How to Spot a Puppy Mill

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Angela Brown is a professional writer with 10+ years of experience including work as a reporter and copy editor. When she's not creating content for businesses, she enjoys spending time with her family and reading a good book.

How to Spot a Puppy Mill

Wire-lined cages, dirt, starvation, forced reproduction, and poor medical treatment sound like visions of a prison in a war-torn country. Unfortunately, there are thousands of dogs living in these same conditions inside the borders of the United States.

The Puppy Mill Project estimates that 10,000 puppy mills (licensed and unlicensed) produce 2 million puppies every year, almost double the number of dogs (1.2 million) euthanized in shelters each year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported almost 4 million human births in 2010. This equates to roughly 1 dog for every 2 people. That number doesn’t include cats. The rapid production of these animals means big money for the breeders, but a practical death sentence for many of the dogs.

To make matters worse, these puppies ship to pet stores with genetic defects and health problems, receive clearance by veterinarians and sell to families looking for a new family pet. Many families purchase puppies under false pretenses, believing that their new family member comes from a healthy background.

Thanks to several major movements and relentless coverage of the issue on social media news networks, the presence of puppy mills in the United States and recognition of the inhumane conditions these animals are living in, is becoming near common knowledge. However, even customers who shop with the best intentions could inadvertently be supporting puppy mills.

Puppy Mills vs. Real Breeders

Puppy mills aren’t a cuddly place where breeders treat the adorable newborn pups with doting attention. Puppy mills breed dogs in horrifying conditions. From wire-bottom cages with little or no room to move around to snatching puppies away from their mothers far too early and forcing her to mate with very little recovery time, these mills are literal abuse factories.

In one terrifying example of a private puppy mill, a Rolling Stone Reporter was on hand when officials in Charlotte, North Carolina removed more than 100 dogs from the property of a puppy mill owner. The best dogs were filthy (covered in feces) and hungry. Some of the dogs were blind and deformed from squatting in low rooms between breeding sessions. Many dogs were missing teeth and/or jaw bones and others were so weak they could hardly stand. The owner, Patricia Yates had been breeding puppies and selling them online. Yates will face charges of animal cruelty at her hearing in February, according to Rolling Stone.

To be clear: when we reference puppy mills in this article we are not referring to legitimate breeders who take proper care of their puppies before selling them. Puppy mill breeders care more about turning a profit than the health of the dogs. Many of these breeders go so far as to deny basic medical attention for the dogs to reduce their expenses.

For a family buying a new dog for the first time, it may be difficult to distinguish a legitimate breeder from a puppy mill. Dishonest practices on the part of puppy mill owners make it even more difficult for concerned consumers to be sure they aren’t supporting a puppy mill.

When choosing a breeder there are a few things a consumer can look out for that could indicate a breeder is running a puppy mill.

  1. Advertisements for puppies on the internet are more likely to be from a puppy mill source. It’s not unusual for puppy mills to pose as a family trying to get rid of their litter. Someone who always has puppies to get rid of is likely running a mill, so if you see the same seller (or email address) be wary. While some of these advertisements could be from real families trying to find their puppy a home, not all of them are and legitimate breeders do not post their dogs for sale on message boards or on cardboard signs on the side of the road.

  2. Any rescue organization that always seems to have a steady supply of puppies may be getting them from a puppy mill. Rescues will sometimes have puppies, but they are more likely to have older dogs with occasional puppies available.

  3. Puppy Mills have fancy websites and often claim they aren’t puppy mills. They may even send fake photos of dogs they don’t even have! The difficult part about this trick is that there are legitimate breeders that sell online, so it can be very difficult to tell whether you’re purchasing from a legitimate breeder. You’ll have to do a bit of research (looking up licenses, checking with the Better, Business Bureau etc.) to be sure.

  4. Pet stores: Most pets store get their dogs from puppy mills. Some stores will deny that they work with mills and that their source is a legitimate breeder. If you opt to purchase from a pet store ask them for the name of the breeder where they get their puppies. If they can’t or won’t tell you, this could be a red flag. If they do tell you the name of the breeder, do a little extra digging online or with a local breeding organization to see if this breeder has any complaints against them.

