Puppy mills pose one of the most vexing issues in animal welfare. They are essentially factory breeding farms that overuse their female dogs and crowd animals into dirty, often fetid cages, all for the business of churning out sought-after pedigreed and designer puppies that can command thousands of dollars in pet stores.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture does not inspect dog breeders that sell to consumers in person, on the assumption that pet buyers can judge breeding conditions for themselves. Instead, it requires licensing and inspections for breeders that sell puppies to other vendors — pet stores or their suppliers — if they have five or more breeding females. Similarly sized online sellers must also be licensed and inspected if their customers buy their pets sight unseen.
The vast majority of commercial breeders, however, don’t comply — about 80% of the estimated 10,000 U.S. commercial breeders go unlicensed. And for even the ones that do, the standards set by the Animal Welfare Act are so abysmally low that breeders can keep animals in cramped cages, give them water as infrequently as twice a day, and breed females continuously to the detriment of their health. The worst offenders, who fall short of even the minimal standards, get cited but may remain licensed despite repeated violations.
To make up for a weak animal welfare law and ineffective federal enforcement, the California Legislature is considering a bill by Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach) that would cut off one of the main markets for bad breeders: pet stores. The bill (AB 485) would prohibit pet stores in the state from selling dogs, cats and rabbits obtained from a commercial breeder, allowing them to carry only animals sourced from shelters and rescue groups. The bill has passed the Assembly. The Senate should pass it as well.
More than 200 jurisdictions across the country have ordinances similar to this one. At least 33 are California cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Irvine. AB 485 would create the first statewide ban.
It may seem unfair to put the onus for stopping bad breeders on pet store owners who sell puppies they buy legally from commercial breeders. Nor does it seem fair to cut off commercial breeders that are humane, assuming there are some, from their prime sales outlet. But the combination of low standards and lax enforcement has helped entrench the business of inhumanely manufacturing animals, particularly puppies. The abuses are so widespread, there’s no way for pet-store shoppers or even the stores themselves to know for sure that the dogs they are buying were raised humanely.
A 2010 audit by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General found that animal care inspectors failed to levy sanctions quickly or appropriately on breeders with tick-infested or inadequately sheltered dogs, or whose food and water dishes were overrun with vermin. Although USDA officials say they have enhanced training of inspectors to improve enforcement, puppy mills still abound, and those with multiple violations continue to operate, according to reports of bad breeders compiled annually by the Humane Society.
Meanwhile, it’s getting harder for the public to identify breeders who’ve flouted the rules — the Trump administration stopped making USDA inspection records of pet breeders public in February. Nor has the USDA shown any interest in raising federal standards to a level sufficient to protect pets, despite a petition from three leading animal welfare groups.
Representatives of the pet trade industry are pushing back against the bill, arguing that many stores get their puppies from “hobby breeders,” who breed only a handful of dogs in their homes. But these unlicensed suppliers are exempt from inspection by the USDA, so no one is checking to see whether they’re humane.
For those who still want a pedigreed puppy, the best way to find one is by finding what animal welfare advocates and dog clubs call a “responsible” breeder. These are people who breed their female dogs carefully, offer plenty of space for their dogs, and, most important, welcome you to come and see where their dogs are bred and raised. Because they sell directly to prospective pet owners, USDA does not require them to be licensed.
AB 485 won’t cut off every outlet for bad breeders. They can sell online, where maybe they’ll be inspected once a year. But stemming the flow of animals from inhumane breeding operations into pet stores is a crucial step that the state can take and should.