What is a Puppy Mill?  

Puppy Mills are large scale commercial dog breeding facilities.  They breed dogs to make a living.  There are no health screening protocols, no quality food, and little to no vet care.  In most all cases, the breeding dogs are housed in kennels for most of their lives. Some never touch their paws on solid ground their entire lives.  The main goal of these puppy mills is to maximize profits, while minimizing expenses.   


Puppy Mills are not illegal.  The USDA is in charge of overseeing these Puppy Mills.  There are only bare minimum requirements for them to continue operating- basically, as long as their cage is big enough for the dog in it to stand up, and they are fed and watered daily, the Mill will pass inspection.  USDA workers usually leave Puppy Mill operators with a long list of violations, such as neglect of veterinary care for injured dogs, sick or dying dogs, and improper housing conditions.  The Mill will not automatically be shut down due to these infractions.  It is a long (often years long) process to legally shut these Puppy Mills down for good.  

This photo shows a USDA inspector doing an inspection at a commercial kennel.  While the kennel shown is fairly 'clean', (many puppy mills have advance notice of kennel inspections), the dogs are still spending the majority of their lives in small cages with substandard care. 

When one of these Puppy Mills is finally shut down, rescue groups will often step in and gather up all of the dogs at these facilities. Volunteers spend hours coaxing scared, unhealthy and often abused dogs from their tiny filthy cages.  From there, the dogs rescued will be given proper veterinary care and they experience love and safety for the first time in their lives.  Most all dogs rescued from Puppy Mills are very badly emotionally and psychologically damaged.  Breeder dogs who have spent their entire lives in cages with hardly any human contact are understandably terrified at their new surroundings.  Many of them never fully recover from this abuse.   Their medical care is most often very expensive, as they have been deprived of veterinary care.  Rescues struggle to cover these expenses.  The photo below was taken when rescue workers stepped in to remove over 800 dogs from a commercial breeder's home.  


Puppy Mills can be run by families or individuals, usually in remote areas where there is little traffic and out of public view.  The midwest (including Nebraska) has a large portion of the nation's Puppy Mills.  Rural Nebraska is often seen as a great opportunity for a Puppy Mill to thrive without being scrutinized by the public.  In most cases, the dogs are housed in outdoor kennel runs. Sometimes they are housed in a barn, custom built facility, or even inside the breeder's homes (as shown in the photo below).


Almost all dogs in Puppy Mills are registered with a purebred dog registry such as the AKC (American Kennel Club). Unsuspecting puppy buyers are falsely assured that the puppy they are buying is quality because of the registration papers.  The truth is, the AKC (and CKC, UKC, APRI and other registries) are only  record keeping databases.  AKC does not have any requirements to register a dog with them, besides that the puppy comes from AKC registered parents- and the AKC is the most strict in terms of registration!  Many other registries will register a dog as purebred as long as you send in two photos of the dog!  Every generation is registered, creating what is called a pedigree.  The dog's pedigree is nothing more than the dog's ancestry documented on paper.  You can learn the names of your puppy's parents, grandparents, and so on into infinity- but unless you know who these dogs are in the pedigree, their names really don't tell you anything.  

This dog is an AKC registered Italian Greyhound, who spent her life in a puppy mill producing AKC registered puppies.  Many people bought her puppies assuming that because they were 'papered', that they were better quality dogs.  

The pedigree of a dog will notate any titles that the dogs in it have- such as a Championship and Grand Championship titles, Performance titles (there are too many to list here, a dog can earn titles through Obedience, Agility, Herding, and even Canine Good Citizen).  OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals) certifications may show up on the pedigree as well.  In general you will find that the dogs from puppy mills don't have much (usually nothing)  in way of titles or OFA certifications in any of the dogs all throughout every name listed in their pedigrees.  

In short, AKC registration is similar to your vehicle's registration at the DMV.  Both registries take  info and issue you 'papers'.  However, as you well know, the DMV has nothing to do with whether you have a good quality, reliable vehicle.  The same goes for AKC registration papers and how it relates to quality dogs.  

So how do Puppy Mills operate?  

These Puppy Mills mass produce a very high volume of puppies.  Their dogs are bred year round, year after year, until they are no longer able to breed.  When the mill is done using the breeder dog, they will either sell the dogs at auction, or kill them.  

This photo was taken at a dog auction.  Rescue groups, or individuals who are found to be protesting or documenting these auctions in any way, will be asked to leave.  

Because of this, there are not many photos or videos of dog auctions readily available on the internet.  There are some videos available on YouTube if you would like to learn more about how dog auctions operate.  

Puppy Mills will usually sell their puppies directly to pet stores.  Other times they sell to brokers.  Brokers are basically the 'Middle Man'.  The Brokers will purchase large numbers of young puppies (sometimes before they are old enough to be taken from their mother, but at an age where they no longer require her milk) and sell them to Pet Stores.  

This is an ad placed by a Broker (in this case, Hunte Corporation), geared towards both Puppy Mills and unscrupulous dog breeders.  Hunte Corporation (and other such dog brokers) will purchase entire litters from breeders and sell them to pet stores or other avenues on the internet.  

