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  • Writer's pictureKarley

What is a Puppy Mill?

Updated: Sep 16, 2023

For those new to the discussion surrounding puppy mills, they are defined as an establishment that breeds puppies for sale, typically on an intensive basis and in conditions regarded as inhumane.

If you want the Sparknotes version of this post, a puppy mill is not a single entity that affects their surrounding community. Puppy mills are part of a nationwide industry that relies on making profits at the expense of an ethical quality of life for dogs. There are federal regulations implemented and enforced by the USDA and states are banning pet stores; however, the only way to really get rid of this industry is to get rid of the demand for puppy stores.

This industry works off of the ignorance of people, and it takes a bit of research to understand how and where this is happening. Read further to learn more about how puppy mills got started and why they pose such a threat today.

Humble beginnings

Puppy Mills date back to the end of World War 2, when the economy boomed and families had an increasing amount of disposable income. Thus, began a demand for puppies. Dogs became an effective cash crop that had relatively small overhead, a minimal labor cost, no additional infrastructure, and lacked government interference. For farmers who already had equipment and storage, while lacking workers to high paying city jobs, they replaced farm animals with dogs. This allowed for a high profit industry to boom and further devolve into an unchecked demand for puppy stores.

Let’s Talk about Societal Standards for Animals

Historically, dogs have been bred and used to serve the needs of their owners and audience members. They benefit a great many industries, including entertainment, pet retail, public service departments, medical, security, and marketing & advertising. They can be soothing therapy dogs in one instance, and vicious criminal hunting the next. Companionship is a small portion of the lived experience of dogs. The puppy mill industry, and breeding dogs in general, runs deep in the periphery of many people's worldview, despite the large amount of money and utility in many industries. When objectification becomes the standard, the experience and wellbeing of a dog's livelihood does not pass one's priority list very easily. It takes digging past the façade and empathizing with a fellow sentient creature to come to terms with their reality and our consequential responsibility in changing their reality for the better.

Dogs have been able to be mass produced and fall under the inadequate regulation of the USDA, because animals are not seen as beings that have lives. There is a difference between a "living being" and "having a life". One acknowledges this quality that enables breathing and having a heart beat, while the other acknowledges their sensory experience and memory capabilities. The latter acknowledgement gives space for humans to sympathize and empathize. Advocacy is necessary to expand our worldview as a community and a society.

Cute, little puppies that you see in stores have connections with commercial dog breeding operations (*cough* puppy mills *cough*), where they buy the puppies from the mills. The puppy mills sell to the stores in the condition that they are. The dogs are often shipped nationally in the U.S., because of the high volume of mills in the Midwest that can go unchecked and their owning of large pieces of land.


There must be some kind of laws or regulations to prevent suffering, right? The agency in charge of regulating the welfare of the animals in puppy mills is the USDA.

How does the USDA enforce the Animal Welfare Act?

The AWA is the sole federal law that concerns animal treatment in commercial use, public exhibitions, & U.S. laboratories. The USDA enforces the AWA by their Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service. This is where animal businesses get licensed. This program conducts annual regulation checks; however, the Office of Inspector General has found that they have not been thoroughly inspecting facilities, nor have they been fully enforcing the AWA. The unfortunate reality is that federal regulation has failed to uphold the safety of companion animals.

A key finding has been that these mills are registered through the AKC or licensed under the USDA. However, there is no enforcing of those breed standards under AKC and the federal enforcing through the USDA is severely inadequate. A registration or license seems to be just a way of saying that these commercial dog breeding operations exist under an organization, and it does not necessitate federal regulation of humane care and conditions.

What the USDA offers are guidelines for the puppy mills to operate, they get licensed, and they will do a few in between check ins. What the issue comes down to is that when they perform these checkins, the regulators do not do much to enforce humane practices and conditions.

It seems that the AKC only goes as far as caring about meeting the breed standards, but does not provide check ups and has no enforced guidelines. Registering under the AKC ends up being a bragging right and a marketing tool for the mass breeding operations. There is a reason why the language surrounding puppies includes "commercial", "profit", and "industry".

Where are puppy mills primarily located?

In the U.S., the midwest has by far the largest concentration of puppy mills. Missouri has the largest amount of puppy mills, with over 800 documented facilities and over 30 thousand adult dogs used for breeding. These breeder dogs spend all their lives and days in wire cages, vulnerable to weather and unsanitary conditions.

