UPDATE: After this story first published, Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed legislation that includes some of the most comprehensive anti-puppy mill protections in the country. The law increases standards of care for breeding dogs, such as requiring veterinary visits and clean food and water, and bans cruel practices like stacking cages on on top of one other and keeping dogs in cages with wire flooring. It benefits dogs outside Ohio, too, requiring in-state pet stores that sell puppies to use breeders who meet the same standards, even if the breeder is outside the state. Corey Roscoe, Ohio state director for the Humane Society of the United States, says the law wouldn’t have been possible without the signature-gathering efforts of Ohio’s volunteers. It was their tenacious work, she says, that made change possible.
When Kym Black’s granddaughter bought a 9-month-old Maltese-Yorkie mix named Gus, she thought she was getting an adorable bargain. “Morkie” puppies typically cost at least $1,000 at a pet store, but a Facebook friend sold Gus for half that amount.
Within a week, Gus started having seizures. Black’s granddaughter took him to the local veterinarian, who was surprised: He’d seen this dog before. Gus’ original owner bought him at a Petland store in Rome, Georgia, and sold him when it became clear he was sick. His second owner brought him to the veterinarian—and then she also sold him, this time to Black’s granddaughter.
Gus was prescribed medicine as a stopgap measure until Black’s granddaughter could come up with the funds for a permanent fix. But when Black watched Gus while her granddaughter was out of town, she came home to find him suffering continuous seizures.
After calling another veterinarian, Black and her husband did the only thing they could think of to save him: They drove like bats out of hell to Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine, three hours away. Black thought Gus was going to die right there in the car. Instead, he was diagnosed with a liver shunt, a condition that prevents the liver from functioning as it should, and underwent emergency surgery.
Although he’s healthier now, Gus has permanent brain damage from the repeated seizures. He isn’t house-trained, and he has difficulty with stairs. All in all, Black and her husband spent $3,000 on his care.
“That part doesn’t matter to me because I know he’s OK,” says Black, who learned that the hereditary condition is passed from parents to puppies. “But what does matter is how many other litters does [the parent] dog have, and how many people went through what we went through, and their dog died, and they don’t even know why?”
Black says this with the calm determination of a woman who told her granddaughter that Gus now needed special care, so he’d be staying at Grandma’s for good; who demanded documentation about Gus from Petland, his former veterinarians and his former owners; who submitted her findings to the state attorney general, the local newspaper, the Better Business Bureau and the Humane Society of the United States. The only time her voice wavers is when she talks about how Gus seized and vomited all the way to Auburn University, his body limp as a dishrag.
Gus’ Petland health form is cursory at best: “Weakness?” the veterinarian writes, before certifying him healthy and fit for sale. Yet that veterinarian told Black she recommended that the store euthanize Gus. “I’m sure they thought, ‘$1,000? I’m not going to euthanize $1,000,’” Black speculates. “They use them like little machines; they don’t care that something’s wrong with them.”
The health form does offer some clues into Gus’ past. It lists his birthday, Oct. 10, 2015—although bad breeders have been known to falsify birthdates so they can sell underage puppies—a breeder, David N. Miller of Millersburg, Ohio, and a distributor, the USDA-licensed Quail Creek Kennels. This distributor, also known as a broker, buys up puppies—primarily from breeders in Ohio—and sells them to pet stores in other states. (The distributor now operates under a different name.)
Black surmises that by the time Gus reached her in July 2016, his malnourished, 6-pound, 6-ounce body had been bought and sold multiple times and shuttled across three states: from a breeder in Ohio, to a distributor in Ohio, to a pet store in Georgia, to an owner in Georgia, to two separate owners in Alabama. This is much the way a household object—a television, for example—makes its way from a factory, to a distributor, to an electronics store, to a buyer, to a secondhand buyer.
Yet Gus’ early life isn’t unusual, which is why the Humane Society of the United States is fighting to protect dogs like him in Ohio and beyond.
When she eventually tracked down Izzie’s breeder in Missouri, she says the reality was wildly different than the backstory constructed for her in the pet store. She went home and asked Izzie: “Who are you?”
Once you’ve selected your dog at a clean, bright pet store, she quickly becomes a member of your family and even a piece of your identity, explains Kress, who interviewed a psychologist to find out what happens when humans—even humans who know about puppy mills—see a puppy in a pet store. (Unsurprisingly, we lose all common sense.)
