Puppy Mills: Pet Stores' Big Secret - TheStreet

The real question families should ask this holiday season isn’t how much that doggie in the window costs, but rather what terrible ordeals did that dog go through before arriving there?

According to the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), many of the dogs you see in pet stores today have been mistreated throughout their lives. Pet stores often rely on large breeding facilities known as puppy mills where the only goal is to make the most bang for their buck, even at the expense of the dogs’ well being. Puppies in these facilities often contract respiratory infections, get intestinal parasites and pick up ticks and fleas, not to mention the prevalence of heart and kidney diseases.

Recently, legislation has passed in several states to crack down on these facilities, but for the time being, puppy mills are legal everywhere in the U.S. and operate with little to no federal oversight. Worse still, puppy mills and pet stores have been known to mislead customers by masquerading as wholesome, reputable breeders in advertising. If anything, this has become more common as shoppers purchase pets through the Internet.

So what really goes on in these places?

While in puppy mills, dogs are not groomed and do not get the chance to run around and exercise. Most are cooped up in overcrowded cages to reduce the amount of waste that needs to be cleaned in the mill. The only dogs that do get to go outside are breeder dogs, many of whom are forced to spend their entire lives outside without adequate shelter. The females, on the other hand, are “bred at every opportunity,” until they can no longer reproduce, at which point they are usually killed.

Take the example of a small family of three basset hounds known simply as Baby, Mama and Grandma Basset. The hounds lived in squalor at a breeding center in South Dakota, forced to drink dirty water out of mud-caked bowls, living out their lives in small, poorly-maintained cages. Then, in 2003, these three dogs were rescued by the Companion Animal Protection Society (CAPS), a non-profit, after the owner of the breeding center agreed to let them go (largely because the health of all three was already declining). These three dogs got out in time, but many of their peers weren’t so lucky.

“Typically the dogs that aren’t sold get killed,” said Deborah Howard, founder of CAPS. “Many puppy mills don’t even use euthanasia to do it. Instead they just shoot the dogs, even though it’s against the Animal Welfare Act.” If this episode sounds like an isolated case, it’s not. On the Web site for CAPS, you can find detailed invetigations into cases similar to this one.

In fact, according to the U.S. Humane Society, there may be as many as 10,000 puppy mills across the country that house nearly half a million breeding dogs, who in turn produce anywhere from 2-4 million puppies each year. Most of these animals are leading low-quality lives.

The puppies that aren’t born with obvious defects are marketed to pet shops through a middle man (also known as a broker) when they are as little as eight weeks old. These brokers shop around for deals from various puppy mills, and then sell the puppies to pet stores at a bargain price. The brokers can be as bad to the dogs as the puppy mills. In their care, dogs may be forced to travel up to hundreds of miles without enough food or water before they arrive at the pet shop.

For all these reasons, the ASPCA has repeatedly urged customers to stop buying dogs from pet stores all together and start shopping exclusively at reputable breeders.  Putting aside the moral argument, even from a purely consumer perspective, buying from a pet store increases the likelihood that you might end up with a dog that has serious health defects. One Florida couple recently sued a pet store after they shelled out nearly $2,000 in veterinarian bills to help treat their puppy’s breathing problem, only to have the dog die on them shortly after. They had just purchased the pup a few days earlier from the store for $600. Even if the dog turns out to be relatively healthy, there is a good chance that they may have ticks and fleas on them that could then get into your home.

There have been some signs of hope in the past year. The governor of Wisconsin recently signed a law that will begin the process of eliminating mills from the state. Meanwhile laws have passed in several states including Louisiana, Virginia and California that limit the number of dogs which can be kept at a mill at any given time.

The U.S. Humane Society, for its part, recognizes the problem and continues to lobby for expanding the Animal Welfare Act so that these mills are subject to regular inspections and forced to comply with federal standards. The CEO of the Humane Society recently told USA Today that eliminating puppy mills is “one of our top five priorities” for 2010. Earlier this month, they took additional steps towards this goal by launching a national toll free hotline (1-877-MILL-TIP) that makes it easier to report suspicious activity at local mills.

Howard calls this progress “encouraging,” but she’d like to see more laws on the books, and soon. “There needs to be some recourse for all these customers who are buying sick animals and get stuck with thousands of dollars of medical bills.”

As long as the mills continue to do business, advocacy groups like Howard’s will continue their efforts at raising awareness and, whenever possible, to join the Humane Society and others in rescuing dogs that are in serious danger. The Companion Animal Protection Society is unique because it is the only national non-profit organization dedicated to protecting companion animals. To do so, they partner with prosecutors and law enforcement, and do extensive public outreach through protests and by developing a program to educate teens about animal treatment in schools.

The work may be hard, but the results speak for themselves. Each member of the family of basset hounds that CAPS rescued several years ago was eventually adopted into good homes. Grandma Basset, the oldest of the bunch, seemed the most traumatized by her early experiences, often frightened of new people. Though she has since passed away, the other two are now leading normal lives. Deborah Howard, founder of CAPS, adopted the youngest member of the family and paid to treat a cough the dog had developed while in the puppy mill. The dog has since grown into an affectionate and well-loved pet.

If you are planning to buy a dog this holiday season, or at any point thereafter, try to find a reputable breeder. There are several ways to tell if the breeder is good. According to Howard, the best breeders will let customers meet the dog’s parents, see where they were raised and they will offer customers  the opportunity to return the dog if something goes wrong. Perhaps most importantly, you can tell the breeder is good because they will interrogate you to find out if your home is a good fit for their pet. “If a breeder doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable, then they aren’t a great breeder,” Howard said.

Howard and other advocates encourage customers to go one step farther and adopt a dog from a shelter or rescue group. “The only way this poor treatment of dogs will end is if people stop buying,” she said. “When there’s no demand, then there will be no need for puppy mills in the future. That’s the best thing you can do for Christmas.” If you’re interested in taking this route, we suggest checking out Web sites like Petfinder and AdoptAPet.com. Not only can you find a list of rescue shelters here, but you can even be selective and find some wonderful purebreds up for adoption, too.

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