doesn’t care or has a lot of free time to potty-train a cat.

Still have questions? Email them to TrainingCornerNerds -at- gmail for use in a future column.


Why have a kitty?

Well, why not?  Let’s understand something first.  You never HAVE a kitty.  The kitty has YOU.  In The Sims 2, a dog goes from Stranger to Friend to Master, and a cat goes from Stranger to Friend to Mine.  Someone at EA Games understands cats, really, REALLY well.

Oh, dogs are wonderful.  There isn’t anything like a Golden Retriever or a Chocolate Lab or best of all, a German Shepherd. A Shep will give his life to protect you, your wife and kids.  A cat will do this too.  But it’s more like a favor than an obligation.  I’ll never understand “dog people” vs. “cat people”, though frankly I think cat people are smarter.  That said, I just love animals, and if my space was bigger, a German Shepherd puppy would be a lifelong friend of mine, well until his whiskers turned gray.

But cats.  Especially smart breeds like Siamese or Maine Coons or Orange Tabbies.  There is nothing like coming home to a furry friend who meows his face off to say hi.  I pick up our Maine Coon Tuxedo cats every night when I come home, because they yowl if I don’t.  Edmund rubs his head on mine, and Lucy buries her face in my neck.  While they cuddle with me, when it’s Mike’s time to come home they stand at the door and bitch him out, like “Where the hell WERE you?!?!”  Once that’s done, it’s all about dinner.  Mike sings the “I got a can!” song and they yowl and it’s pretty damn hilarious.  My life is kinda awesome because of this.  Yeah, because cats are imperious and snotty and not affectionate. Not.

Let’s not understate dogs.  A cop in Penn Station a couple of months back had a great conversation with with his canine buddy.  Very politely, he said “Ouw, ouw ouw!”  The dog looked at the ceiling and let out the most amazing , echoing “Arooooo!” I’ve ever heard.   People applauded.

So both kinds of animals are Man’s Best Friend.  Cats have dignity.  Dogs have respect. Both are our very best companions.

Another crazy thing that cats and dogs both do is that they know when you’re sick and they sit right by you as you recover. They detest the smell of Nyquil and Robitussin, but it does not matter. That cat or dog will sit by you until you are well.  Doctors have issued a clinical study that a purring kitty reduces stress.  I’ll go out here and say that a dog laying his head on your leg does the same thing.

In short, it’s only an either/or thing if space and time is an issue.  Dogs need more room and more maintenance.  It’s not fair to either of you to have one if you can’t care for one properly.  Get a kitty instead, if that’s your deal.