Laws Affecting Commercial Breeders and Puppy Mills

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Brief Summary of Commercial Breeder Laws
Robyn F. Katz (2008)

A commercial breeder is someone who breeds dogs for a living. There are different definitions of the term “breeder” depending on which law one uses. Commercial breeders sometimes fall under federal law with the Animal Welfare Act. The Animal Welfare Act governs commercial dog breeding to an extent, but has loopholes that many breeders use to avoid the regulations. It is important that there are laws that apply to commercial breeding operations because the businesses need to ensure the safety of the dogs.

States are in control of most of animal welfare laws including any that may concern commercial breeders. For example, a state may need to pass a law that requires inspections for breeding facilities. At the federal level, it is difficult to monitor all fifty states and every breeding operation within them. While many states do have laws regulating commercial breeding, some do not (about half of the states). Further, some states' laws differ so drastically from nearby states that the breeder can easily decide to move to the state that has the least restrictive laws. The state laws that are in place typically instruct breeders on how to legally maintain a breeding facility, identify registration fees, inform about inspections, mandate specific requirements related to the maintenance of the facility (veterinary care for the dogs, size of cages, hazardous chemicals near the cages), and alert breeders of penalties they will face if they violate the laws.

While responsible breeders try to place desired dogs with competent homes, the number of irresponsible breeders has risen in recent years with the growing demand for purebred and designer dogs. This, along with the lack of an overarching federal law, and weak state laws, leads to the problem of puppy mills. Puppy mills are breeding facilities that maintain deplorable conditions for the dogs, are often unregulated, and escape the laws through current loopholes. Puppy mills often sell the dogs to pet stores and through the Internet, and eager consumers with little knowledge about where the dogs came from end up with the puppies.

More states need to incorporate stricter licensing requirements that are easily enforceable and address both retail pet stores and Internet sales. Effective on January 1, 2009, Virginia will be the first state to require that a commercial breeder conform to business standards.   This will create higher standards of care that a breeder must meet to be licensed by the state.   Even with greater enforcement of laws and more states enacting new laws, this ultimately an issue of supply and demand.   If consumers keep buying dogs from sources that sell puppy mill dogs, the puppy mills will continue supplying to the public.   As a result, the consumer’s roll in this tragedy is critical to change the direction of this disturbing trend.


Overview of Commercial Breeder Laws
Robin F. Katz (2008)

While responsible breeders try to place desired dogs with competent homes, the prevalence of irresponsible breeders has risen in recent years with the growing demand for purebred and designer dogs. This trend is further complicated by the fact that only twenty-six states have laws implementing regulations on commercial kennels. Those that have licensing requirements for kennels lack in substance and enforcement. The laws of each state differ drastically from one another, giving motivated breeders room to travel between states to find the location that has the least restrictive way to make money from breeding. Normally, these state laws instruct breeders on how to legally maintain a breeding operation, including but not limited to registration fees, limits on the number of dogs, whether or not they will be subject to inspections, and maintenance of facilities.

The absence of overarching federal law and lack of both state law and federal enforcement leads to the problem of puppy mills. This ultimately an issue of supply and demand, where the consumer’s roll in this tragedy is paramount to its change in direction.

The only uniform animal welfare law is the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA), which includes regulations for living conditions of certain animals and penalties for violations. The law provides criminal penalties, civil penalties, and revocation of permits for violations of the AWA. Congress passed the AWA as a means of regulating animals in science and research, not animal cruelty. However, on the surface, parts of the law are applicable to certain companion animal breeders. For example, dogs and cats are listed as animals covered by the Act. However, this law is much more limited than the general public realizes. The Act exempts all retail pet stores, and someone who does not profit more than $500 from the sale of a dog, cat, or any wild animal. Thus, savvy breeders can maneuver around the license requirement if the breeders sell directly to the public or do not gross more than $500 per year.

Despite the AWA’s limitations, commercial breeders often fall within the inspection requirements of the AWA. The AWA requires inspections through the Department of Agriculture’s Animal Care Program. However, since the federal law exempts those facilities that sell dogs directly to the public (backyard breeders and those not registered as licensed Class A dealers), a significant amount of breeding facilities go uninspected.

Since the purpose of the federal Act is not for the regulation of commercial breeders, loopholes within the Act allow unregulated breeders to exist. The primary authority to regulate the welfare of animals is through the states, which need to maintain laws that are enforceable and hold people accountable for violating the current laws.

