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Puppy mills: What are they and how can you avoid them? 

Puppy mill with puppies behind gate

Puppy mills are a scourge on the animal industry and a heartbreaking reality for many dogs. Dogs are kept in terrible conditions, don’t receive the physical and emotional care they need, and many suffer from a range of health issues and behavioral problems. What should pet parents know about puppy mills and how to avoid them? 

Table of contents  

What is a puppy mill? 

Puppy mills are commercial breeding facilities that mass-produce dogs for sale through pet stores or directly to consumers. They commonly sell very young puppies through internet sales, online classified ads, flea markets and pet stores. In fact, according to PAWS, roughly 90 percent of puppies in pet stores come from puppy mills. 

Puppy mills may contain between 50 to over 1,000 dogs. These facilities pump out as many pups as possible to maximize their earnings. Usually, they have little to no experience in dog breeding and they typically breed whatever breed is trending at the time, or any breed they can get ahold of easily and cheaply. 

Overview of the puppy mill industry  

The mass breeding of dogs began as means for cash-strapped Americans to raise and sell puppies during the Great Depression and following World War II. In reaction to crop failures in the Midwest and growing struggles for pig and poultry farmers, farms began raising puppies for extra income. This puppy mill model was less labor intensive and more cost-effective for farmers, some of whom converted chicken coops and rabbit hutches to house breeding dogs and puppies.   

Amish puppy mills are particularly prolific because dog farming is a major part of the economy in some Amish communities in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and elsewhere. While many Amish dog breeders are considered puppy mills, not all Amish breeders are irresponsible. It just takes some extra investigative homework to tell the difference.  

Where are puppy mill dogs sold? 

There are three primary markets for the sale of dogs bred through puppy mills: 

  • Pet stores: Nearly all pet stores that sell puppies are supplied by mills. More and more communities are banning the sale of mill-bred pets in stores, but many Americans are still unaware of the connection between pet stores and puppy mills.   
  • Websites: Just like pet stores, most websites that sell dogs are selling mill-bred pets, and most of these sites market the puppies as well-bred and lovingly raised. These ads may list several breeds for sale, and it’s common for the breeder to not let you visit a physical location so that you can see where the dogs and puppies live.  
  • Classified ads: Puppy mills will often place classified ads on mainstream websites, offering purposely bred animals for “adoption.” Red flags to look for include a high adoption fee, a cash-only transaction, several breeds of puppies for adoption, and any offers of a free puppy shipped to your door with payment of a transport charge.   

Impacts of puppy mills  

Puppy mills have devastating impacts on dogs’ health, contribute to the overpopulation of animals in shelters, and put a strain on local resources. 

Animal welfare concerns  

For facilities classified as puppy mills, profit takes priority over the health, comfort, and welfare of the dogs. Inhumane conditions include: 

  • Confinement: More breeding dogs equals more puppies, which equals more money, so cruel breeders maximize space by keeping dogs tightly contained. Dogs often spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week in small, stacked, wire-floored crates or in outdoor pens exposed to heat, cold and rain. They eat, sleep and give birth in confinement.  
  • Unsanitary conditions: Puppy mill operators rarely take the time and effort to clean urine, feces, or any other bodily materials from dogs’ spaces. Lack of hygiene practices at these facilities encourage the spread of diseases, especially among puppies with undeveloped immune systems. Puppies often arrive in pet stores with health issues ranging from parasites to parvo to pneumonia.  
  • Poor veterinary care: Because it can be costly and time-consuming, veterinary care is limited at puppy mills. Breeding female dogs and puppies don’t get to see a veterinarian often—not for regular checkups, vaccines, teeth cleanings or even when they’re sick.   
  • No grooming, exercise, or socialization: Puppy mill dogs are not bathed, brushed, nor have their nails trimmed. There is also little to no incentive for dogs to receive much physical or emotional care, so they are not walked, played or engaged with, and often develop stress and behavioral issues. 
  • Nonstop breeding: Female dogs are bred at every opportunity, even if they are sick, injured, exhausted, or have genetic traits that could be damaging to their puppies. No effort is made to care for adult female dogs who can no longer breed, so they are often abandoned or euthanized. 
  • Sudden, early separation: Puppies aren’t given time to gradually separate from their mother and littermates. Once there’s a buyer, puppies are immediately and often prematurely removed, which can lead to fear, stress, and other lasting behavioral problems. 

