If a new puppy is on your wish list this holiday season, don't buy one from a pet store. It may have come from the billion-dollar puppy mill industry, and supporting that store could lead to continued cruelty against animals.

That's the message from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which launched its second annual Puppy Mill Action Week on Sunday. The goal of this campaign, HSUS officials said, is to encourage pet stores to stop selling puppies and support animal shelter adoptions instead.

While retail pet stores defend their industry, saying they're committed to animal welfare, HSUS disagrees and warns consumers that pet stores simply fuel the demand for puppy mills.

"The bulk of puppies sold at pet stores come from puppy mills," said Stephanie Shain, puppy mill expert and director of the HSUS' Stop Puppy Mills campaign. "If you're in the business of selling puppies, you need a constant supply of different types of breeds. Puppy mills fill that demand for pet stores."

Puppy mills--mass commercial breeding operations--churn out two to four million puppies each year, the HSUS said. Those puppies are raised in horrible conditions and often have health problems, genetic defects, and behavioral issues.

The HSUS has documented scores of deplorable conditions in puppy mills, including crowded cages, poor food and shelter, over-breeding, and inbreeding. Puppy mill dogs, HSUS officials say, receive minimal veterinary care, little social interaction, and those kept for breeding suffer for years in continual confinement.

The driving force behind this inhumane industry, HSUS officials say, is money. "They (the dogs) are bred as often as possible and then destroyed or discarded once they can no longer produce puppies," according the HSUS. "Mills only look to make a profit; commonly disregard the dog's physical and emotional health; and do not adhere to sound breeding practices."

"The end result: Hundreds of thousands of dogs who will spend their entire lives in cages for their entire lives, suffering from cruelty and neglect every day."

How it happens

Pet stores, for example, may claim their puppies come from breeders -- not puppy mills.

"If a pet store manager tells you this, ask to see documentation that shows exactly where their breeders are located," HSUS officials say. "In most cases, you will find out that the breeders they 'know' are in distant states.

Some pet stores also claim they don't sell puppies from local breeders because their state doesn't regulate that industry.

"Commercial breeders in all states who sell wholesale to pet stores are required to be regulated by the USDA," HSUS officials say. "Some states, such as Missouri and Pennsylvania, also require a state kennel license and state inspections."

That, however, doesn't mean puppies from Missouri or Pennsylvania are healthier than dogs bred in other states.

"These states have two of the worst concentrations of puppy mills in the United States, with some of the worst conditions," HSUS officials said. "This is due in part to the very small number of qualified inspectors, infrequent inspections, and the fact that even facilities that are found to be substandard during the inspections process are rarely penalized."

Some other examples of pet store double-speak, HSUS officials said, include:

"Our store's puppies are healthy and have a health certificate from a licensed veterinarian." "A health certificate only means that the puppy has had a very brief 'wellness' examination by a veterinarian," HSUS officials said. The certificate does not mean the puppy or its parents have undergone any testing for genetic disorders or other diseases.

"Our puppies come with a health guarantee." HSUS officials say these guarantees often protect the store's interest -- not the consumers. Be sure to read those guarantees carefully.

"Our puppies are registered and come with papers." Purebred registration papers -- from one of many "kennel clubs" or other dog registries-- are only a record of a puppy's parents and sometimes its lineage. "Puppy mills routinely sell puppies with papers from prestigious sounding 'kennel clubs," HSUS officials say. "Registration papers do nothing to ensure that an individual puppy (or his or her parents) is healthy or free of genetic defects, or that they were raised in a humane and sanitary environment."

"We've never had a problem with any of the puppies." "Even facilities with mostly healthy puppies and problem-free inspection reports are keeping dozens or even hundreds of breeding dogs in cages for their entire lives," HSUS officials said. "These parent dogs live behind bars from birth until death...they are bred repeatedly until they can no longer reproduce, and then they are discarded."

"All our puppies come from USDA-inspected facilities. "Being USDA-inspected does not mean that the business is not a puppy mill," HSUS officials says. "There are hundreds of USDA-licensed puppy mills in operation that have long lists of violations and problems associated with them."

Those involved in the retail pet industry, however, say they're in the business of promoting healthy animals--not puppy mills.

"The health and well being of our pets comes first to all of us," Lacey Clever, a spokeswoman for Petland, Inc., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Healthy puppies are truly our #1 priority."

Clever said Petland gets its "registerable" puppies from professional and hobby breeders and licensed professional pet distributors "who have years of experience in raising quality pets."