The certificate below is the veterinary inspection certificate that is required when shipping puppies.  It shows the Puppy Mill's name as the 'Consignor' and the Pet Store as the 'Consignee'.  If you compare the puppy's date of births listed and the date of transfer on this certificate, you will see that many of the puppies are just barely legal age to be taken from their mothers.  You will also see that they were sold to a Pet Store. 

The Pet Stores who purchase these puppies will then mark up the price of the puppies to outrageous amounts (usually even much more than what a responsible breeder would charge you!). Some Puppy Mills don't sell directly to Pet Stores, and instead have a 'Store' open to the public to purchase puppies, while the conditions of their adult dogs remain hidden from view. There are a couple of 'Kennels' right here in Nebraska who operate in this way.  

Others will hide away most of their adult dogs, and invite unknowing prospective buyers into their home to see the puppies.  

Most of them, if they do not sell to brokers exclusively, will sell their puppies online.   They may even advertise a 'Health Guarantee' with their puppies. Upon further scrutiny, you will find that these 'guarantees' usually don't really guarantee anything!  

This is a short (less than 3 minute) video on Puppy Mills. Please watch and share it.  

Another term you may hear is 'Backyard Breeder'.  While these people are not large scale commercial dog breeders, they are still a major problem and contributor to shelter populations.  Why?  

The term Backyard Breeder refers to a pet owner who breeds their pet dogs to produce pet  puppies, with no purpose or goal to improve their breed.  They usually think that breeding dogs is a good way to make money.  Often times, they do make money because they invest little money up front in their dogs.  They often own both a male and female dog, and mate these pets because it is most cost effective and convenient for them.  

Rarely will you see them research pedigrees, invest in expensive health screening, or show an active interest in their breed by participating in dog shows or other events which evaluate breeding stock.  

Some backyard breeders do love their pets, and don't think they are causing them any harm by breeding them.  They are usually ignorant of the responsibilities that come with ethical dog breeding.  You will find that these dog owners know little to nothing about their breed in way of the written breed standard, health testing, or temperament.  

Other Backyard Breeders will exploit their dog's by purposely breeding 'Teacup', 'Rare', or fad mixed breed dogs.  They have a Yorkie, their neighbor has a Maltese, so they think it would be cute to make a 'Morkie'.  These breeders then try to make hundreds of dollars off of their mixed breed puppies.  

When these breeders end up with an unexpected emergency (such as an emergency C Section), they are unprepared both financially and mentally to handle  it.  Some backyard breeders just want to have puppies for the sake of having them.  They find puppies 'cute',  or they think it would be a good experience for their kids (until something goes wrong, and their children witness their beloved pet die during birth, or witness extreme birth defects, dead puppies, and illnesses).  You will often hear them say that they 'Just want a puppy from her before she is spayed', or 'He's such a great dog, we have to have a puppy from him'.  

Puppy buyers who end up with either a sick puppy, or a puppy with an inherited defect, are out of luck.  The breeder is usually not prepared to reimburse you for your puppy, to take it back if it doesn't work out, or to replace your puppy in the event that he may die from a genetic disease.  

Owners often are stuck with a chronically ill dog, and because they originally purchased their puppy because she was a 'bargain' (priced cheaper than from a reputable breeder), the owners often aren't equipped to financially take care of the dog.  

That bargain puppy has now cost double or triple the original purchase price. Responsible, ethical breeders will screen for genetic disease (such as hip dysplasia, as is the case in the veterinary bill shown above).  As you can see, these diseases can cost their owners more than most families can possibly afford.  What might seem like a 'good deal' now, may very well cost you!

Responsible breeders and rescues will have a written contract for you to sign and abide by.  This contract almost always includes the clause that if you are unable to care for your dog, the breeder or rescue will take him back.  Backyard breeders are usually unable or unwilling to do this (they may say they will, but rarely will they follow through).  This is part of the reason why backyard breeders are a large contributor to shelter populations.  

Another reason is because they often do little to nothing in way of screening potential adopters.  People who would normally be turned away from a responsible breeder or rescue will go to a backyard breeder to get what they want without having to answer any questions.

Usually these people were turned away by the responsible breeders and rescues because they are not prepared to take care of a dog (even though they think they are).  In the end, many times the dog ends up abandoned, sold on Craigslist, or surrendered to rescue.  

This sweet dog came to VCA due to an irresponsible backyard breeder.

He was rescued along with several other small dogs who were used for breeding purposes.  One of the dogs that was being used for breeding was found to have a heart abnormality- which likely was passed on to her puppies.  

How can you avoid purchasing a puppy from a Puppy Mill or Backyard Breeder?  

The best way to ensure that you do not purchase a puppy that came from a Puppy Mill or irresponsible breeder  is to adopt a dog from a reputable rescue or shelter.  If you are not set on a puppy, you can almost always find your chosen breed through these avenues.  Sometimes, even puppies of your chosen breed end up in shelters and rescues.  Common breeds that end up in shelters are Chihuahuas and Pit Bulls.  

