What Should the Punishment Be for Owning and Operating a Puppy Mill?

Picture of a timid puppy

When a family decides to add a new dog to their home, the first thing most do is begin researching different breeds. Since there are thousands of types of dogs in the world today, it is possible to obtain a breed or mixed breed that is perfectly suited to each person and their unique lifestyle. Once a family has settled upon their breed of choice, the next step is finding a place that is near to them that produces their dog breed of choice. However, navigating through the minefield of “breeders” can be a nightmare for the public at large. With so many puppies advertised for sale everywhere from online marketplaces such as Craigslist to private breeders’ websites and even the American Kennel Club itself, it can be very difficult for families to decide just where their new pup should come from. To add to this problem is the question of varying price points. Since most people want to obtain their puppy at the lowest cost possible, they are often swayed by breeders advertising dogs at rock bottom prices. Even more attractive are breeders who have what they want at the exact moment they want it, swaying a purchase in their favor. Sadly, the lowest priced puppy is often the product of a puppy mill, yet many families fall prey to them due to their attractive cost and easy availability. Though puppy mills are not currently illegal, they are most certainly unethical and immoral. The law permits puppy mills to continue to operate and sell puppies. However, animal cruelty is a crime, and if it can be proven, puppy mills can and should be shut down. What should the punishment be for owning and operating a puppy mill?

What is a puppy mill?

It is important for families looking to purchase a dog to learn the hallmarks of a puppy mill in order to avoid this type of operation. Puppy mills are also commonly referred to as puppy farms. This type of facility prioritizes making money over the health and welfare of the animals entrusted to their care or their puppies. Their main objective is to produce the largest volume of puppies in the most abbreviated amount of time with the sole purpose of amassing wealth for themselves. To accomplish their goal, they cut costs in every way possible including proper veterinary care, adequate food, and appropriate housing for their breeding stock and their offspring. Cleanliness of housing conditions and the health of breeding dogs is of no consequence to this type of breeder. The dogs employed in their breeding programs have most often never known the simplest of pleasures including the feeling of grass underneath their feet, a soft, clean blanket for bedding, or even a toy or bone to enjoy. Many suffer with urine scalding, eye infections, and other more serious ailments. Puppy mill dogs most typically live in filthy cages that are too small for them to even stand up, turn around, and lay back down in. Sadly, most are never socialized and only see humans as the purveyors of their daily food, a diet that is inadequate at best. To say these animals suffer is a gross understatement. Being a puppy mill dog is no way for an animal to spend its life.

The common identifying marks of a puppy mill include:

  • Cramped living conditions most typically found in dirty barns, backyard sheds, or damp basements
  • Filthy crates stacked one on top of another which house feces and urine-stained animals
  • The unmistakable smell of ammonia from feces and urine accumulation
  • Dogs fed poor-quality food
  • Dirty water dishes in crates
  • Mother dogs bred every heat cycle with no breaks in between then cruelly disposed of when no longer fertile
  • Animals suffering with ill health from lack of veterinary care and living in unsanitary housing conditions
  • No toys or creature comforts
  • Animals that are nervous or skittish around humans

Puppies purchased from a puppy mill have the hope of a far better life than their parents who are destined for a life of cruelty, mistreatment, and suffering. However, since proper hygienic conditions are not maintained, many puppies obtained from puppy mills succumb to purely preventable diseases such as parvovirus simply because the pups and their mother were not vaccinated and had no antibodies for protection against these deadly illnesses.

Where are puppy mill puppies sold?

Typically, puppy mill puppies are listed on online marketplaces such as Craigslist, are advertised in the newspaper, or are posted for sale on community bulletin boards throughout their neighborhood. Unsuspecting potential puppy buyers respond to ads for these puppies for sale at a seemingly bargain price and are then invited to meet the “breeder” at an alternative location such as a mall parking lot to view the puppy and make the exchange. This is one of the first warning signs to heed. Reputable breeders welcome the opportunity for a potential puppy buyer to visit their home and meet the parents of the puppy they are considering purchasing. A puppy mill owner and operator will not allow this. If they did, it would cost them sales.

