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Dog Breeding: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Written by FOTP Team


In the US, 2.6million puppies are sold from puppy mills every year.  Puppy mills or farms are often inhumane, but not illegal.  That’s right: unethical breeders can keep dogs in cages all year round, selling pups to pet stores as well as unknowing owners.  The Humane Society is on a mission to shut down puppy mills, but until that happens, find out how to make sure you don’t buy a puppy from an inhumane mill.

What does a puppy mill look like?

Dogs are complex, sensitive and loving mammals, and require proper care.  Besides clean water and good food, they need space to run and a loving owner to follow.  In the right environment, dogs flourish.  

But instead of treating dogs like dogs, puppy mills treat them as commodities.  Dogs are locked in cramped cages without medical attention, fed cheap kibble which doesn’t give them the nutrition they need, and given no walks or open space.  Bitches are forced to bear many litters of pups which are removed too soon.  When they’re exhausted, dogs and bitches are simply killed.   And these terrible conditions can be found in puppy mills all over the US.  

Of course, you won’t see those conditions.  As a potential puppy owner, you’ll just see the lively, fluffy pups in pet stores – or the beguiling photographs posted in online adverts.  

That’s why, when you are looking for a puppy, it is vital to be aware about puppy farming – and make sure that you can spot the signs of a puppy farm.

Why aren’t puppy mills illegal?

Puppy mills are not illegal.  But the Humane Society is working on it.  In 2021, they supported the introduction of the Puppy Protection Act.  This will make additions to the Animal Welfare Act to increase the obligations placed on licensed breeders. 

The Puppy Protection Act will ensure that all puppy mills have spacious runs, regular feeds, veterinary care, and a retirement policy for exhausted dogs.  

You’d think that these standards would already exist, but the current laws enable commercial breeders to keep puppies and their parents in shocking conditions.  Any dog owner would see that these businesses are unethical.  Until the legislation is passed, be vigilant, and ensure that they don’t get any custom from your family. 

What are the signs of a puppy mill?

There are 10,000+ licensed puppy mills in the USA.  How will you know that you’re about to buy from a puppy mill?

You can’t visit the premises:  Some breeders claim they are “family businesses” or that pups live on a farm.  This might be true, but you should investigate with diligence.  Buy your puppy from a breeder who invites you to visit the litter, and see them with their mum.  You should be able to see for yourself where the pups have been reared.   

There are always pups available:  Puppy farms or mills have a constant stream of puppies for sale.  

You can’t see the parents:  Puppy mill bitches are often in a poor state.  That’s because they are forced to bear many litters.  

The seller wants to meet you somewhere:  If the seller wants to meet in a public place or says they’re a broker or agent, that’s a red flag.   

The puppy has a “health warranty”:  Read it carefully.  In some states, puppy laws require breeders to offer a refund for puppies who get sick.  But if you buy from a puppy farm, your pup is more likely to have health problems.  And you won’t want to return the pup when its fate is uncertain.   

The breeder offers no health advice:  Your breeder should give you the name of their vet and advice about settling your pup in at home.  Good breeders care about that stuff.

The puppies are sold in pet stores: Pet stores are used as the “front” for puppy mill sales.  If you’ve seen a pup in the window and you really want to enquire, go in and ask where the puppy came from, and whether you can see paperwork.  If there isn’t any, that’s strike one.  If there’s no veterinarian on the certificate, strike two.  If the papers mention puppy “brokers” or out-of-state or overseas journeys, something’s definitely being covered up.  


If you see any of the above warning signs, don’t continue with the sale.  Instead, choose a puppy from a rescue – or a pup which is advertised by a responsible breeder.  

Breeders selling directly to owners are likely to be more considerate about the type of home their pups will go to.  You can see the pup’s living conditions along with its brothers and sisters, mum and dad (although if Dad isn’t in the same home, that’s not a deal-breaker).  

You can check if a breeder is registered with the USDA by searching for their name here  Use the HSUS Checklist to choose a responsible breeder for your dog. Or ask your veterinarian to recommend local breeders.

Even registered breeders can keep pups in poor conditions.  If you visit a breeder and see signs of cruelty or neglect, report them to the HSUS.

What are the dangers of puppy mills?

Purchasing from puppy mills isn’t just unethical: it’s risky, too.  Intense farming produces pups which are sick, nervous, and unused to people.  

Perhaps you’ve already bought a pup, and now you’re having doubts about the breeder.  How can you tell if your dog is from a puppy mill?  What are the typical “puppy mill” problems?  

Pups have genetic diseases:   To save money on vet costs, some breeders skip screening for genetic diseases.

Pups are unhealthy through neglect:   Look out for eye infections, fleas, injuries, a bad smell or matted fur.  Pups may also be underweight because of lack of food or exercise. 

Pups are not socialized:   Pups need to be socialized by being handled and exposed to other dogs and humans, including children.  Unsocialized pups can be nervous or aggressive.  

Pups are difficult to train: Because they’ve been kept in cramped cages, they’re unused to walking and recall.  They’ve been left to urinate on the floor in their cage and won’t be easy to house-train.  

Pups have light sensitivity: This is a red flag if you’re trying to tell whether your dog is from a puppy mill.  In the worst circumstances, pups have been kept in dingy warehouses and will have sensitivity to daylight.  

Pups don’t sleep at night:  The puppy mill’s crowded cages mean that when one pup wakes, they all wake.  So farmed puppies aren’t used to a quiet night’s sleep, and might be restless when you bring them to your home. 

Pups have health problems caused by dietary deficiencies:  Cheap food doesn’t contain all of the nutrients or protein needed by a growing pup.  Deficiencies can cause joint problems, kidney and heart disease.

Pups have respiratory problems:  Poor air circulation in and around dog cages can cause respiratory infection or difficulty.

What are backyard dog breeders?

Many of these problems are common in pups reared by backyard breeders too.  Although they sound harmless, backyard breeders can be dangerous.  

These are amateurs – people who keep dogs for breeding at home, without following legislation or welfare guidelines.  

Of course, some amateur breeders rear just one litter from a beloved family dog, keeping the pups with care and ensuring that they find good homes. 

But some backyard breeders trade illegally and breed from the same dog too many times, keeping her in unsanitary conditions.   This breeding could be passive (a result of medical or physical neglect) or deliberate (because the puppy trade is lucrative).  

They might experiment with mixing breeds to produce “new” types of dog, and they rarely have the expertise required to look after their pups.

How to avoid illegal dog breeding and buy a healthy and nurtured puppy

Even licensed breeders are known to ignore legislation, and they’re not always penalized.  With the proliferation of backyard dog breeders, puppy farms, and pet store sales, it can be really difficult to choose an ethical breeder.

Here are some tips for choosing your next dog.  

1 – Don’t choose a puppy by price.  Question the cheaper puppies.  Where has the saving been made?  Puppy mills cut costs to make their puppy ads more appealing.  

2 – Wherever you buy a puppy, visit the premises before you sign or make a deposit.  Ensure that the litter (and mum) have a clean, spacious run.  

3 – Check the puppy for signs of health.  Look for a shiny coat, clean teeth, confidence, and bouncy energy.  Make sure that you are not being offered the pup before it’s old enough to leave mum.  If there is a health warranty, read it carefully (see above).  Before leaving, ensure that you have all the paperwork.  

4 – Take a proactive stance and consider your local rescue.  These are sometimes involved in shutting down puppy mills and you can play an active part in rescuing dogs without supporting an unethical breeder.  

5 – Always ask for advice about settling your puppy, walking your puppy, and feeding your puppy.  A good breeder will care about sending you off with the right information.