State and federal inspections of puppy mills have been scaled back or, in some cases, have ground to a halt during the pandemic. As a result, dogs in these operations have been left without the most basic protections under the law.

This is even more disturbing because dog sales in pet stores have been booming since lockdowns began last year. That could result in even more suffering for breeding animals at puppy mills who are already treated like puppy-production machines.

According to our research, some states that require inspections of large-scale dog breeders, including Wisconsin and Texas, appear to have paused their routine inspection programs almost entirely. Others, like Kansas and Missouri, have decreased the number of inspection visits. Many states do not require inspections at all.

On the federal level, the USDA, which is in charge of inspecting breeders and dealers that sell puppies and kittens to pet stores or online, has cut back its already weak inspection program significantly. In a March 2020 notice to licensees, the USDA said it was “limiting routine inspections based on our assessment of the risk to the inspectors and facility personnel.”

The letter described a process where breeders were given significant control over determining how and when, and if, they could be inspected. “In the event that we do request an inspection, we understand that you may have exposure concerns or be dealing with very limited staff. Our inspectors will work with you to address the specific concern, use video or photos, or simply come back another time. This will not be considered a refusal to allow inspection,” it said.

While we understand that some measures are necessary to protect inspectors from COVID-19 risks, routine inspections are necessary to ensure the safety of dogs—and more than a year after that notice went out, online records show that many large-scale breeders have not been inspected since 2019. To complicate matters further, the USDA has noted they are not indicating on their inspection reports if an inspection was virtual, meaning it was conducted by phone or email rather than a standard in-person visit. This is confusing for people who buy dogs from pet stores and are told that the breeder of the puppy they are buying has “passed” a USDA inspection.

The Humane Society of the United States last year sent undercover investigators to visit and photograph dozens of puppy mills that the USDA has not recently inspected or has listed as compliant with Animal Welfare Act regulations. We found that at puppy mills the USDA did not cite for violations, dogs were living in puppy mill-like conditions, confined to small, stacked wire cages and with scant shelter from the elements. Some of these breeders have sold puppies to dozens of pet stores across the country, including Petland, the largest national pet store chain that sells puppies.

The cessation of court proceedings as a result of the pandemic have also created problems. This meant many animal shelters found themselves needing to hold large numbers of dogs seized from puppy mills for much longer than expected, as trials and hearings were repeatedly delayed. For instance, an animal shelter in Breckinridge County, Kentucky, run by one of our Stop Puppy Mills Hero award winners, Kala Hardin, has been holding 42 dogs from a puppy mill case for more than a year due to court delays.

We have been focusing attention on these ongoing problems and attending virtual meetings with enforcement agencies and policymakers to find solutions. We also continue to conduct law enforcement trainings to help localities recognize puppy mills and understand the laws they can use to shut them down. And more than 380 localities and three states have ended the sale of commercially raised puppies in pet stores; seven such local laws passed in the first quarter of 2021 alone, and more are pending on both the state and local level.

We will be pushing for resuming more in-person inspections of puppy mills as states reopen, and we will keep up the pressure on the USDA to better enforce the Animal Welfare Act against commercial breeders who hurt the animals in their care. We will also be working with members of Congress to reintroduce the Puppy Protection Act, which will strengthen protections for dogs in federally licensed facilities.

You are our most important ally in the fight against puppy mills: If you or someone you know purchased a sick puppy, please tell us your story. And if you are in the market for a puppy, please don’t buy one from a pet store or Internet site, which often source dogs from puppy mills. The best option is to adopt from an animal shelter or rescue group. You can also check out our responsible breeder checklist for characteristics to look for in a small home breeder. Together, we can end the scourge of puppy mills in the United States.

Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.