Customers should know that there are major differences between a puppy mill and a legitimate breeder. Puppy mills focus on the money. This often leads to neglect and even abuse of the animals. Puppies from this type of environment may have serious health or behavioral problems.

Legitimate breeders care about their dogs. They care about the quality of dog they are breeding and they take care to ensure that their dogs (breeding and puppies) receive the proper care and attention. 

Puppy Mill Red Flags

Before you choose your next family pet, make sure you look out for a few signs that you could be supporting a puppy mill operation. A few things you should look for include:

They won’t let you see where the dog lives:

A puppy mill breeder may insist that you pick up the dog from a secondary location (like a store parking lot). Puppy mill owners may also refuse to let you see the mother dog or tell you the female is located off site. If you cannot see how the mother is being treated or where your new puppy has been living, you're probably dealing with a puppy mill breeder.

The breeding facilities are not up to par:

While photos of dogs crammed into tiny cages create an image of what the worst of the worst look like, some puppy mill breeders may be a little less obvious. A few things to look for that could indicate you're dealing with a puppy mill include:

  • Puppies in poor health. Watch the other puppies and see how they behave. Do they have sores, dirty coats, or broken nails?
  • Overwhelming odors. Does it smell? There will likely always be some odor where dogs live, but it shouldn’t be overwhelming. Likewise, bleach or air freshener that’s way too strong could indicate that the breeder is hiding something.
  • Cramped quarters. Dogs should have enough room to move around and stand up. They should also have a clean area to sleep and eat.
  • Absentee mother. The mother dog should be on site. If the mother dog isn’t on site, this could indicate that you're dealing with a puppy mill. 

The breeder tries to cover up health issues:

Some sleepiness is normal in active puppies, but lethargy, sneezing, coughing and runny noses are not. If a breeder attempts to convince you that this type of behavior is normal, walk away. These symptoms could be a sign of a more serious condition. Watch your puppy. Make sure their breathing is normal and that they don't exhibit other behavioral issues. You can usually tell the difference between a sick dog and a sleepy puppy. If the breeder fails to produce immunization records or other proof that the puppy has visited with a vet, you could be dealing with a puppy mill.

The breeder can't or won’t answer questions:

One of the best ways to determine if you are purchasing from a reputable breeder is to ask a lot of questions. The breeder should be able to tell you how many puppies the mom has given birth too, the name of the puppy’s veterinarian and whether the puppy has been wormed. You should also ask:

  • Is the puppy is parent certified (tested for genetic disorders common in some breeds)?
  • How many times has the puppy seen a vet?
  • Is there a breeder’s contract?
  • How were the puppies socialized?
  • Puppy mill breeders won't ask any questions. Most of the time they are only interested in taking a payment and getting rid of the animal.

they Offer too much of a good thing:

If you find a breeder that claims they breed multiple types of dogs, step back. Legitimate breeders know that working with one or two breeds is in the best interest of the animals. Legitimate breeders know a lot of stuff about a few breeds. Puppy mill breeders know a little bit of information about a lot of breeds.

Red flags in the selling process:

Watch out for sellers that offer no returns, only want cash, and refuse to show you their business license permitting them to sell puppies. If you ask to see the license and they tell you it's "delayed" or stuck in the mail, walk away.

A puppy mill breeder may try to sway you to make a purchase by showing AKC paperwork. This paperwork means very little. Instead, visit your state agricultural division and look up the license for any breeder you choose to work with. This will tell you whether the breeder has a license and if they do how many animals they are allowed to have on their property.

Professional breeders may belong to other local breeder associations. Feel free to call them and find out if the breeder you plan to work with has any complaints filed against them. Don't forget to check with the local animal shelter and Better Business Bureau.

How to Spot a Real Breeder:

Purchasing a new furry family member should be a fun, rewarding experience. If you work with a reliable breeder, that's exactly the type of experience you'll have. A few ways you can identity a reliable breeder include:

Reliable breeders invite you to pick up the dog on location:

Reliable breeders care about their dogs. The best way you can tell how a breeder treats the animals is to see it in person. A reliable breeder is comfortable having customers visit the site because they want to know that they are selling the animal to a good home. Breeders want to show you that the pet you are buying is healthy and comes from a safe home.

