Like almost every product, a brand-new puppy is now just an Internet connection, credit card and a click away.

However, a dog is not a "product" and professionals agree that buying a dog online is irresponsible, dangerous and contributes to the problem known as, "puppy mills."

Puppy mills are breeders who produce mass litters of puppies, often in filthy and abusive conditions. The mass production and, often, incest yields disease and a host of other genetic health concerns.

Smaller puppy mills are not as easily defined. "Backyard breeders" can be reputable and humane, though many are not. Either way, the greedy practice of churning out puppies as though they were inanimate objects is detrimental to the purity of the breeds, to the mother dog, who is forced to bear litters over and over again and to the new owners, who often within weeks of a purchase have a dead dog.

Pet stores have typically been the most notorious venders of puppy mill puppies. However, to increase profits, puppy mills have turned to the Internet to hasten sales to unscrupulous buyers.

Many people who have paid these charges have found that the dog is sick on arrival or does not portray the normal characteristics of the breed. Frequently the dogs arrive with an often-deadly intestinal disease known as Parvo, a highly contagious disease that spreads rapidly in the cramped and dirty quarters of pet stores and kennels.

"I was sent a very sick Blenheim puppy," wrote Anne of Rye Brook, N.Y. "Two days after I received him, he was vomiting blood and blood (was) in his stool. I rushed him to the emergency vet and was told he was extremely sick with Parvo. The doctor and my vet said he was definitely sick before he was sent to me."

Guarantee or not, consumers will usually be hard pressed to get any sort of a refund from a backyard breeder, hundreds or thousands of miles across the country, even if they ship the dead or dying dog back.

"I immediately called the breeders hysterical and told them how sick he was," Anne continued. "Their response was to send him back and (they would) give me a new puppy. The puppy would have never been able to survive the plane ride and my son and I were completely attached to him anyway. He was hospitalized for over a week with IVs. He was very sick and I asked the breeder to reimburse me for the price of the puppy. They declined and refused to answer my phone calls or e-mails. My vet bills came to over $2000."

"The fact that you don't know who you're dealing with, you can't see the (puppy's) environment, you don't know the puppy's parents, makes buying a dog online dangerous," said Daisy Okas, American Kennel Club (AKC) spokeswoman.

Kenna Hoyser, an AKC-certified breeder of Norwegian Elkhounds for 27 years, decried the growing crisis of online puppy mills

Quick and Easy

"The creation of an attractive web page with cute pictures of puppies is easy and inexpensive," Hoyser wrote in an e-mail to ConsumerAffairs.com. "The use of the Internet to shop, get information and all other kinds of contact is growing exponentially."

"The majority of these 'Puppy Mill Pages' will tell you virtually nothing about what you should know about the background of the puppy you will probably pay a lot for and will have responsibility for for many years. Sometimes they will not even tell you where they are located. But they will give you their E-mail address and from there it takes very little to acquire a puppy. Basically cash," she said.

"Within most breeds dedicated fans work hard to place dogs that have, for one reason or another, lost their home," Hoyser continued. "That is called 'Rescue.' Recently those of us involved in the rescue of the Norwegian Elkhounds have seen an alarming trend. An Elkhound needing rescue used to be rare and more often than not we were able to locate its responsible breeder and by their code of ethics they would take the dog back. Now we are seeing an increase in rescue Elkhounds that we know, without a doubt, have come from the Internet puppy mills."

Okas suggests only buying dogs that have official AKC registration papers, including the official seal and the words, "American Kennel Club" and health records. The AKC does thousands of DNA tests and kennel visits each year. There are about 20 companies, similar to the AKC, that have strikingly similar names and logos. Okas said the AKC has the strictest regulations for puppy breeding.

A Guarantee of What?

However, be forewarned: "papers" and "guarantees" do not mean much for the welfare of the dogs. Many states now have strict puppy lemon laws but, in most cases, these will not apply to dogs purchased over the Internet from a breeder in another state.

Federal protections are also meaningless. Animals that were bred under USDA guidelines might have been caged like prisoners. According to USDA standards, a dog can spend the duration of its life in a cage that is just a few inches larger than the dog.

An AKC-registered puppy guarantees almost nothing other than the breed of the dog and some feel the AKC contributes to puppy mills.

"AKC registration really means nothing," said Laura Johnson, director of the Beagle Rescue, Education, and Welfare (BREW).