However, some puppy mill operators go a step further and work with pet stores or brokers to place their puppies for sale with a third-party agent. These puppies are often sold as young as five to six weeks of age, a formative time when a puppy should be with its mother learning the skills it will need to function as a good canine citizen in its new life with its family.

Rarely, puppy mill owners will allow a home visit. However, when they do so, they restrict access to only one viewing area with breeding, rearing, and housing facilities kept strictly off limits.

What does the law say about puppy mills?

Sadly, there are no laws in place in Canada or the United States which render puppy mill-type breeding illegal. However, both countries have stringent laws regarding animal welfare.

In the United States, regulations regarding the expected standards for breeding operations are governed by a federal mandate known as the Animal Welfare Act. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides oversight for the act and its enforcement. The AWA has mandated that any breeder in possession of more than five females that wishes to sell puppies via online advertising or to pet stores must have a license issued by the USDA.

These laws exist to provide a form of protection for the animals employed as breeding stock with these organizations which are considered by law to be commercial breeders. Unfortunately, neither AWA or USDA provides adequate protection for the dogs who can easily become the victims of greedy puppy mill operators simply because they require only the most basic care. However, an even greater problem is the reality that the USDA does not provide proper enforcement of their own laws.

Sadly, the standards outlined by the AWA are minimal at best. Currently, the AWA requires only a minimum standard of shelter, food, and water. Since there are no clear guidelines for breeders to abide by, the laws are subject to interpretation. As a result, many of these commercial breeding facilities operate under substandard living conditions with many of them bearing evidence of squalor.

The current AWA expectations for breeders which are particularly troubling are:

  • No imposed limit on the number of acceptable dogs permitted on the property
  • No minimum staffing requirement to ensure all dogs are properly cared for
  • No restrictions on stacked cages
  • Mesh or wire flooring which allows excrement and urine from cages placed on top of other cages to filter on top of other animals is permitted
  • No expectations regarding regularly scheduled potty breaks outdoors
  • Dogs are permitted to remain in crates only 6” larger than their body size—which does not include their tail—for 24 hours per day
  • Dogs may remain in their crates their entire lives, being only removed for breeding purposes
  • Exercise time and human interaction are not required
  • Breeding of females can be bred from their first season and each subsequent season without any breaks
  • Animals no longer deemed useful can be killed or sold

Though the USDA does care about the welfare of animals, they are woefully understaffed to provide the screening required to ensure proper animal care. Since they are also tasked with the oversight of such organizations as circuses, zoos, wildlife parks, petting zoos, research labs, and animal transportation companies, it is easy to see that performing regular inspections of commercial breeding facilities is no easy task and often falls by the wayside unless a complaint is made.

Though all commercial breeding facilities must pass an initial inspection in order to obtain a kennel license, this type of assessment is different from those employed for kennels that are already in operation and are based on a system of potential risk factors. The determined potential risks determine the frequency with which inspections are supposed to occur.

Sadly, USDA inspectors have a track record of treading lightly with most commercial breeders. Even if violations are discovered, rarely are they reported even if the infractions are continuous. Since it has also been discovered that little formalized paperwork exists which cites violations, inspections occurred far less frequently than was optimal which often put animals at great risk of disease, ill health, and serious neglect.

However, some states have implemented their own animal welfare regulations to help try to ensure the safety and care of the animals within their jurisdiction. These laws mandate standards which must be strictly adhered to by breeders, brokers, and pet stores. These forward-thinking states budget additional funds for inspections of breeding facilities to ensure each regulation is carefully abided by. Unfortunately; as occurs with the USDA, these local department of agriculture officers also become overtasked and fall woefully behind on regular inspections.

At the municipal level, many American cities are taking aim at puppy mills. They do so by targeting retail pet outlets and prohibiting sales of puppies that have been procured from so-called commercial breeding facilities. While pet stores may still advertise and sell puppies and dogs on the premises, they are only permitted to obtain them from local shelters or rescues.

Why do puppy mills exist?

Simply put, puppy mills exist because the public continues to support them. Research shows that over 2 million puppies sold in the United States annually trace their roots to puppy mills. Sadly, 3 million dogs are euthanized for space in overcrowded shelters annually. What does this mean? It means that puppy mills continue to thrive because there is a demand for what they produce while shelter dogs in need of homes lose their lives through no fault of their own.

