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How to Identify a Puppy Mill

Written by Anna Hollisey


Cute little puppy trotting over the grass

Bringing a puppy into your home is a huge commitment so it’s really important that you research everything. Before you decide what you’re going to call your new companion, before you pick out toys and dog beds, before you even decide what breed you want, you need to understand how to make sure your puppy comes from a responsible, ethical breeder. 

Here’s everything you need to know about understanding the difference between the ethical and unethical breeders, how to identify a puppy mill and why it matters. 

What is a Puppy Mill?

A puppy mill is a breeding facility where puppies are churned out without care or responsibility. In cramped, stressful, unsanitary conditions, breeding dogs are forced to have continuous litters, with no recovery time, purely to increase profit.

Puppy mills are sadly far too common in the US: The Humane Society,the%20U.S.%20Department%20of%20Agriculture. estimates that there are 10,000 in operation today – which makes it very difficult for owners to avoid encountering one. 

What are Backyard Breeders?

Backyard Breeder is a term for people who are breeding from family pets or people breeding in poor conditions. Backyard breeders aren’t all Cruella de Villes – some of them are inexperienced and unlicensed, rather than intentionally cruel. In most cases, backyard breeders will see the health of their dog as an acceptable sacrifice to make some quick cash. Unfortunately, as any reputable breeder will tell you, breeding puppies isn’t as lucrative as the ill informed would have you believe.

There are often problems with buying from these casual breeders: their breeding dogs may not have had the relevant health checks, which means pups have greater risk of developing genetic problems. The breeders might have overlooked health complications in the puppies or their mother due to inexperience. 

The Problems of Buying from a Puppy Mill

Purchasing from a puppy mill means supporting unethical practices. But you may find additional problems which emerge in your puppy as they grow older:

  • Unknown medical history. There are common genetic problems – including eye, respiratory, and heart problems – occurring in most breeds. A responsible breeder has their parent dogs thoroughly tested and approved by a veterinarian so that the pups have the best chance of good health. For instance, in labradors, hip scores are checked (to reduce the risk of arthritis). Avoiding these health problems isn’t just better for your pup (and ongoing expenses) – it also helps us to reduce them in the breed. 
  • Unknown behavioral history. Likewise, you won’t know if your puppy is likely to develop undesirable behaviors like aggression or anxiety.
  • Early health problems. Puppies from mills are often malnourished and under-socialized. This means they may struggle to adapt to new people and other pets. 
  • Early trauma. Kept in cramped conditions and weaned too early, puppies become suspicious of humans and can be nervous, anxious, and distressed. They’re often harder to house-train and can be aggressive in later years.
  • Perpetuating animal cruelty. Purchasing pups from mills or backyard breeders gives them the ability to continue – potentially mistreating their stock of breeding dogs – and nobody wants to support that. It’s time to shine a light on this cruel practice and eliminate irresponsible breeders for good. 

How to Identify a Puppy Mill

It’s important to boycott breeders who are not meeting ethical standards – even if they’ve just advertised beautiful, fluffy puppies on your local website. 

You might get your first clue when you contact the breeder. If you decide to visit, stay alert. 

Here are the warning signs that you’re dealing with a puppy mill:

  • The breeder wants to meet you somewhere. Puppy mills are cramped and unsanitary. Breeders don’t encourage customers to visit. So if you can’t see where the pups have been sleeping and playing, standards are likely to be poor. 
  • You can’t meet the puppy’s parents. Responsible breeders have one or both parents on the premises and you should be able to see them – to ensure that they are healthy and thriving. 
  • Paperwork is missing. The breeder’s registration license isn’t enough on its own. You should also ask for evidence of veterinary examination and vaccinations, which are sometimes skipped by mercenary puppy mills. 
  • Dogs appear malnourished or scruffy. Poor food and lack of grooming and basic healthcare are all hallmarks of an unethical puppy mill. Look out for dogs who appear nervous or gloomy, which can indicate poor treatment. 
  • There are many different breeds on offer. Breeding puppies is hard work and demands a lot of time and care – good breeders typically keep one or two breeds and have alternate litters so the moms have a chance to recover. Puppy mills advertise lots of breeds because their unethical conditions enable them to breed in bulk.
  • You can’t get clear answers. A good breeder is a specialist. They can tell you about the breed’s needs and life expectancy. They can tell you which food suits them best, and how to start socializing and training your puppy. If you’re buying a purebred, your breeder should be able to show registration paperwork for both parents.
  • A reputable breeder/learn/dog-lifestyle/how-to-find-a-responsible-dog-breeder will be interviewing you as much as you’re interviewing them. They’ll be wanting to make sure their puppies are going to a good home where they’ll be well looked after. Many will request you sign a contract with stipulations about what you can and can’t do with them (breeding, showing, reselling etc) - a puppy mill won’t care about any of this.

Reporting Puppy Mills

Operating a commercial breeding kennel isn’t usually illegal but if you do come across a puppy mill or a breeder offering puppies you’re worried about, your first port of call should be your local humane society, animal control agency or police or sheriff's department. 

The United States Department of Agriculture Animal Care Division can tell you if a breeder is registered. Whilst not all breeders have to be registered, you can submit an Animal Welfare Complaint to the USDA if you suspect any animals are being mistreated. 

The Humane Society of the United States is another great resource that can help if you’re looking for more information. 

Most importantly, never ever buy from a puppy mill under the misguided notion that you’re ‘saving’ a puppy. You’ll be funding an unscrupulous business, lining the pockets of monsters and subjecting yourself to possibly 15 years (or more) of uncertainty, additional costs for training, behavioral issues and medical problems. 

Further Reading

We have lots of helpful stuff on the blog about choosing/learn/dog-lifestyle/what-are-the-calmest-puppy-breeds and training your puppy. Have you read our guide to choosing a boy or girl dog/learn/dog-lifestyle/male-dog-or-female-dog--which-one-is-right-for-you? When you’ve made that decision, it’s time to get your home and yard ready/learn/dog-lifestyle/dog-proofing-your-home-and-yard for canine invasion. Read about what you’ll need when you bring home a puppy/learn/dog-diaries/traveling-with-a-puppy