Commercial Dog Breeders and Puppy Mills

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Brief Summary of Commercial Breeders and "Puppy Mills"
Kimberly Barnes (2017)

Commercial breeders may sometimes operate under such conditions that justify calling their operation a “puppy mill.” The term “puppy mill” means a breeding environment in which puppies, bred primarily in pursuit of profit, are cared for only minimally. These minimum standards may actually meet federal or state regulations, because some standards allow for cost-saving practices (such as cage-stacking) and are silent as to other practices (such as how many times a breeding female may be bred in a given time period).

Under federal law, the Animal Welfare Act (“AWA”) is the only law that governs the humane treatment of animals bred for purposes of sale. Those who fall under the scope of the AWA must be licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) through a branch called APHIS—the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The USDA/APHIS creates minimum standards of care, licenses certain breeders, inspects their facilities, and enforces violations of the AWA.

Aside from the minimum federal standards, states are free to pass laws that go beyond the requirements laid out in the AWA. In fact, the majority of states have passed laws to supplement the AWA, such as requiring higher standards of care, or establishing more inspection and enforcement mechanisms. Today, only 21 states remain without any laws on or relating to commercial breeders.

Yet the main issue when it comes to commercial breeding stems from a lack of oversight and enforcement—both at the federal and state levels. APHIS has faced sharp criticism, both by animal welfare advocates and the USDA itself, for inadequate enforcement against violators of the AWA. However, APHIS has a limited budget allocated to it by Congress, and tougher enforcement requires more inspectors and staff to carry out that task. Individual states have similarly found ineffective enforcement of their animal welfare laws, leading to the conclusion that something more is required to address the puppy mill industry than simply passing laws that regulate it.

Another problem is the rise of “backyard breeders.” Backyard breeders are either not required to be licensed at either the federal or state level because they do not breed enough dogs for state regulation, or they simply do not obtain licenses when they are otherwise required to. Furthermore, while many pet stores only purchase puppies from USDA licensed breeders, the increasing market for puppies sold over the Internet allow for some unscrupulous breeders to operate under the radar. That is, the continued prevalence of puppy mills in the United States appears to result from a mixture of minimal federal standards, lax oversight, and backyard breeders able to sell direct over the Internet without being subject to any regulation whatsoever.

In response, a growing number of cities and counties have approached the issue by banning pet shops from sourcing from anywhere besides a rescue organization. This approach, which has survived several legal challenges, has been criticized for unfairly burdening pet stores and limiting consumer choice. Nonetheless, advocates say that these laws, together with consumer education, seem to be the best way to limit the spread of puppy mills.




Overview of Commercial Breeder/"Puppy Mill" Laws
Kimberly Barnes (2017)


A “puppy mill” is the term used to describe a commercial breeding operation that seeks to maximize profit at the expense of the dogs. It is not a legal term defined by state or federal law. Puppy mill dogs are typically obtained from pet stores or the Internet. Generally speaking, pet store puppies tend to come from USDA licensed breeders, and several states have laws that specifically prohibit pet stores sourcing from unlicensed breeders. However, being USDA licensed does not guarantee that the breeder is responsible or that the health of the dogs is of primary concern.  In fact, many puppies sold in pet stores often come from puppy mills. Responsible breeders will usually want to ensure that whoever buys a puppy will provide it a proper home, and are thus less likely to sell wholesale to a pet store where the puppies go to the first person that wants one. Plus, puppies from pet stores may tend to exhibit behavioral problems that last into adulthood, an issue having to do with the stress of leaving its litter at a young age, being transported to and from the pet store, and adapting to the pet store environment. Thus, these behavioral issues may arise even if the puppy was bred in a licensed facility. Accordingly, breeders that are willing to subject puppies to that risk may be less likely to view the puppies as anything more than a crop or commodity, and as such may not have provided a proper breeding environment. That is why some animal advocates argue that any large-scale commercial breeding facility has the potential to become a puppy mill.

Puppies sold over the Internet pose a larger problem. Although remote sellers are required to be in compliance with USDA regulations, the fact that buyers are often unable to see the puppy or its breeding environment prior to purchase makes it difficult to determine whether the puppy came from a humane environment. Online sellers may also use deceptive marketing tactics to give the appearance of high reputability, when its puppies may be seriously ill or die shortly after purchase. Furthermore, puppies purchased online may come from foreign breeders that are not even subject to the minimum USDA regulations. While puppies imported into the United States require various documentation to show they are of adequate age and health, some are being imported with falsified paperwork to skirt these requirements.

The reason that even USDA licensed breeders continue to be a major source of puppy mill dogs has to do with the fact that puppy mills are technically legal. The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) provides the only overarching law regulating breeders, and it, along with the accompanying USDA regulations, have been widely recognized as minimal, if not mere “survival standards.” Even breeders in full compliance with the AWA may have dogs spend their entire lives stacked in vertical, chicken wire crates that are no more than 6 inches taller and wider than the dog housed inside. Of the breeders falling under the purview of the AWA, some either do not comply with even these minimum care standards, and/or have not obtained USDA licenses at all, qualifying them as a “backyard breeders.”