Company representatives also inspect their distributors' and breeders' facilities, she said. "In addition, these facilities are licensed and inspected by the federal government (USDA). We require that our franchisees buy only from Petland, Inc. associated facilities. We even encourage our franchisees to visit facilities for themselves."

Petland even has a "Do Not Buy List" of breeders that operate substandard facilities, Clever said.

And the company encourages its customers to adopt from local animal shelters.

"We have an Adopt-A-Pet program that enables our stores to partner with local shelters and rescue groups on whatever level works for them," Clever said. "Some stores have fundraisers and donation drives for their local shelters while others have a more intense partnership, providing kennel space for shelter animals."

Slaughterhouse

But pet stores aren't the only places where puppy mill dogs are sold, HSUS officials warn.

"Classified listings and Web sites are also selling puppy mill dogs," Shain said. "We see puppy mills selling through classified ads and they do a good job of making their postings look like they're small breeders with a litter of puppies and not huge breed operations. We also see many savvy looking Web sites (by puppy mill operators)."

Consider the Pine Bluff Kennels in Lyles, Tennessee, which the HSUS raided in June -- an effort that rescued nearly 700 dogs.

"If you went to that (operator's) Web site, you'd see many beautiful comments about how the dogs lived on a 92 acre farm," Shain said. "But when we went there, there were nearly 700 dogs stuck in tiny cages." Many of the dogs had no food or water, HSUS officials said. They were stuck in wire cages--that made it impossible to stand--and surrounded by their own feces.

Scores of dogs found during the raid had eye injuries and broken bones, HSUS officials said. Some were even dead.

During the raid, HSUS officials discovered the grave site of a pile of dogs that had multiple gunshot wounds in their decaying bodies.

Tennessee authorities charged the kennel's operator, Patricia Adkisson, with 24 felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty, nine counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty, one count of unlawful sale or transport of dogs, one count of unlawful administration of rabies vaccine, and one count of paraphernalia.

Despite her kennel's deplorable conditions, Adkisson sold many dogs online for as much as $400 each. Most of those dogs were smaller breeds, like Chihuahuas, miniature pinschers, and terriers.

HSUS officials say consumers are often duped by sophisticated Web sites--like the one Adkisson had--that sell puppies.

"We hear all sorts of horrible stories," Shain told us. "We've heard stories about puppies arriving dead, or the dog they received was not the one pictured on the Web site, or it was a different breed, or in some cases, the dog never arrives."

Other common complaints include puppies sold with crippling genetic conditions, sick puppies arriving in need of expensive emergency veterinary care, or puppies that became sick or died from serious infectious diseases. Some of those diseases, officials said, were parasitic and transmittable to humans.

What you can do

How can consumers protect themselves from getting taken by deceitful online puppy mills and unscrupulous breeders selling dogs through classified ads? And what steps can dog lovers take to ensure they're not supporting the puppy mill industry?

The HSUS recommends the following:

? Adopt a dog from a local animal shelter. "Visit your local shelter and at least give adoption a try," Shain said. "You might just find your next best friend." HSUS officials say one in four dogs in a shelter is a pure bred.

? Check out breed-specific rescue groups. "There are breeds of every kind that need a home," Shain said. "They even have rare breeds."

? Don't buy puppies from pet stores or online. "Pet stores and Internet puppy dealers are very smart about deceiving people," Shain said. "These dogs are a cash crop for the puppy mill operators and the pet stores, and it's reprehensible." Dogs sold in pet stores are also considered "inventory," HSUS officials said. The faster they can get rid of one dog, the faster they can restock their cages.

? Beware of slick Web sites and classified ads selling dogs. "This is a savvy industry," Shain said. "These people have sophisticated Web sites and that might make you to let your guard down." Reputable breeders never sell their puppies over the Internet or through pet stores, HSUS officials said. They insist on meeting the family or individual interested in buying their dogs.

? If you decide to buy from a breeder, visit the facility. "That is an absolute must," Shain said. "You must go to that (breeder's) home, meet the animals, and see how they live. You want to make sure those animals are members of the family. We feel that all dogs should be companions first and breeders seconds. Breeding shouldn't be the sole reason for the animal's existence."

? Encourage pet stores to start adoption programs. "The best models are the ones used by Petco and PetSmart, which let local shelters come in their stores and adopt their dogs," Shain said. "That is a great thing. It gets the animals in the stores and sends a humane message to the community that this is a puppy-friendly pet store."