pet ownership

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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.