Common deformities

Because the dogs in puppy mills are severely unprotected from adequate federal regulation, overbreeding and unsanitary conditions give way to deformities, malnutrition, and preventable illnesses. Wire cages injure paws, high ammonia levels contribute to breathing issues, and exposure to pathogens result from unsanitary conditions. Sole focus on vaccination care neglects the reality that humane standards, clean facilities, and increased oversight regulation would prevent much of the suffering that puppy mill dogs go through. The demand for pure breed-specific puppies and our societal disregard for animal treatment contributes to this cycle of neglect and abuse.

Let’s talk more about puppy mill living conditions

What is startling to those who are superficially educated in the horrors of puppy mills is the fact that indoor facilities can be just as detrimental and unsafe as outdoor facilities. As far as both indoor and outdoor facilities, weather, lack of clean facilities, wiring, and overcrowding pose great dangers to the wellbeing of dogs. Rolling Stone Magazine put it apt when they said "Then we found the door that led to the basement". Once you open your eyes to the horrors of their lived reality, you cannot unsee it. For those living inside facilities, the amount of waste, trash, and lack of adequate light also pose great danger to their health and safety. It comes down to the overwhelming understanding that these conditions are set up for the benefit of profit at the expense of these living beings.

These living conditions are horrific for numerous reasons:

  • increased psychological and emotional abnormalities

  • exposure to diseases and illness

  • congenital birth defects

  • weather patterns

  • unsanitary conditions

  • significantly increased chance of death

The stress of living in these inadequate conditions contributes to their depressed immune systems that make them more susceptible to picking up diseases. Overcrowding makes it easier for these diseases to become a widespread problem. In addition, these conditions have a direct role in significantly higher levels of phobias and fear, compulsive behaviors, and sensitivity to touch. The constant exposure to a high volume of animals in tight spaces wreaks havoc on the wellbeing of these animals.

I have personally fostered dogs that come from puppy mills and so far every single one of them has exhibited behavioral issues (pacing, spinning, territory / food aggression, fearfulness, etc.) that require training and experienced dog owners.

How does the Pet Retail Industry Rely on the Ignorance of Buyers?

Pet retail uses the cuteness factor of puppies to their advantage. The dogs are staged to be watched and contained in order for the viewer to feel responsibility for giving them freedom and affection. The dim lighting, ripped up newspaper, and small drinking nozzles evoke sympathy and a savior response. The puppies play together in a small, cramped area for the enjoyment of the buyer to be entertained and won over by their cuteness. The dogs are purely used and staged for the purposes of selling and making a profit, and these ploys distract from the harsh reality of their origins. These dogs are not vaccinated, not neutered, and have been shipped across the U.S. No buyer could possibly think about what these puppies have gone through, nor are buyers encouraged to think about their parents who have been bred repeatedly for profit.

Some stores will even advertise using the word "purebred", which can oftentimes be purely a marketing tool. To my knowledge, there is no regulation by the AKC of the use of this word. Some will have dogs registered, but many stores will sell to people under the impression that these dogs have been registered under the AKC purebred standards.

There is also a misconception of the word "young" used by marketers and how that is conveyed to potential buyers. Young does not guarantee a healthy dog! A buyer may assume that they are doing something good, but in reality these dogs could have likely been exposed to fatal diseases or have compromised immune systems, because of their previous living conditions. Don't get me wrong, puppies are absolutely adorable, but marketing tools focus on these superficial qualities to distract buyers from their lived reality.

It is vital for potential dog owners to educate themselves on how a business presents themselves through their language and priorities! They use marketing tools to win over those who are ignorant to where dogs come from and how they are treated.

How dog rescues combat puppy mills

Dog rescues are often the last resort for a dog suffering that may otherwise be lined up for euthanasia at a shelter or a vet. I cannot speak for all other dog rescues, but in the case of OC Pom Rescue, our mission is to advocate for animal rights and set ourselves up as a safe space for neglected dogs. A puppy mill is not a single entity that affects their surrounding community, but they are part of a nationwide industry that relies on making profits at the expense of an ethical quality of life for dogs. Dog rescues and foster programs allow for a dog to get into a home and are able to take the necessary steps to prevent further suffering and abandonment through training, decompression, and a thorough adoption process. We encourage people to adopt and not shop, because this is one way that we can fight against an industry that prioritizes profit over education and quality of life.

For further information, research using the links below!

Discussion surrounding puppy mills and the viscious cycle of buying dogs from irresponsible breeders and dog stores is never ending. Stay tuned for further posts!


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