My dog is from a puppy mill. Last Christmas, in my haste to ensure the perfect puppy for my six-year old daughter, I went to what I thought was a network of reputable breeders. I even consulted the NJ Better Business Bureau to make sure they were for real and found there were no complaints on this organization.

Calling themselves National Breeders Association or American Breeders Network, this Middletown, NJ, pet store sells more than 2,500 dogs a year to customers who believe the dogs are from reputable breeders.

When meeting my puppy for the first time I was told that she "came in a little higher" than what was written on my deposit slip -- $500 above the already high price -- due to her "lines and her breeding." Not being able to bear the thought of my daughter's disappointment if I went home empty handed, I decided that the added cost was worth it since she came with lifetime training, shots, and a health guarantee.

The next morning at my vet, I learned she had numerous infections that are consistent with dogs that come from puppy mills. Three appointments and $250 later, she was healthy again.

A journalist by trade, I decided to do some real research on this company and found dozens of similar complaints. I also located the puppy farm in Missouri where our dog was born. Furious about what they were doing to consumers, I wrote to the Better Business Bureau. My complaint was answered by the president of the company who refused to do anything to resolve my problem. I rebutted her argument and enclosed supporting documentation. Additionally, I informed them that I was a journalist and was launching my own investigation.

National Breeders Association store About two weeks later, I received a call from Joe Grastara, co-owner of National Breeders Assocation. He was sorry about my situation and offered me a $200 credit to relieve my suffering. When I laughed, he offered to reimburse me for the vet bills and the $500 price difference I was charged. During the conversation he also admitted to getting my puppy from Pine Spring Pets, a broker who gets dogs from "commercial breeders" - better known as puppy mills. Grastara argued fervently that commercial breeders are not puppy mills, but now I know better.

USDA Doesn't mean "OK"

Store owners argue that "commercial breeders" are regulated under the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and are therefore OK. They argue this point adamantly, as if consumers can relax knowing their pets are raised in the same manner as beef and livestock.

The USDA seal of approval does not signify the gold standard of care. "Any facility wholesaling puppies is required to be licensed by the USDA," says Stephanie Shain, director of outreach for the Humane Society of the United States. "There are literally thousands of breeding facilities [around the country] and only about 100 inspectors. I'm sure the USDA would agree that enforcement is a problem."

The Problem

The puppy mill was introduced in 1954, following the end of World War II, when the U.S. Government commissioned a 10-year irradiation study that would require the use of hundreds of thousands of dogs. Who was better suited to raise them than America's farmers, just beginning to recover from the Great Depression?

When the farms outlived the study and found themselves with puppies and no more government program to sell them to, they turned to laboratories and pet stores. The new industry of breeding dogs in mass quantity ran grossly unregulated until 1970, when the Animal Welfare Act was passed.

Today, in the pet retail business, "puppy mill" is a four-letter word. Thanks to the efforts of activists, the public knows that a puppy mill is a place where dogs are bred in mass quantities, in unsanitary and inhumane conditions for the sole purpose of making a profit. These dogs often carry genetic defects and communicable diseases and some even die days or weeks after they are purchased.

Most puppy mills call themselves "commercial breeders," and continue to fight for their right to mass produce puppies (and other animals) for retail. Though registered businesses are regulated by the USDA, the fines and punishments for cutting corners on the care of these dogs are inconsequential compared to the profits.

Fur Traders

Pet stores are in the business of making money. They are not rescues, kennels, adoption agencies or networks of reputable breeders whose purpose is to find good homes for dogs and cats while trying only to recoup their costs of caring for that animal.

Relying on a steady stream of new puppies to feed America's continued demand for man's best friend, pet stores must deal in quantity. It is therefore impossible to provide the same quality of dog that a reputable breeder, who focuses on only a single breed with the sole purpose of improving the line.

"They need to guarantee they have a continuous supply of puppies and they can't do that without using commercial breeders," said Shain. "Pet stores are buying from commercial operations and those puppies are shipped to them. It's not somebody down the street who happens to have a litter of Norwegian Elkhound puppies they want to sell to the pet store," she said.

Reputable breeders do not produce dogs in an assembly-line fashion, but pick only those with the best qualities, nearest the breed standard, to mate and produce litters. Reputable breeders belong to breed-specific associations; however, these associations exist for the sole purpose of preserving a specific breed, not selling puppies.