Because puppy mills always have puppies available and they are typically at a lower price point than what can be obtained from a reputable breeder, the unsuspecting public is only too happy to fork over the cash for the bargain-priced dog.

Most often owners who purchase dogs that originated in a puppy mill have no concept of where their pups came from. Many will succumb to serious illness and even die within their first few weeks of life with no support or refund from their breeders. Others will later develop health conditions and even genetic illness which could have been prevented with proper DNA screening of the breeding pair which produced the puppy. The lower upfront price tag for a puppy mill puppy may cost thousands and thousands more in years to come, and more than that, can lead to many shed tears and much heartbreak.

It has been reported that there are approximately 10,000 puppy mills in operation today in the United States. Of this number, only 3,000 are working in cooperation with the USDA.

What can be done to stop puppy mills?

Understanding the problem of puppy mills is a fundamental first step in trying to end this cruel practice. There are several things families can do to help puppy mill breeding to decrease, and hopefully; cease, in time. These include:

  • Refusing to purchase puppies from pet stores or breeders that display the hallmarks of a puppy mill
  • Consider adopting a dog from a rescue or shelter
  • Support responsible, reputable breeders
  • Stay on top of the latest animal welfare laws
  • Write your local congressman to make them aware of the importance of stricter animal welfare legislation
  • Push for a revision of the Animal Welfare Act
  • Report any signs of animal abuse, neglect, inhumanity, or cruelty

What should the penalty be for owning and operating a puppy mill?

Picture of a cute puppy

Emotions run high when it comes to trying to determine what a just penalty would be for someone convicted of owning and operating a puppy mill. If a person is found in violation of providing adequate food, water, shelter, ventilation, or veterinary care, they are offering substandard conditions for the animals in their possession. In addition to this, it is deemed cruel, under the law, to willingly allow an animal to be in pain, distress, or discomfort. Many state laws consider it a criminal offence if an animal is deliberately harmed. Under these conditions, if a person is found guilty, what does justice demand?

Unfortunately, justice is rarely meted out as it ought to be. Today’s laws levy only a minor fine of between $5,000-$10,000 with a possible six-month prison sentence. For those who are convicted of wilfully harming an animal, a maximum sentence of up to five years plus a $10,000 fine is the penalty.

Are these penalties commensurate with the crime? Absolutely not. $10,000 may be what an owner of a puppy mill puppy spends in veterinary care for animal that was produced at an unscrupulous breeding facility. It is only a drop in the bucket for what is truly a monumental crime.

Though today’s legislators do not agree on what a fair penalty is for puppy mill operations, what is not in question is that far stiffer punishments should be imposed.

Among the suggested penalties for those found guilty of owning and operating a puppy mill include:

  • A lifetime ban on pet ownership
  • A minimum fine of $5,000 with the amount escalated according to years in operation, the number of animals produced, and the number of animals harmed
  • A minimum sentence of one year in jail with the length of stay increased for the severity of the operation
  • A minimum five-year sentence for any act of deliberate animal cruelty

The unfortunate reality is that currently our laws do not punish the deliberate taking of a human life as stringently as they should. This makes it difficult when trying to ascertain a fair punishment for cruelty, neglect, or abuse perpetrated against an animal since an animal’s life is not considered to be on an equal plane with that of a human. However, animals do not have a voice. They have no power to speak for themselves or to free themselves from a situation that leads to their pain, discomfort, or distress. Animals are innocents. Though the taking of any life is tragic and wrong, harming a child or animal that is incapable of defending itself is beyond reproach. The penalty should fit the crime. Unfortunately, that rarely happens when a human or an animal life is harmed or lost.

To end puppy mill sales, we all need to band together to do our part. Support shelters, rescues, and reputable breeders. If you catch sight of a puppy whose price seems too good to be true, it likely is indicative of one that was produced in a puppy mill. Puppy mills will come to an end when the demand for low-cost, mass-produced puppies dries up. Let’s work together to make this happen!

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Jason Homan

Jason Homan

Jason and his wife Debbie breed award-winning Parson Russell Terriers under the kennel name Bristol Abbey. They share their home with Branson, Bridget, Gigi, and Ollie, their foundation breeding dogs, and Vixen and Jackson, their two rescues.

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