Who doesn’t love puppies? More than 43 million American households own pet dogs, and a whopping 74 percent of Americans “like dogs a lot.” (Only 41 percent of people said the same of cats.) Yet despite this — or perhaps because of it — cities and states across the country are cracking down on pet stores’ abilities to sell dogs. Although major chains such as Petco and PetSmart refuse to sell dogs and instead promote adoptions through shelters, Petland franchises and many local shops across the country continue the practice.
The main issue here isn’t whether pet stores should be able to sell dogs — it’s about how these stores get the dogs they sell. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that there are about 10,000 licensed and unlicensed large-scale commercial breeders in the country, known controversially as “puppy mills,” that churn out more than 1 million puppies per year. Meanwhile, 3 million cats and dogs are euthanized in shelters each year.
On top of this, investigations and exposés have publicized that these mills often prioritize quantity over quality. Those reports say that these breeders create poor conditions for dogs and produce puppies with health issues that often don’t present themselves until the dogs are brought home by their final owner.
The Humane Society collects complaints from owners who have bought puppies with health issues and think the dog was bred at a puppy mill. It published a report on more than 2,400 complaints it received between 2007 and 2011 — 65 percent of these involved puppies bought at a pet store, and the remainder were bought through a breeder or broker.
The most alarming statistic is that 15 percent of these complaints were for puppy deaths, most commonly caused by parvovirus and heart and liver defects. Other common complaints included intestinal parasites, respiratory issues, seizures (due to suspected neurological diseases) and skeletal disorders.
These issues are well-known, and many stores renounce puppy mills and claim that they only get their dogs from small-scale, licensed breeders. But the Humane Society has conducted multiple investigations that conclude the problem is more rampant than it appears.
- In 2012, an investigation of 12 Chicagoland pet stores confirmed, via Illinois Department of Agriculture health records, that seven of the stores received dogs from puppy mills and one received dogs from unlicensed breeders. All 12 of these stores either told the Humane Society that they only receive dogs from small-scale, licensed breeders or did not respond to the Humane Society’s questioning.
- A similar 2011 inspection of New York City pet stores, in which the Humane Society visited 11 stores in person and assessed more than 1,300 interstate shipping documents, found that every store visited in-person received dogs from puppy mills despite claims — both to the public and to the Humane Society — that they obtained dogs exclusively from reputable breeders. Shipping documents showed that more than 100 other pet stores were found to procure dogs from puppy mills.
- Perhaps the most damning was a 2008 probe into Petland’s puppy sources. Investigators visited 21 of its approximately 140 stores nationwide, 35 large-scale breeders linked to the chain, and they reviewed more than 100 federal and state inspection records. They found that despite company claims, Petland bought dogs directly from puppy mills, as well as brokers and Internet auctions that traced back to puppy mills. A 2010 Animal Planet investigation corroborated these findings.
New laws, as well as protests encouraging the closure of puppy mills, show these sales are becoming an increasingly pressing issue. But even as reforms take place, it’s not clear that pet stores are willing to give up their practices. Maryland passed a law in 2012 that merely required pet stores to “post conspicuously on each dog’s cage” certain information regarding its source. The Humane Society visited 12 pet stores throughout Maryland last year and found nine were noncompliant. Three still acquired their dogs from licensed brokers linking back to “puppy mill states,” such as Arkansas, Missouri and Illinois, but information on the specific breeders was unavailable.
Maybe the best solution for any concerned animal lover is the one that 85 percent of Americans have already discovered: Don’t buy a dog from a pet store.