Infrequent investigations and inadequate enforcement by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) have allowed many commercial breeders to continue operating despite falling below even the minimum federal standards. While APHIS is authorized to carry out various enforcement actions, including revoking USDA licenses, the USDA’s own Inspector General found that APHIS was assessing only minimal penalties against offenders. After also finding that APHIS misused its own guidelines to reduce penalties and that its inspectors were failing to properly document violations, APHIS agreed to adopt almost all of the Inspector General’s recommendations. Today, seven years after these findings, the problem of lax enforcement does not appear to have dramatically improved. Puppy mills that have been found to be in repeat violation of the AWA have been permitted to continue with very little resistance. 

To make up for the AWA’s shortcomings, more and more states have enacted their own laws regulating commercial breeders and providing licensing, inspection, and enforcement procedures. Currently, the majority of states have enacted laws that at least address dogs bred commercially, ranging from extensive and thorough care requirements, to laws resembling the AWA’s minimum standards. About half of the states also have laws that regulate pet stores, or that guarantee at least some recourse for consumers who purchased sick puppies.

Nonetheless, the very existence of new state laws regulating commercial breeders has not done much to address the problem of puppy mills in some cases. Because enforcement at the state level has also shown to be inadequate in some cases, even states with relatively stringent breeder requirements have continued to be major producers of puppy mills. For example, in Pennsylvania—which has been repeatedly reported as a major source of puppy mills—it was found that the state’s commercial breeding regulations were being intentionally under-enforced. Other states simply have less intensive inspection requirements, such as providing for inspections of breeding facilities only where there are reasonable grounds for suspecting a violation has occurred. What’s more, there are still 16 states that have yet to adopt their own breeding laws, meaning that any enforcement of the AWA must be carried out by APHIS alone.

This variability in state laws and weak underlying federal law has resulted in more and more dealers buying puppies from states with lax or nonexistent breeding laws just to transport them across state lines to sell in states with stricter laws. At a more micro level, a similar phenomenon is occurring locally, seeing as there are over 200 localities that have banned pet stores from selling commercially bred puppies. If California passes AB 485, it will be the first state implementing the same pet store ban. While passage of such a law could mean fewer sales of puppy mill derived pets at pet stores, negligent breeding environments (unregulated backyard breeders, foreign sellers, and out-of-state puppy mills) will continue to provide puppies to Internet-based sellers.

Of course, the issue of puppy mills staying in business by shipping across state lines can be solved by passing laws in more and more locations. At a state level, this process appears to be moving slowly but steadily—in 2017, only 16 states are not regulating commercial breeders as opposed to 24 states back in 2008. This process may not be ramping up any time soon, as lobbying efforts consistently fight back against state legislation regulating commercial breeders. Specifically, critics of pet store bans argue that such laws hurt local businesses and reduce consumer choice. At a federal level, more comprehensive legislation seems even further away. In fact, efforts made by the USDA to improve its enforcement through transparency were scaled back several days into the Trump presidency.

This leaves the local efforts, which has shown to be a rapidly growing trend with less than 50 local pet store bans in 2014 growing to over 200 in 2017. This also leaves individual consumer choice; to be sure, even if puppy mills were completely eradicated in the United States, people who continue to demand designer and purebred dogs could always purchase them from other countries over the Internet. So at the base level, those consumers that educate themselves on the problem of puppy mills can both reduce the demand for commercially bred puppies as well as influence their local governments to ban their sale in pet stores. At the present time, animal welfare advocates argue that this appears to be the most viable solution.


Related articles

Dealing Dogs: Can We Strengthen Weak Laws in the Dog Industry?  Sandra K. Jones,  7 Rutgers J. L. & Pub. Pol'y 442 (Spring, 2010).

Something Stinks: The Need for Environmental Regulation of Puppy Mills,  Melissa Towsey,  21 Vill. Envtl. L.J. 159 (2010).

Don't Buy the Doggy in the Window: Ending the Cycle That Perpetuates Commercial Breeding With Regulation Of The Retail Pet Industry,  Katherine C. Tushaus, 14 Drake J. Agric. L. 501 (2009).

What is a Puppy Mill? Robin F. Katz (2008).


Related cases

 Cases dealing with commercial dog breeding



Related laws

Table of State Commercial Dog Breeding Laws

Table of State Pet Purchaser Protection Laws

Audit Report  APHIS Animal Care Program Inspection and Enforcement Activities

Related Links


Web Center Links:

Swap Meet Laws Topic Introduction

Pet Purchaser Protection Act (Puppy "Lemon Laws") Topic Introduction 

External Links:

Animal Plant & Health Inspection Service (APHIS) within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), List of Registered Commercial Breeders, Dealers, Exhibitors, etc. by state  - (pdf 1.09 MB)

Missouri Department of Agriculture "Operation Bark Alert" (reporting of possible unlicensed dog breeding facilities in the state) -


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