How to avoid puppy mills online

In one of my first positions as an associate veterinarian, I worked at a clinic that was a popular choice for people that had purchased their new puppy or kitten from a local pet store. Most of these new pet owners were completely unaware their new companion was likely brought into this world in a large-scale commercial dog breeding facility – what we commonly call a puppy mill.

Fortunately, the days of pet stores selling these commercially-bred puppies have come to an end in Toronto and many other cities.

Sadly, puppy mills still flourish, perhaps now more than ever.

I have written before about the internet as both a fantastic resource and a swamp of misinformation when it comes to pet care. The web is, of course, not only the single greatest source of information now, it is also the world’s largest marketplace and it is here that puppy mills are able to survive.

Today, when I ask new puppy owners where they got their new addition, the answer is almost always online. This makes perfect sense of course, as I’m sure the same is now true for many things. However, as with the information available online, what is out there is a mix of good and bad. In the case of puppies, the bad is truly awful. Online advertising makes it very easy for these large-scale commercial operations to pose as mom and pop private breeders, or even worse, as rescue operations.

In 2012 the International Fund for Animal Welfare conducted a one-day investigation, reviewing nearly 10,000 advertisements on popular US buy and sell websites. For this investigation, an expert panel developed a list of criteria to determine if an advertisement was for a dog “likely to be puppy mill-sourced.” They acknowledged that this approach was not perfect and that some genuinely reputable breeders’ ads may be counted as likely puppy mills, but it was accepted that it was more likely that they would miss more puppy mill ads than they would count non-puppy mill ads. In other words, whatever number they came up with, it would be more likely an underestimation than an over-estimation.

After screening the ads they estimated that a shocking 62 per cent of these puppies likely originated from puppy mills. Signs that a dog may come from a puppy mill used in the screening included:

  • No screening of potential owners
    • Breeder offers to obtain any breed of dog, even if not featured on website
    • Puppies offered under eight weeks old
    • Breeder accepts payment through Western Union or money order
    • Multiple breeds offered
    • Breeder will ship the dog anywhere, sight unseen
    • Breeder will only meet someplace other than the kennel
    • Puppies clearly in dirty conditions or look matted
    • Seeing the same dog in different ads advertised as a different dog
    • No refunds or no return agreement
    • Ad is from a puppy broker
    • Ad is from a retail pet store
    • Large inventory (more than 20 dogs advertised for sale at a time)
    • Free to good home and buyer is asked to pay shipping fee
    • Breeder won’t offer papers for the dog and has an excuse for it
    • Breeder takes credit cards
    • Non-standard deviations from a purebred marketed as “rare” to justify high prices
    • Use of sale slogans, advertising as “Christmas Pets” or “Easter Pets”
    • Photo manipulated/altered or has a dubious setting
    • Offers of “designer mixed breeds”

In the UK as part of Puppy Awareness Week, the British Kennel Club recently published a survey they conducted that found that one in 10 new puppy owners bought their pet from advertisements without ever seeing the puppy or where it was bred. They suspect many of these puppies are of puppy mill origin.

So if you are looking to add a puppy to your family and for whatever reason adopting a rescued pet from one of the many reputable organizations out there is not for you, and a puppy from a reputable breeder is what you are looking for, I would suggest a few simple points to keep in mind.

A good breeder will want to know as much about where their puppy is going as you will want to know about them. If they have no questions for you, look elsewhere.

A good breeder will have a return policy. They will want to know that if for some reason the puppy does not work out with you, it will still go to a good home.

Lastly, and by far most importantly, a good breeder will have no issues with you seeing the environment the puppy was born and raised in, or seeing the puppy interact with its mother.

While the internet is still going to be the go-to source for finding pets, either to rescue or purchase, please remember that unless you can see with your own eyes where a puppy was raised, there is a great chance your money is keeping the puppy mill business alive.

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