Economic impacts of puppy mills 

Towns rarely benefit at all from the existence of a puppy mill. These facilities employ few staff, often don’t pay the required taxes or license fees, and generate much animal waste, in addition to noise and odors. While there is little to no benefit of a puppy mill for a community, there are significant costs to the community if such a facility closes.  

When a puppy mill is closed and all the dogs removed, this humane action can drain the financial resources of a local community, local animal welfare entities, as well as large humane organizations. Once a major puppy mill enterprise is discovered, communities often don’t have the necessary resources to handle the situation, allowing it to continue and even grow. Prevention is key as a community should discourage large scale breeding facilities from locating in their area.  

Environmental impacts 

A common method employed by puppy mills to maximize profits includes irresponsible waste management practices that are harmful to the environment. Lack of proper sanitation and waste disposal practices when it comes to dogs’ urine, feces, or even dead bodies, allows for infectious diseases to fester. The pathogens present in dog feces can survive for long periods of time in water that seeps into the ground, drains into wet-dry streams, and eventually make its way into major rivers that are sources of public drinking water.  

Legislation and policies 

After learning the ugly truth about puppy mills, you’re probably wondering, “Are puppy mills legal?!” Let’s take a look at the laws regulating companion animal breeding facilities and the loopholes that allow puppy mills to stay in business. 

Current state and federal laws  

In 1966, Congress passed the Animal Welfare Act, which is enforced by the US Department of Agriculture and outlines specific minimum standards of care for dogs, cats and some other kinds of animals bred for commercial resale. Under the AWA, certain large-scale commercial breeders are required to be licensed and regularly inspected by the USDA. But there are many inefficiencies and loopholes in the system. 

Breeding operations that sell directly to the public face-to-face—thousands of facilities that breed and sell just as many puppies as their wholesale counterparts—are not required to adhere to the Animal Welfare Act or to any federal humane care standards. Even for those that are required to be licensed and inspected, enforcement is inconsistent. 

How to avoid puppy mills 

Not only do you have a greater chance of adopting an unhealthy dog from a puppy mill, but purchasing a dog from a puppy mill only encourages the business to continue its inhumane operations. Your dog will likely live 10 to 20 years, so it’s well worth investing some time now to be sure you’re working with a respectable rescue organization or a responsible breeder who breeds healthy, happy dogs and keeps them in clean and humane conditions. How can you avoid puppy mills? 

Adopting from animal shelters or rescue groups 

Animal shelters and rescues are established not as profit-making businesses, but with animals’ best interests in mind. By working with a shelter or rescue organization, you will not only likely find a great dog, but you’ll also feel great about helping a dog in need find a loving home. 

Researching breeders  

There are a few ways to research and identify reputable dog breeders. First, start by asking for referrals from your veterinarian or trusted friends, by contacting local breed clubs or visiting professional dog shows. 

Once you have found a breeder that looks legit, you should not expect it to be a quick and easy process to adopt a dog. Responsible dog breeders don’t sell their puppies to the first person who shows up with cash in hand. Instead, they will likely want to meet and thoroughly interview you to ensure that the puppy is a good match for your family and that you will provide a responsible, lifelong home. Their interest is in the long-term health and happiness of their dogs and the families they sell to, so they can maintain a good reputation and continue a high-quality, sustainable business. 

You should also always personally visit a dog breeder’s facility before buying a puppy. Find out where your puppy was born and raised. This will not only vouch for the quality of your breeder’s conditions, but you will get a better understanding of your dog’s early experiences and background.  


The impacts of puppy mills are far-reaching and devastating. These mills perpetuate animal cruelty, and their negative effects are felt not only by the dogs, but their unsuspecting families, and the local community. It is important for pet owners to be able to identify puppy mills and choose to either adopt from animal shelters or purchase from responsible breeders who prioritize the welfare of their animals.