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Puppy Mills: America's Cruel Secret

Pet stores exude an inviting environment designed to show you healthy and happy for-sale pets. If you buy the idyllic scene of frisky, clean puppies, you will pay good money for a pedigree. But would you still pay good money for the same puppies if you saw that the breeder kept them in cramped, filthy cages their whole lives? What pet stores won’t show you is where the puppies come from, and most come from puppy mills.

The pet trade is so iconic to American culture that Patti Page’s 1953 hit, How Much is That Doggie in The Window, is still a popular tune today. But the song has also become synonymous with the terrible practices of puppy mills, also known as backyard breeders.

Unlike Patti Page’s upbeat lyrics, bringing home a sick puppy that was bred in a puppy mill is nothing to sing about.

What is a Puppy Mill?

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) defines a puppy mill as "a large-scale commercial dog breeding operation where profit is given priority over the well being of the dogs."

The conditions of dogs housed in puppy mills have been consistently documented as appalling. Many undercover investigative reports exist detailing how bitches and studs are forced to breed until their deteriorated health renders them unprofitable to keep alive.

As the ASPCA goes on to mention, the resulting litters do not fare any better:

"Breeding at puppy mills is performed without consideration of genetic quality. This results in generations of dogs with unchecked hereditary defects."

Already born at a disadvantage, the puppies are then introduced to life on the mill. Perpetually kept in cramped and filthy rabbit cages, puppies are only cleaned up when the time comes to ship them to their final destination — usually a pet store. When the bitches and studs that sired the puppies are no longer capable of producing litters, they are put down.

Why Doesn’t the Government Shut Down Puppy Mills?

The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) was passed by Congress in 1966, and is currently regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA):

"AWA requires that minimum standards of care and treatment be provided for certain animals bred for commercial sale, used in research, transported commercially, or exhibited to the public."

But according to the USDA, puppy mills do not fall into the category of commercial sale. Inspection reports by the HSUS show that USDA-licensed breeders frequently get away with violations of the AWA. In other words, the practice of not providing bred puppies with basic necessities and veterinary care is not illegal.

Supply and Demand

Although the HSUS estimates that there are more than 10,000 puppy mills currently in operation, most mill breeders operate in secret. The main reason these operations stay hidden from the public eye is that most are run by the Amish and Mennonite community in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

As documented by watchdog groups, concerned citizens, and animal rights organizations, mill breeders don’t view the substandard conditions in which breeding dogs are kept dogs as out of the ordinary. To puppy millers, dogs are considered livestock.

Unlike livestock, however, the only care puppies receive is a quick clean up the day they are shipped out (usually handled by a middleman) for sale. By the time a store-bought puppy receives its first real veterinary visit, its poor health is already at the chronic stage.

Puppy Mills in the Media

Currently, the most prominent depiction of the struggle to raise public awareness about puppy mill breeders is the movie, Madonna of the Mills. A labor-of-love collaboration from director Andy Nibley and his wife, producer Kelly Colbert, the film features dental assistant Laura Flynn Amato’s ongoing efforts to rescue bitches and studs that can no longer produce money for the farmers.

To date, she has saved more than 2,000 dogs.

In a recent telephone interview with the author, Mr. Nibley mentioned that the decision to make the movie occurred when his wife adopted Maisy, a Cocker Spaniel, from Rawhide Rescue. Maisy had survived a procedure commonly performed on dogs by puppy millers — her voice box had been crushed with a pipe to debark her. She is one of the dogs featured in the movie, which is currently being shown on HBO OnDemand. It can also be purchased on the Madonna of the Mills website.

A Support Network

Main Line Animal Rescue, a strong supporter of the movie, was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show after founder Bill Smith posted a plea to her on a billboard she would see during her morning commute. Main Line Animal Rescue has also been featured on Nightline, and in People and Newsweek magazines in their ongoing effort to raise awareness about puppy mills.

Laura Flynn Amato continues to work tirelessly to rescue breeder dogs from puppy mills, and operates through No More Tears Rescue in Staten Island, NY.

Be Informed

After learning about the horrific practice of puppy mill farming, most people’s natural inclination would be to demand an answer from the pet store their puppy was bought from. Because many puppies in pet stores come from puppy mills (or backyard breeders), when questioned, the likely response will be a denial. However, Mr. Nibley also cautioned that puppy mill breeders have proliferated on the Internet, so pet stores are not the only places that are dealing in the puppy mill trade.

Adopted from Main Line Animal Rescue, Oprah Winfrey’s website provides a comprehensive checklist prior to purchasing a puppy. Among other tips, the list suggests to: 

  • Consider adoption
  • Do your homework before buying from a pet store
  • See where your puppy was born and bred
  • Get an animal locally
  • Share your puppy mill story with the ASPCA or the HSUS
  • Speak out to your legislator

And if finding a dog from a breeder is important to you, make sure you find a reputable dog breeder.

What NOT To Do

Do NOT head to the nearest pet store and buy a puppy with the intent of rescuing them. This only feeds money into the puppy mill industry and continues the vicious cycle. Until legislation is passed that makes this practice illegal, adoption and awareness is the best solution.

If you make the decision to give up your pet, take care to screen the potential adoptee. There is a market for obtaining animals to use for bait in dog fighting, as well as to sell for medical research.

Although many dedicated people and organizations devote their efforts towards ending the practice of puppy mill farming, it is important to mention that breeding animals for profit doesn’t stop with just dogs. Cats, birds, and exotic animals like ferrets are also bred for commercial sale, and with just as little consideration for their well-being.

During the three-year course of making Madonna of the Mills, Mr. Nibley tracked down singer Patti Page, who now resides in California. She collaborated with HSUS to put out a new version of the hit song to convey an uplifting message, titled, Do You See That Doggie in the Shelter? Ms. Page’s revised lyrics will be used to help raise awareness in mid-September, on Puppy Mill Awareness Day.

Additional Resources

ABC Nightline – Puppy Mill Article


Humane Society of the United States

Madonna of the Mills Movie

Main Line Animal Rescue

No More Tears Rescue

Oprah Winfrey Show - Puppy Mill Investigation

Puppy Mill Awareness Day

Rawhide Animal Rescue

Image: SOMMAI / via Shutterstock

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