For example, the United Labrador Retriever Association states its mission is to "preserve the Labrador Retriever as a working gun dog who is a delightful and obedient family companion and a beautiful and sound physical example of its breed by sponsoring events that allow Labradors to prove they possess these characteristics."

Additionally, reputable breeders are forbidden to broker puppies. "It's considered unethical," said Mary Wiest, president of the National Labrador Retriever Club, whose bylaws specifically state: "...Under no circumstances will an ethical breeder engage in wholesaling litters nor will they sell to pet dealers or retailers, or catalog houses, commercial breeding operations"

Their Stories

Today's savvy pet stores have adapted and have devised ways to distance themselves from puppy mills going so far as to call themselves breeders networks or specialty boutiques. They tell consumers their puppies do not come from puppy mills, but will not state that in their contracts. Despite the mass of information available on puppy mills, the public still wants to believe these claims.

"When you purchase a puppy from a pet store you are unwittingly perpetuating the business," said Shain. Additionally, you may be surprised at what you bring home.

In addition to physical ailments, puppies who come from puppy mills often display a number of temperament issues such as aggression due to inbreeding and lack of proper socialization.

"I bought a Silky Terrier from National Breeders Association [also known as American Breeders Network] of Middletown, NJ," wrote Jacqueline of Toms River to ConsumerAffairs.com. "I paid $1,600 under the impression that this was a reputable business and that all dogs came from reliable breeders and not puppy mills ... He is a biter, a growler, a humper and cannot be paper trained." She continues to pay for training to get her dog under control.

A young mother from Brick, NJ, purchased a Golden Retriever puppy from the same store for $1,500 because that breed is known for its docile nature. Little did she know that this bundle of blonde fur would morph into Cujo around her three young children. Her vet declared the dog overly possessive of his food and declared him unfit for sale. She returned the dog and was only offered store credit.

A young father-to-be purchased a yellow lab from National Breeders Associaton, who counseled him that he was the perfect candidate for this puppy even though his wife was expecting and they already had a cat. When he brought the dog home, his cat began defecating on their bed and furniture. Knowing that his pregnant wife and unborn baby were in danger of contracting toxoplasmosis from cat feces, he took the dog back to the store where he was only offered store credit on a future dog.

The stories of these consumers are much longer and more complicated that space allows, but they are not isolated events. The New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs has recorded 39 closed complaints on National Breeders Association dated from January 2001 to April 2004. The primary complaint is that the dogs sold were "unfit for sale." ConsumerAffairs.com has 25 complaints on file as of this writing.

Though Grastara disputes the state tally, the NJ Division of Conusmer Affairs stands by it.

"Closed complaints are a matter of public record," said Jeff Lamm of the Division's media office. Closed complaints are all complaints that have been resolved in some fashion.

National Breeders Association tells customers that their dogs do not come from puppy mills. Grastara maintains that commercial breeders are not the same as puppy mills. He says puppy mills are those facilities run by the Amish and Mennonite in Pennsylvania who are subject to rules by their own governing bodies.

"That's ridiculous," said Shain. "Though there are difficulties with these particular groups of people, they are not unique to the Amish or Mennonite."

A Word of Advice

The position of the Humane Society is to never, ever, ever buy a dog from a pet store of any kind, Shain said. She recommends obtaining puppies through your local SPCA where 25 percent of the dogs are purebred, or seeking out rescue organizations or legitimate breeders. Aside from not contributing to the puppy mill problem, you will get a healthier dog for less money. Most purebred dogs sold by legitimate breeders cost less than pet store dogs of unknown quality and origin.

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Update

January 7, 2009
We recently received this update from Jen Diamond:

My puppy, Molly (in the article), that was bred at a puppy mill in Missouri, was put down last year at the age of 3 due to advanced osteosarcoma — bone cancer.

It was a horrific experience for her and our entire family to have to say goodbye to our trusted friend at such a young age. I have no doubt that the reason for her illness was irresponsible in-breeding by Tender Heart Kennels where I traced her parents to. I would be shocked if her parents were even still alive.

On occasion I receive emails from people who have read my article on your website and have dealt with or are thinking of dealing with pet stores.

The pet store I got Molly from in MIddletown, NJ, has changed its name once again to "American Puppy Club" and have disgusting radio commercials exclaiming they are "Where best friends are chosen." I want to vomit each time I hear the cheerful voices singing.

Thank you for offering a comprehensive website where consumers may be educated prior to making mistakes such as the one I made when I bought Molly.