There are also good reasons for some families to adopt from a breeder.  They may have a specific job in mind for the dog, such as hunting or herding.  Other times families wish to adopt a puppy that is certified clear of certain inherited defects that are common in their chosen breed.  

We realize that people do purchase puppies from breeders.  Here are our suggestions to ensure that you do not purchase your puppy from a Puppy Mill or backyard breeder.  

Always be wary of a breeder who does not ask you any questions before agreeing to sell you a puppy.  A breeder who is only concerned with whether you can pay for the puppy is bad news.  They should have at least one conversation with you before allowing you to meet any puppies.  A breeder who cares about where her dogs end up will always ask you questions and answer your questions honestly.  They will make sure that you know the breed, the pros and cons of the breed, and are able to handle caring for the dog.  Any breeder who allows you to purchase a puppy directly off a website, should be avoided!  It should also be noted:  Do not be fooled into thinking that a puppy is 'High Quality' due to a high price tag!!  The puppies below are from puppy mills!  

Be cautious of a breeder who does not have proof of health testing.   Every purebred breed of dog has their specific health concerns.  The breeder should have certifications (that are readily available upon request) that their breeding dogs are free from these health issues.  A sample OFA certificate is shown below.  Orthopedic Foundation for Animals is the most commonly used public database for health testing results. Health certificates can be very quickly and easily verified through their website's public database.  Be aware that 'Vet Checked' does not equal health tested!  There may be genetic tests that need to be done, or radiographs (such as hip and elbow dysplasia certifications).   A responsible breeder will invest money into health screening her dogs.  

Pay attention to whether the breeder is actively involved in her breed.  Every purebred breed of dog has what is called a 'parent club' in the United States.  The parent club for each breed is responsible for maintaining the written breed standard for their breed, and will have a 'Code of Ethics'  that their members have pledged to adhere to.  Purchasing a puppy from a breeder who belongs to their breed club shows that they care about the future of their breed.  Breeders who are actively involved in improving their chosen breed will almost always participate in some sort of venue that 'proves' their breeding stock.  Hunting dogs will be worked in field trials,  herding dogs will be involved in herding trials,  protection dogs in Schutzhund, and every breed of dog can participate in Conformation showing (dog shows).  There is also agility, competitive obedience, flyball, and rally.  Dogs with outstanding temperament can earn the title of Canine Good Citizen.  An ethical breeder will show that they are doing something  besides thoughtlessly producing more dogs.  

Be wary of a breeder who won't allow you to meet the puppy's parents, or does not have current photos of the of the puppy's parents.  They should be able to show you many photos of the parents.  Usually they will have at least the mother dog available to meet.  Good breeders will be able to show you photos of grand parents too!  They know their dogs' pedigrees and are proud of their lineage.  Speaking of pedigrees- they should be able to readily and promptly supply you with a copy of the pups' pedigree upon request.  

Research the breeder's past and present breeding practices.  How many litters are they advertising?  How often are they having new litters?  How many breeding dogs do they own?  Are they involved in the breed (through dog shows, breed clubs, rescue etc)?  Do they health screen their dogs and do they have proof of that health screening?  Health testing through the OFA is verifiable.  They have a public database which can search by the dog's name, or even partial name and breed.  

Do they 'specialize' in several different breeds?  How many different dog breeds does she produce?  Does she produce 'hybrids' such as Morkies, Shorty Bulls, Yorkie-Poos, and Bulladors?  These are all just fancy terms for mixed breed dogs.  There is no reason to pay $600 for a 'Hybrid' when there are literally dozens of these 'Hybrids' sitting at your local shelter.  They too were just as cute when they were puppies!  Fluffy adorable mixed breed puppies can grow up unpredictably, and usually don't resemble the cute puppies that they once were.  Cute or not, 'Hybrid' dogs are nothing more than a fad to make money.  

Be careful with breeders who advertise their dogs as 'Rare', ''Designer', Teacup','Micro', 'Extreme' or having any other feature that isn't in the breed standard. The written standard can usually be found on the breed's parent club website.  Read the standard and look at the illustrated guide that accompanies it.  The standard has been written for a very good reason.  Proper conformation helps to ensure that your dog is put together properly, so he doesn't develop health problems down the road.  

For example,  the Labrador Retriever breed standard (a portion of it is shown above) calls for hind legs that  have well turned stifles and strong hocks.  Viewed from the rear, the hind legs are supposed to be straight and parallel.  Why is this important?  Because a Labrador whose back legs turn outwards may very well have poorly formed hips, or evenhip dysplasia! Properly angulated stifles and strong hocks help to ensure that the dog's kneecaps (patellas) are in the right position (if they're not, the kneecaps can slip.  This is called Patellar Luxation).  There is a good reason why responsible purebred dog breeders follow the written standard.

Please support your local rescues and shelters.  Spread the word about the truth behind pet stores.  Advocate for responsible  dog breeding.