Although the AKC has the strictest guidelines in America, Johnson said they're still flimsy. They simply insure the pedigree, or verify that the dog is purebred. There are no health or breeding practice guarantees. Although the AKC has 15 kennel inspectors, they only visit breeders who register seven or more litters per year -- basically exempting backyard breeders.

Johnson pointed out that at about $15 per dog, the AKC makes a lot of money from breeders -- including those some would consider puppy mills -- who register with the AKC.

Petland pet stores are notorious for among animal rights activists, who can often be found picketing local stores. There are about 10 tragic Petland puppy stories in the ConsumerAffairs.com database.

We recently visited the Fairfax, Va. Petland store.

"Take me home today!" read signs pasted to the cramped, looking-glass cages. Most of the puppies were spry but one foot-and-a-half-long German Shephard lay shaking on the floor of its cage.

Judith Lee, an 18-year-old Petland employee said anyone with enough money can take a dog home.

Almost all of the dogs at Petland were AKC registered.

Okas said the AKC feels that "buying from a hobby breeder is the ideal way to go yet we don't tell people not to buy from Pet stores."

"We are aware that AKC-registered dogs are sold at pet shops and feel that our inspection program is an important factor in raising the standards of any dog registered with us," she said.

Dogs Online

As far as the online puppy sites go, it's a similar story.

PuppyFind.com, a website that appears to be the Ebay of dog sales, might be termed the Big Dog of online puppy sales. For every breed and mixed breed there are hundreds, sometimes thousands, of puppies for sale. Almost all say they are registered with AKC.

PuppyFind.Com did not respond to requests for comment.

Although there are plenty of success stories and happy customers who have purchased dogs online, usually at a greatly discounted price, almost all professionals agree that buying a dog online is irresponsible and contributes to puppy mills of various forms.

"People think they're helping the puppy by rescuing it from reckless breeders," Johnson said. "But what they are really doing is perpetuating the female (mother) to a life of hell and torment."

Johnson, Hoyser and Okas all suggest that if a person wants a purebred puppy, they should buy one from a responsible, hobby breeder who is looking for a good home for the puppy rather than a quick dollar.

A good breeder will ensure a dog's future home is safe and caring before accepting cash and mailing the dog off to an unknown address. "If you're buying it the same way you're buying a toaster, I'd steer clear," Okas said.

Jeff Klagner sells about 15 puppies per year on PuppyFind.com. "I talk to the customer before shipping the dog. (I) make sure they have a yard and what not," Klagner said. "It's kinda hard to verify though."

A future dog owner should browse theAKC website and should read the AKC's "How to find a responsible breeder" and "What puppy buyers need to know."

Someone seeking a particular pure-bred dog can browse the AKC's list of 154 breeder referral contacts.

Buying a puppy from a caring breeder can be costly. However, according to the AKC website, "This is not the time to hunt for a bargain. Your new puppy will be a member of your family for his lifetime, so you'll want to make a wise investment."

A less costly purebred option for future dog owners is breed rescue groups. Beagles from BREW cost $200, have all their shots and have been well cared for, Johnson said.

However, any good rescue organization is not just looking for a place to dump its homeless dogs.

Johnson said BREW has a 30-40 percent denial rate: "We don't provide the family with a safety net," she said. "We provide the Beagle with one."

The same is true for humane shelters.

Although specific application requirements vary from shelter to shelter, Jim Monsma, spokesman for the Washington (D.C.) Humane Society said they do house visits and background checks on hopeful dog adopters.

Like rescues, Monsma said shelters make great pet options from an ethical standpoint: "These dogs need homes," he said.

Adopting a dog from many shelters often means saving an animal's life. Although the DC shelter does not have to euthanize animals for space reasons, many rural shelters, such as the Danville Area Humane Society (DAHS) in Virginia, are faced with that dilemma.

The DAHS takes in about 5,500 cats and dogs per year of which about 85 percent are euthanized, DAHS executive director Paulette Dean said.

"I find it appalling that breeders are breeding all these designer dogs while we're putting to sleep all those same types of dogs of all ages," Dean said.

A dog from the Danville shelter costs $65, is spayed and neutered, has a whole host of medical treatments and is tested for temperament. "We lose money on each adoption," Dean said.

Most of the dogs on PuppyFind.com cost about a minimum of $500 and many are over $2000, not including the often exorbitant cost of shipping.

"Before deciding to get a dog, do your homework," Hoyser wrote.