A reliable breeder freely offers information and wants some from you:

If you purchase your dog from an honest breeder, they'll have plenty of information to share. Reliable breeders are knowledgeable about the dogs they sell and can tell you about feeding, training any known problems with the breed and/or the mothering dog. Reliable breeders will ask you lots of questions and make you sign a contract (not a bill of sale) to ensure that you will care for the dog properly. The contract may require that you return the dog to the breeder if you are no longer able to care for the dog properly.

A reliable breeder provides clear medical information:

Dogs that come from reliable breeders may not always be in perfect health, but a reliable breeder will tell you about any issues the puppy may have and they'll have medical records showing that they have had the puppy treated. A reliable breeder will be able to tell you about any genetic issues, temperament problems, and other concerns. A good breeder wants their dog to have a good home as much as they want you to find the right pet. A reliable breeder cares about the quality of their dogs because it helps their business.

A reliable breeder's facility is clean and spacious:

When you purchase from a trustworthy breeder, the puppy's housing will be clean, comfortable, and spacious. Look for animals that are healthy (not too skinny and not overweight), kennels that are free from urine and feces, space that separates where the dog eats from where he sleeps, and kennels that are large enough for the dogs to stand up and turn around. Another note: there should be ample staffing to care for all the dogs. There should be a maximum of 8 to 10 dogs per one person. 

Are there Puppy Mill Laws?

While the presence of puppy mills and of the treatment of the animals is getting plenty of media attention, the laws simply aren’t providing enough protection for animals.

An ASPCA report details the standards each state has for puppy mills. Only 21 states require any form of licensing for breeders/puppy mills (though some require certifications). Just 26 states have any form of standard of care laws for animals bred for sale and only 23 states require the inspection of those properties. Of those states that have a standard of care law, only 17 meet or surpass the ASPCA’s recommendation for humane euthanasia.

Many states have taken steps to provide better protection against puppy mill conditions. Virginia, Pennsylvania, Oregon, New Hampshire, and Washington have the toughest laws against puppy mill practices. States that ranked the worst include Mississippi, Kentucky, Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Alabama.

The lowest ranking states have little or no oversight of commercial dog breeding. Worse, in three of the states (Idaho, North Dakota, and South Dakota), animal cruelty is only a misdemeanor charge. In every other state animal cruelty is a felony.

Fortunately, cities and states are starting to take a more proactive approach against breeders who churn out puppies like cheeseburgers at a fast food restaurant. Earlier this year the city of San Francisco passed a law prohibiting pet stores from selling animals that come from puppy mills. The stores can only sell rescue animals, though this law does not apply to licensed breeders. Other cities including Los Angeles, San Diego, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Austin already have similar laws in place.

How you can help

If you believe that you have encountered a breeder from a puppy mill, contact animal control, the local humane society, and the police department. If you can, try to get photos of the puppy mill showing the poor conditions. You can also contact the state or the USDA if the breeder running a puppy mill has a license.

Some rescue organizations will help remove animals from the puppy mill and prep them for adoption elsewhere. Check out animal shelters and rescue organizations in your community if you want to provide information or volunteer to help.

One of the best ways you can help stop puppy mills is to purchase your dogs from a reputable breeder. If breeders who keep their animals in poor condition can’t make a profit, they’ll have to move on to another business or improve the treatment of their animals.

Where to get a puppy:

If you’re thinking of purchasing a puppy or a dog for your family, you have several safe options that will keep you away from the puppy mill industry.

  1. Adopt a friend: Instead of heading to the local pet shop to purchase a puppy, opt to adopt. Visit your local animal shelter or humane society. You can even check local rescues in the community. They’ll allow you to visit and get to know the dog so that you can make sure they’re the right fit for your family.
  2. Find a reputable breeder: If you want to buy a puppy, look for a responsible breeder. You’ll need to do a bit of research and you should be able to visit the site where the puppy lives.
  3. A friend or family member: Purchasing a puppy from a litter in the neighborhood sounds fun, and it can be. Just make sure that you really are buying from a family and not someone posing as a family online. Puppy mill breeders sometimes post ads from a family selling puppies.

For more information about puppy mills and ways you can help, check out these organizations:

The Humane Society


The Puppy Mill Project

Adopt a Pet

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This guide was published on January 18, 2017, and last modified on January 18, 2017.

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