The following is excerpted from an article by William Ecenbarger which
appeared in the February, 1999 issue of Readers Digest.
I parked my car and walked up the dirt road toward a weathered barn. This was Lancaster County,
Pennsylvania Dutch country, where the land yields corn, tobacco, and a new cash crop-puppies. As
I approached the barn, I heard a cacophony of high-pitched barking. The owner came out to meet me.
"You have any puppies?" I asked."Poodles, Yorkies, Schipperkes, Maltese, dachshunds,
Jack Russells, Shih Tzus, Pekinese, boxers, cockers, Labs..." I asked to see some Bichon Frises.
Raising a palm, cautioning me not to follow, the farmer went into a large kennel. But he left the door
ajar, and I took a good look inside. This was my first visit to one of those dog-breeding operations
conventionally known as puppy mills. In fact, this facility had once been licensed by the U.S.
Department of Agriculture. So, when I saw the conditions in which these puppies were being
raised, I was stunned.
The animals lived in small wire cages stacked four and five high. Some puppies had open sores or
hairless spots from lying on the metal wire. Urine and feces from upper cages droped into the ones
below. Food was tossed in among the waste. Some dogs had no water. They all seemed malnourished.
When the farmer returned, I bought a puppy for $200. Later I took him to an animal hospital for an
exam. Other than having an ailment called kennel cough, he was okay, and someone soon adopted him.
He was one of the lucky ones.
A Continuing Tragedy
Laws governing dog-breeding operations have been on the books since 1971. But legislation has not
solved the problem of atrocious conditions. In a special investigation for Reader's Digest, I
interviewed government officials and humane-society and pet-industry representatives. I also studied
hundreds of reports compiled by federal inspectors. Most important, I visited 53 puppy mills-some
licensed, others not-in seven states. What I saw not only broke the law; it broke my heart.
Puppy mills thrive because the demand for pedigreed dogs has created a highly profitable market
for small farmers and for the chain of pet stores they supply. The American Society for the
Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), estimate that nine out of ten puppies sold at pet shops
come from puppy mills. Abuses occur in both licensed and unlicensed facilities. Just how many
unlicensed mills operate nationwide is unknown.
Since formal licensing was begun by the USDA in October , 1971, facilities that fail to meet minimum
standards face penalties ranging from written warnings to revocation of their licenses. But inspection
is spotty. In the 18-month period ending June 30, 1997, only 29 of 4100 licensed commercial dog
breeders in the United States-less than one percent-had their licenses revoked.
Marshall Smith, a former USDA investigator who resigned in February 1997, says the agency "tends
to go lightly on violations of the Animal Welfare Act." The main reason, according to Smith: "
One of the USDA's major functions is to promote the economic welfare of the farmer rather than the
health and welfare of dogs." In other words, there's a direct conflict of
In 1995, 149 members of Congress condemned the industry, citing "overcrowding, inadequate
shelter, improper veterinary care, lack of sanitation and incessant breeding." The legislators
asked the USDA to correct inhumane conditions through new regulations. Two changes were adopted:
plastic-coated wire for cages is now required, and the tethering of animals is forbidden. But, as this
report demonstrates, violations are common. Many other recommendations - like increasing cage size,
requiring constant access to water, limiting the number of times a female can be bred, and stipulating
stronger sanitation requirements-were not adopted.
Sue Pressman, an ASPCA consultant, says some of the worst victims of puppy
mills are the breeding bitches. "They spend their entire lives in one place, producing one litter
after another," she says. (The recommended method is to breed no more than once a year.)
"Under these conditions, puppy-mill bitches live four or five years and are disposed of."
At one mill in Pennsylvania, I saw a breeding female chained to a tree,
trying to nurse a dozen hungry puppies of different sizes. In many mills,
the bitches are restrained in wire cages or pens and get no exercise. The
stress induced in these bitches by such conditions often results in hostility to their offspring.
The pups end up treating littermates the same way. Not surprising, such aggressive behavior does not yield good pets.
In the typical puppy mill, new-born animals receive little or no
individual attention. This lack of human contact is why puppy-mill dogs are so often aggressive, distrustful and
hard to train. "A lot of them end up abandoned in shelters because their owners can't deal with them,"
says George Watford, vice president for special investigations at the ASPCA. I asked Melvin Noir, a commercial
breeder in East Earl, Pa., about the criticism that operators don't adequately attend to their puppies. "A lot of it
comes from city people, who don't understand animals or farming," he said. "They get overly emotional about dogs, and they don't understand that dogs are different from people."
But Donald K. Allen, a Youngstown, Ohio, veterinarian and member of the
board of directors of the Companion Animal Protection Society (CAPS),
disagrees. "Sure, dogs are different from people," he says. "But dogs are different from livestock, too, because they're destined to live in someone's home. It's difficult to house-train a pup from a mill because it's used to voiding wherever it is. And it fails to bond with people."
The poor sanitation at many mills leads to another dire problem: disease.
To cut costs, many commercial breeders do not vaccinate dogs against
diseases, including parvo-virus, a highly communicable and often deadly
canine disease that especially affects puppies. In addition, Watford notes, some puppy-mill puppies are less then
eight weeks old when sold. "Diseases and congenital defects haven't had time to incubate and show up."