It’s very hard to face the reality that your furry family member started out in a puppy mill, so many people prefer to remain blissfully ignorant about their dog’s true origins, much like how many people place a mental wall between their foil-wrapped cheeseburger and the factory farm it came from. Many owners only begin to ask questions when their dog suddenly, heartbreakingly, gets sick.
In a society that places such high emotional value on canine companions, it is shocking that the puppy industry makes millions at the expense of both parent dogs—who might live their entire lives in cages before being killed—and the puppies themselves. Frequently inbred—and therefore susceptible to hereditary diseases—puppies are shipped across the country before their immune systems are fully developed.
Yet the only protection the federal government offers the dogs who supply many of our nation’s pets is the Animal Welfare Act, which was signed into law in 1966. As the sole federal law protecting animals sold in commerce, which includes breeder dogs and puppies, “it’s better than nothing,” says Goodwin, but “it needs to be upgraded significantly, because commercial dog breeding facilities can keep dogs in conditions anyone else would consider animal cruelty. It needs to be upgraded so that the standards are consistent with what the American public expects.”
The law says nothing about preventing genetic illnesses like Gus’ liver shunt, but requires breeders with more than four female breeding dogs who sell to pet stores, brokers or research facilities—or those who sell online sight-unseen—to uphold bare minimum standards of care. Few state laws mandate standards of care that are any better, and only about 18 states conduct breeder inspections.
USDA inspectors repeatedly find breeders in violation of the act’s minimal standards, but very rarely revoke a breeder’s license: The HSUS confirmed that while the USDA revoked just nine licenses in 2016, inspectors failed to revoke even a single license over the past year. “This is an indication that things are getting worse,” says Kathleen Summers, HSUS director of puppy mills outreach and research.
And even some breeders who pass inspections every year are unquestionably operating puppy mills. “Under the USDA regulations, a puppy mill can keep a dog in a cage only six inches longer than her body, with her paws never touching grass, for her entire life, and that is entirely legal,” says Goodwin.
Kress also found that USDA inspectors may choose to treat violations as off-the-record teachable moments, rather than recording them as violations. And through the government’s own documentation, she discovered that a state inspector and a federal inspector visiting the same facility, on the same day, might “paint a completely different picture of the same operation.”
Now, as the signature-gathering period draws to a close, state legislators are considering passing a bill much like the proposed Ohio Puppy Mill Prevention Amendment. “Volunteers’ signature-gathering efforts are the only reason we’re in a position to be able to do this,” says Goodwin. Fearing a public vote, which would bypass the General Assembly entirely, state legislators are now willing to negotiate with Goodwin and other animal welfare leaders and pass a statutory law.
Ohio’s existing law requires the licensing and inspection of breeders who produce nine litters of puppies and sell at least 60 dogs in a single calendar year. The new law would build on that framework, requiring the licensing and inspection of all breeders who have six or more breeding female dogs as well as 40 puppies at any one time; five or more puppies sold through pet stores or brokers; or 40 or more sold through other outlets, annually. There are currently around 300 licensed, high-volume breeders in the state, but Roscoe suspects the real number of commercial breeders is closer to three times that amount.
The law would also strengthen the standards of care for dogs in breeding facilities, abolishing painful wire flooring and prohibiting cage stacking. It would also require protection from extreme weather conditions, larger enclosures, nutritious food provided at least twice a day, prompt treatment of any illness by a licensed veterinarian and other clear, commonsense standards.
Additionally, the law would ban commercial breeders in other states from selling puppies in Ohio unless their facilities meet those same standards, laying a foundation for reform outside of the state. Finally, it would require yearly veterinary examinations for parent dogs, potentially exposing diseases and congenital defects before they’re passed to future litters of puppies.
The state has historically been rife with inhumane dog breeders. But “if we can improve these standards of care for dogs in Ohio, what a great statement that is to have implications that are far reaching beyond Ohio,” says Chris Niehoff, an HSUS district leader volunteer who’s lived in Ohio all his life. “If you think about the ability to start a chain reaction, Ohio wouldn’t be a bad place for that to start.”
“Ohioans are the ones who are the boots on the ground doing the work, standing for two hours in the cold getting signatures, because they want their state to be more humane,” says Roscoe. Ohioans took it on themselves, she says, to drive puppy mills out of business.