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Don’t buy into puppy mills!

An important reminder for our communities as we approach the holiday shopping season

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In the spring of 2000, I got a little teacup Yorkie named Delilah. She had been a breeding dog in a Dallas, Texas-area puppy mill, and at 8 years old, she was emaciated, and had lost all but two of her teeth.

I had Delilah for another 6 years, during which she was treated like a princess. But she never completely recovered from the many years in which she was locked away in a puppy mill. Her memory motivates me every day to work hard to stop puppy mills. Many other animal advocates around the country have had similar experiences and have made similar commitments to give all they have to ending puppy mill cruelty.

That hard work is paying off. As of late 2016, over 200 municipalities have banned the sale of commercially raised puppies in pet stores. Nearly half of those bans happened this year. Most of these ordinances allow stores to instead source dogs and cats from shelters and rescues. There is incredible momentum to drive traffic away from pet stores that do business with puppy mills, both to limit the euthanasia of healthy pets and to crack down on puppy mill cruelty.

As the public comes to understand the link between pet stores and puppy mills, consumer pressure builds for changing the way retail pet stores do business. Shutting down the market for puppy mill dogs saves lives. But it’s not enough. We must also address the growing problem of puppy mills selling puppies over the internet sight unseen.

In October, the Arizona law firm Burch & Cracchiolo, with assistance from The HSUS, helped seven people who purchased puppies through a web site called PuppyFind.com file a lawsuit against the company that operates the website. The lawsuit alleges fraud and misrepresentation; specifically, PuppyFind.com is accused of deleting negative reviews from customers who had received puppies with severe illnesses, some of which led to death. By deleting negative reviews, the lawsuit alleges the company led consumers to believe that some of the worst operations were responsible breeders selling healthy dogs.

The problem with PuppyFind.com goes beyond allegations of consumer fraud. Notorious puppy mills routinely use attractive, professional-looking websites like this one, and others, as smokescreens. Most buyers would never imagine the ugly reality behind their facades. One prominent puppy selling site has a “no puppy mill promise” right on its home page. Yet the owners of that site run advertisements in puppy mill trade magazines soliciting their business.

One Missouri puppy mill that sells through PuppyFind.com was found to have dogs with such advanced dental disease that the dogs’ teeth were missing and their gums receded and inflamed. Kennel runs were so awash with feces that the USDA inspector said it was “difficult for the animals to avoid walking in it.” Other sellers advertising on the site had such severe violations that both their state or USDA licenses have been revoked, and some have been convicted of animal cruelty for violations as horrific as performing do-it-yourself surgeries on their own puppies.

PuppyFind.com may not be an outlier in this industry. Consider this: what could be more perfect for a puppy miller than a web site where sales can be made anonymously? No more coming up with creative excuses to meet at the gas station down the road so the customer doesn’t see the cages the breeding dogs are kept in. No need to deal with customers’ requests to see the mother dog. The anonymity of the internet allows puppy mills to thrive. Sites like PuppyFind.com allow sellers to post ads under names like “Santa’s Helper” without revealing any personal details, leaving buyers to wrongly assume that the site has done the background checking for them.

Throughout September and October, The HSUS ran a social media outreach campaign that revolved around a video called “A Children’s Story” . The goal was to intercept people who are looking for a dog online, and steer them away from deceptive websites that are fronts for puppy mills.

Funded through a generous gift from Maddie’s Fund, the video includes children who give creative answers to the question “Where do puppies come from?” Their answers are amusing, but then the viewer sees the truth about where many puppies are actually born. The campaign urges people to abstain from buying a dog at a pet store or sight unseen over the internet.

Raising awareness is certainly a vital part of meeting this problem head-on, but education by itself is not enough. We need rules in place to stop puppy mills from raising dogs in miserable conditions and to stop them from deceiving well-meaning consumers.

In 2013, the USDA issued a rule requiring commercial pet breeders who sell dogs sight unseen over the internet to obtain a USDA license and open their breeding facilities to inspection. For USDA’s purposes, a commercial dog breeder is defined as anyone with 5 or more intact females capable of breeding, who sells the animals to people as pets.

At the time, the USDA estimated that anywhere from 2,600 to 4,640 dog breeders would now have to come into compliance with USDA regulations and obtain a license. It’s now late 2016 and only a few hundred have complied.

This is a distressingly low number of breeding operations that are following the law and we have urged the USDA to be vigilant in bringing them all into compliance. But that points to a larger problem: the abysmal regulations themselves.

On the one hand, the USDA deserves credit for recent steps taken that have shut down a half dozen or so of the worst USDA-licensed puppy mills (some puppy mills have no licensing or inspections at all). But the USDA regulations currently in place for commercial dog breeders are far short of humane.

Under the present law, it is legal for USDA-licensed breeders to keep a mother dog in a cage only 6 inches longer than her body. Her paws may never touch grass. She may be bred repeatedly, every heat cycle, until her body wears out. Current regulations don’t even require that breeding dogs have regular hands-on veterinary exams or daily positive human attention. Tens of thousands of dogs are currently kept in such conditions, constantly caged for their entire lives.

The HSUS, and partner organizations, have submitted a rulemaking petition to the USDA calling for a complete overhaul of their commercial dog breeding regulations. Stay tuned. We will be calling on you to reach out to the next Secretary of Agriculture once the new President is sworn in and a cabinet is selected.

But for now, we are at the start of the holiday shopping season and a lot of families will be looking for a new puppy. Please consider using your organization’s social media channels to encourage people to come in and adopt, and never, ever purchase a dog sight unseen.

If we all use the tools we have at our disposal, we can ensure that every American has the information he or she needs to make a responsible, humane choice when deciding where to get their next pet.

About the Author

John Goodwin is Senior Director of The Humane Society of the United States’ Stop Puppy Mills campaign. John joined The HSUS in 2000 as grassroots outreach coordinator in the Government Affairs department and went on to spend over a decade spearheading the efforts to combat animal fighting in the Animal Cruelty and Fighting Campaign. Most recently John lobbied for the organization on Capitol Hill in his role as the political director for The Humane Society Legislative Fund, the political affiliate of The HSUS. John has testified before numerous state legislatures and acted as an expert witness in criminal animal fighting trials.