Walk into any pet store in the United States and you will likely be showered with assurances that the seemingly healthy and happy cute puppies in its store window don’t come from puppy mills. However, those assurances rarely ring true. Many pet stores tout the fact that their dogs come from facilities that are inspected by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as part of their sales pitch. That sounds great on paper, but what does it mean in practice?
Of the approximately 10,000 puppy mills in the United States today, about 20 percent are licensed and inspected by the USDA, which is in charge of enforcing the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) regulations. Any commercial dog breeder with at least five breeding female dogs is required to maintain a USDA license if they sell to pet stores or online to customers who order a dog sight unseen. However, many breeders fail to obtain the required license, and even among licensed breeders, the rules that USDA inspectors are given to enforce are abysmal.
Under current AWA regulations, breeders are only required to provide survival essentials such as food, water, and basic shelter. Many of the mother dogs in these facilities spend their entire lives in small, stacked, wire-floored cages and get little or no exercise, enrichment, or socialization. They are often denied adequate vet care, and most of them never feel the soft touch of a human or the grass beneath their feet.
Such conditions are the norm in puppy mills, which produce the vast majority of puppies sold in pet stores, online, and at flea markets. However, The Humane Society of the United States and other partner organizations are urging the USDA to change this by upgrading its care standards for licensed commercial dog breeding facilities.
The HSUS, the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association have submitted a rulemaking petition to the USDA that calls for several significant policy reforms. These reforms include banning the use of stacked cages and harmful wire flooring, requiring that breeding dogs be given an opportunity for daily exercise and positive human interaction, providing far more space, and ensuring that dogs are not exposed to extreme temperatures for extended periods of time.
The only way to ensure that you aren’t supporting a puppy mill when you get a dog is to adopt from a shelter or rescue or to seek out a responsible breeder. A good breeder will be open to showing you where your future puppy’s mother lives so you can be assured that she was treated with love and not used as a breeding machine to be disposed of when she can no longer produce. However, we need to do more than just boycott puppy mills; we need to also push for stronger legislation.
The American public expects for dogs to be raised in loving homes, not as cash crops in puppy mills with filthy, inhumane conditions. The USDA’s Animal Welfare Act regulations need to be in sync with that expectation. Your puppy’s mother deserves the same good care that we all give to the four-legged members of our families. You can take action by sending a message to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
About the author: John Goodwin is Senior Director of the Puppy Mills Campaign for the The Humane Society of the United States.