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Puppy Mills Have Now Gone Digital. What a Vet Wants You to Know

It should have been a happy visit: a newly acquired French Bulldog puppy in for a first checkup. It was a relief to see it on my schedule as the last appointment of a busy day. As soon as I entered the room, however, I noticed the grim faces of the clients, and when I saw the little female dog, I knew why. The pup, skinny and pot-bellied, was less than half the size she should have been. She weighed just two pounds; I was shocked to discover that she had been trucked from Kansas to Massachusetts just three days earlier.

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The couple, who had paid a considerable amount of money for her, did not believe she was from a puppy mill. They had carefully chosen the breeder, they explained, who had been recommended by a friend. The breeder had sent them photos and even videos. But the pup had been purchased online—which to me had become a warning sign that meant: from an online puppy mill, a sinister new frontier in the fight against commercial dog-breeding.

Puppy mills are factory farms that mass-produce dogs. Pet stores rely on puppy brokers to act as distributors and source animals from various puppy mills. Now, with pet stores facing criticism for selling these puppies, puppy mills and brokers have shifted online, where they can maximize profits by selling directly to consumers. Welcoming websites showcase a cornucopia of pups, both purebred and mixed-breed “designer dogs” replete with bows and bandanas, photographed on adorable blankets flanked by seasonal décor like pumpkins or beach balls. “Avoid scams and puppy mills,” these websites proclaim. “Our breeders are reputable and adhere to high standards!” They know what prospective buyers want to hear, and rely on what the Humane Society calls “puppy mill doublespeak,” coded language to convince consumers they are purchasing a quality product well worth the substantial price tag: a healthy, friendly puppy who’s had a good start in life. Yet all too often, the opposite is true.

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While the websites create an illusion of family-raised pups frolicking on grassy lawns, the animals are typically allowed on grass only for brief photo-ops. As described in journalist Rory Kress’s book The Doggie in the Window, they are treated like livestock, not pets; the licensing regulations touted online are so basic the ASPCA terms them “merely survival standards.” Prospective buyers see an image of the animals’ lives that is carefully curated, unless they visit the puppies’ birthplace themselves, which puppy mills don’t allow. While most puppies are sold and leave, breeding stock can languish in cages for years, until they are no longer useful and are euthanized or (if they’re fortunate) sent to rescues.

The puppies that are born at the mills are not blank slates; like children, their personalities are affected by their surroundings. Rescues, shelters, and reputable breeders identify the temperaments of animals and try to match them to prospective families. While online puppy descriptions appear individualized at first glance, reflecting claims of pups being socialized and “spoiled,” upon closer inspection the phrases are generic and repetitive, the equivalent of bad dating ad copy: “I enjoy long walks on the beach, romantic dinners, and snuggling by the fire on cold winter nights”; “I’m a sweet puppy just waiting for you to choose me; I love to play and snuggle; I can’t wait to meet you; I’ve got a great personality!”

Facilities often have dozens of dogs on site and multiple litters at a time; no one has time to socialize puppies or adult dogs, exercise and play with them, or learn their personalities to see whether they are high-energy or more relaxed, shy or outgoing. A lack of socialization is a recipe for anxiety, and many grow up to become anxious dogs. A Golden Retriever puppy I saw who was purchased online was so fearful he had to be carried into the veterinary clinic, where he cowered under the table.

Puppy mills also breed without screening for genetic diseases, and neglect to consider health or temperament when choosing breeding stock. Most veterinarians wouldn’t recommend breeding an anxious dog, or one with severe allergies, genetic heart disease, or hip dysplasia, but puppy mills aren’t picky.

There are truly reputable breeders, who wouldn’t dream of selling their puppies online to any random person with a credit card. They love their chosen breed and are devoted to their dogs, who are properly screened for breed-specific genetic health problems. Breeding dogs are well treated, not overbred, and typically live in the home, not a kennel or cage. Breeders also take an active role in puppy rearing, learning the temperaments of each individual and matching them to families. A great deal of care and attention goes into planning and raising each litter. As a result, the puppies are not mass produced, and these breeders may not have puppies available, might have a waiting list, and, like animal rescues and shelters, often ask prospective buyers an annoying number of questions to ensure their pups will go to a good home. That pup with the markings you fell in love with? She may be shy, and only allowed to go to a home without young children. They may ask if you’ve had experience with the breed, and what your plans are for veterinary care. This can be especially important for breeds prone to chronic medical problems, like French Bulldogs, who often suffer from Brachycephalic Airway Obstruction Syndrome (BAOS) and may require expensive surgery just to breathe comfortably. Now the most popular breed in the U.S., Frenchies are often described as low energy dogs well suited to apartment living; due to indiscriminate breeding, many simply cannot take in enough oxygen to be energetic for very long.

Yes, locating a pup from a rescue, shelter, or breeder can take more work, time, and patience than purchasing one from an online puppy store. But it can result in a healthier, happier dog that is a better fit for your family. It can also help end the abuses of puppy mills, support more informed breed choices, and ensure better care for animals. Anyone considering a puppy should avoid an “impulse buy,” something online sellers rely on. An array of breeds to choose from is a definite indicator of a puppy mill, as is a simple “add to cart” option or the ability to choose a pup solely by color and markings. Purchasing a puppy shouldn’t be a quick process involving a few mouse clicks. Rescues, shelters, and breeders have screening processes because they want to ensure the animal goes to a “forever home”; puppy mills just want money.

After examining the tiny puppy, I explained to the clients that I didn’t know what was wrong with her. I was unsure whether she’d recover, or if she might need surgery to fix an as-yet-undiagnosed problem. What I could tell them, though, was that they currently had a special-needs puppy on their hands, one who required extra care and who faced an uncertain prognosis. If they chose to return her, she might not survive being shipped back to the breeder, who would likely euthanize her.

A sickly puppy is a risk breeders take, but only an industry which puts profits before puppies would sell and ship an animal in such poor condition and pocket thousands of dollars. Puppy mills are taking advantage of both people and animals with misleading websites and false claims. We cannot fall for them.