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Pet Store Puppies - Where do they really come from?

It is hard to resist the cute, cuddly, innocent faces of puppies in a pet store window (cue “How much is that doggie in the window?” music). Each soft, warm face seems to cry out “pick me up” and “take me home.” But if you stop and think about where that puppy was born and the conditions under which its parents are still living, it gets easier to walk right by them and go straight to your local animal shelter instead. Not only is the truth about puppy mills hard to take, but the lengths to which pet stores will go to trick people into believing that those horrible puppy mills aren’t where they get their puppies from is equally disturbing. What it boils down to is that any large-scale breeding operation is a puppy mill. If you want to add a pet to your family, go to an animal shelter. If you are absolutely set on a puppy of a specific breed, do NOT buy it from a pet store; check breed-specific rescues or use a reputable small-scale breeder instead.

USDA and Local Breeders

If you skeptically enter a pet store to inquire about the cute puppies in the window, savvy employees will almost always say things like, “We don’t use puppy mills. Our puppies come from local breeders.” Or “Yes, puppy mills are terrible. Our puppies come from licensed USDA breeders.” USDA? Wow! That sounds reputable, right? Pet stores often cite such credentials to make customers believe that the puppy they are considering buying does not come from the horrible places they have heard about—puppy mills. But the truth is that licensed USDA breeders are large-scale puppy farms, and that’s what puppy mills are. Pet stores like to state that their puppies are “registered,” or “have papers.” Big whoop! What “being registered” really means is that the parents of said puppy are registered. It doesn’t guarantee that those parents are treated humanely or cared for properly. And it doesn’t mean the puppies get the socialization or care they really need. It is just another way of putting a potential buyer at ease. Providing this sense of security for the customer falsely bolsters the credibility of the pet store and helps justify the huge sales price. If you are trying to “show” or breed a dog, then maybe papers are important. But if you just want a loving companion animal for your family, then you know where you can get lots of papers? The animal shelter! They will give you a contract to sign and copies of medical records so you can leave with plenty of papers for your pet.

Online Puppies

This should go without saying, but if brick-and-mortar pet stores can trick customers into buying puppy-mill dogs by using fancy terminology and meaningless paperwork, then online retailers can trick customers even more easily. With a well-designed, crisp, and easy-to-read website that says all the right things, touches on all the buzzwords, and has high-quality images of their breeding dogs, internet pet stores can sell customers puppies from anywhere. You have no way of verifying where that puppy truly came from or the condition in which the parents are kept. When it comes to all the amazing things you can buy online, it’s best to leave pets off the list. You can’t even verify if the puppy you buy online is coming from within the United States. In the fast-paced world of the internet marketplace, there has been a huge increase in the number of small- and large-scale breeding facilities shipping puppies into the United States from all over the world. The impact has been felt in the U.S. market, where the numbers of sick, diseased, and poorly bred animals have increased. There are too many unknowns, and the costs to the buyer and the animals when something goes wrong is so great—it is just not worth it.

No Puppy Mills Here

Think you don’t live near a horrendous facility where dogs are housed in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions without proper food, water, socialization, and even basic veterinary care? Think again. Puppy mills exist throughout the United States. Click here for a list of puppy mills by state and maps showing where they are located. The greatest concentration is in the Midwest, likely because of the availability of land. Missouri, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and upstate New York have the highest quantity of puppy-mill facilities. There are roughly 2,000 to 3,000 licensed puppy mills in the United States. This, of course, does not account for the large number of unlicensed puppy mills operating illegally, or breeding facilities that do not require licensing, which, according to the ASPCA, brings the estimated number of puppy mills closer to 10,000. So if you buy your puppy from a pet store in Maryland it won’t come from a puppy mill, right? Wrong. Puppy mills ship animals all over the U.S. the same way cows, chickens, and pigs are shipped. Even if there isn’t a puppy mill near you, chances are that a pet store selling puppies in your town got them from an out-of-state puppy mill.

Puppy Law

In the United States, animal welfare legislation is way behind the times. Our current overarching law is the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) of 1966. Yep, it’s 51 years old. The AWA does require breeders with more than three breeding females that sell puppies to pet stores or pet brokers to be licensed and inspected by the USDA. This all sounds great, but the problem is that the standards the breeders are required to meet are minimal, and there aren’t enough inspectors to visit every puppy mill often enough to maintain these standards. Most pet lovers would be absolutely shocked and haunted by the LEGAL way these animals are kept. Under the AWA it is perfectly fine to keep a dog in a cage that is only six inches longer than the dog! Not just for a few hours while the humans are at work, but for that animal’s ENTIRE LIFE! To make matters worse, that cage can be stacked on top of and below other cages with just a wire bottom. Most pet owners would consider this inhumane and cruel. But it’s totally legal.

There have been some recent amendments to the AWA. In 2008, an amendment was added that prohibits the importation of puppies less than six months of age for resale. Then in 2014 the USDA adopted regulations implementing the law at all ports of entry. Also, to be fair, it is important to note that more than half of the states in the U.S. have voluntarily chosen to implement higher standards of care for animals in breeding facilities than what the AWA calls for. However, at least 20 states have no laws at all regulating breeders. NONE. If you were an unethical businessperson looking to make money on a dog-breeding venture, where would you go?

But I Really Want a Puppy. What Should I Do?

Visit your local animal shelter. You need to actually visit the shelter to see which animals are there. Also, many shelters now post their available animals online. Be aware that you might go in with an idea of what you want but then meet an animal you unexpectedly connect with. And remember that there are many advantages to getting an adult dog—it’s probably already housebroken, and you’ll have a better sense of its personality. But if you are still set on a puppy and you don’t see any, tell the shelter. They might have a pregnant dog that will give birth soon, and if not, some shelters have databases that match adoption requests with new animals as they come in. Also, look up animal rescue groups in your area. Many rescue groups take in pregnant animals and put them in foster homes to remove them from the stressful environment of a shelter. These groups will adopt the puppies out to approved adopters once they have reached the appropriate age and have had all of their vaccinations. If you are willing to travel to find your new pet, try websites like The Shelter Pet Project,, and You can search for the attributes you are looking for and can set the distance you are willing to travel to find your perfect pet. Also, some breed-specific rescues might have pregnant dogs or puppies available. Remember that by supporting pet stores you are also supporting the puppy-mill system. By using a small, reputable breeder or—even better—going to a shelter, you’ll get a wonderful companion animal while also supporting good practices.

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” - Mahatma Gandhi

Contributed by Charlene Sloan

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