Only twenty-six states currently have laws that govern breeders. States laws vary, but most states that do have laws address sanitation, housing, food and water requirements, the governing agency, and inspections; few address veterinary care and the humane treatment of dogs, ventilation, and exercise.  

Generally, those states that even define commercial breeder, commercial kennel, breeding facility, and retail pet store do so differently. The variations in the state laws may encourage commercial breeders to migrate in geographic regions, often times to states that have less restrictions. The discrepancy in laws between adjacent states may encourage illegitimate breeders to skirt the laws and move to where the standards are far more lenient.

Inspections of commercial breeding facilities are of great importance to animal welfare because it is the regulatory agency that has the power to shut down facilities that do not follow the laws. Those states that do not mandate inspections are setting up laws that are rarely enforceable. Although law enforcement is already spread thin within the states, and there is a lack of funding and personnel to carefully inspect each facility, the answer is not to leave out an enforcement strategy.

In 2008, Virginia took the lead on battling problems with illegitimate commercial breeders. Effective January 1, 2009, the Virginia law will be the only state that mandates that any commercial breeder must apply or and obtain a business license. Virginia is the first of its kind to require that a commercial breeder conform to business standards. Designating a breeding facility as a business forces breeders who could become illegitimate breeders through the sheer number of puppies they produce, to comply.

While the Virginia law illustrates major progress by limiting large-scale puppy mills, it still leaves loopholes for breeders who have less than thirty female dogs. If a breeder has twenty-nine dogs and each dog produces two litters a year, there is a potential for hundreds of puppies born without the facility being inspected since there was no license requirement.

However slightly broad and unpolished the Virginia law is, Virginia’s upcoming law is paramount, as other states will be able to use Virginia as a template for enacting new laws. Louisiana is strongly considering new legislation governing puppy mills. The Louisiana law would place more restrictions on breeders selling to pet stores and over the Internet.

Currently, no current state statute utilizes the phrase “puppy mill” in its text. The ASPCA defines responsible breeders as those who have focused their efforts on one or a select few breeds, and through breeding, historical research and ongoing study, mentoring relationships, club membership, showing, raising and training of these breeds have become experts in the breed’s health, heritable conditions, temperament, and behavior. The Humane Society of the United States defined puppy mills as dog-breeding operations that put profit above the welfare of dogs.

There are legitimate breeders operating in the world. However, p uppy mills are institutions where dogs are forced to breed their whole lives until they are physically incapable. A female dog is bred every time she goes into heat, so female dogs are pregnant or nursing all the time. At that time, the dogs are either sold to other breeders, left on the side of the road, neglected, or even killed. The puppies spend twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week in cages, with often little to no contact with people or the outside world.

As technology progresses, the Internet is a convenient way to purchase a dog from an unknown source. The danger in this is buying a sick puppy from an unlicensed breeder and supporting his or her efforts to curtail the law.   No current state law has any statute governing the sale of dogs through the Internet.

While the problem of unethical breeders has become a national problem, the solution must be addressed at the state level. Enforcement standards should be applied in each state that has laws governing commercial breeding operations. Loopholes can be closed by states enforcing the current laws that presently exist, and providing new laws that enable the public to be knowledgeable about legitimate breeders operating within the state. Without overstepping their boundaries, states can provide clear expectation and standards for facilities that operate as commercial kennels, and allow those legitimate breeders to prosper in the production of healthy puppies; at the same time, states can prevent puppy mills from arising by forcing operations to operate as businesses such as Virginia does, and dedicating more funding to the departments that perform inspections. 

While twenty-six states currently have commercial breeding laws, these laws are meaningless if they are not enforced. States need to work together, especially regionally, in order to ensure that illegitimate breeders do not slip through the cracks of the current laws. It is the discrepancies between states that encourage those who do not wish to comply with the law. The commercial breeding business and the general public both need to be held accountable for this rising problem of puppy mills in the United States.


Related articles

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

Overview of Recent Dog Breeding Laws (2010), Rebecca F. Wisch, Animal Legal & Historical Center (2010).

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).


Related cases

Table of Animal Welfare Act Cases (contains breeder cases)


Related laws

Table of State Commercial Dog Breeding Laws

Audit Report  APHIS Animal Care Program Inspection and Enforcement Activities

Related Links


Web Center Links:

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

Sale of Pets at Retail Stores Topic Area

External Links:

American Kennel Club Breeder Resources -

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)

HSUS Puppy Mill Campaign website - Friends of Animals, an International Non-Profit Animal Advocacy Organization (information on puppy mills) -


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