Despite what they may tell you, most pet stores do sell puppy mill puppies. Here's a list of common claims by pet stores and what they really mean.
"Our puppies come from breeders, not puppy mills."
The word breeder is not an exclusive term. Anyone who puts two dogs together and produces puppies is technically a breeder. Truly responsible breeders do not sell their puppies to pet stores; they want to meet their puppy buyers in person and do not sell their puppies to the first person who shows up with cash in hand. Most breed clubs' Code of Ethics state that their breeders refuse to sell their dogs to pet dealers or any other commercial sources of distribution.
"All of our puppies come from USDA-inspected facilities, so we know they are not from puppy mills."
Being USDA or government-inspected does not mean that the business is not a puppy mill any more than having a driver's license guarantees that the holder is a good driver. Unfortunately, most USDA-licensed breeders house dozens or even hundreds of breeding dogs in small wire cages for their entire lives—and sadly, this is legal under current USDA regulations, which require only minimal standards of food, water and shelter. But many USDA facilities have been found in violation of even these minimal standards. It is extremely rare for the USDA to revoke a commercial breeder's license or even fine a puppy mill that has repeated violations. There are hundreds of USDA-licensed puppy mills in operation that have long lists of violations and problems associated with them and yet regularly sell to pet stores.
In May 2010, the Office of Inspector General released a scathing report criticizing the USDA's history of lax oversight of dog dealers under the Animal Welfare Act.
"We know our breeders are not puppy mills because we only deal with breeders we know."
If a pet store manager tells you this, ask to see documentation that shows exactly where their suppliers are located. In most cases, you will find out that the breeders they "know" are in distant states. The store manager's definition of "knowing" a breeder often just means they have been receiving shipments of puppies from the same place repeatedly. In most cases, the owner or manager has never visited the breeder's facility or inspected their records. Our investigations have revealed that even when store staff claim they inspect their facilities or hand-pick their puppies, often it is not true.
"We don't sell puppies from local breeders because our state is not regulated, but (the state the puppies come from) is."
Commercial breeders in all states who sell wholesale to pet stores are required to be regulated by the USDA. Some states (such as Missouri and Pennsylvania) also require a state kennel license and state inspections. This does not mean that puppies from Missouri or Pennsylvania are healthier. In fact, these states have two of the worst concentrations of puppy mills in the United States.
"Our store's puppies are healthy—they come with a health certificate from a licensed veterinarian."
A health certificate is not a bonus but is required for any puppy sold commercially across state lines. It only means that the puppy has had a very brief "wellness" check by a veterinarian. This examination does not include testing the puppy or his or her parents for genetic disorders, parasites or testing for diseases such as Giardia and Brucellosis, both of which are contagious to humans and are frequently seen in puppy mill puppies.
"Our puppies come with a health guarantee."
Read health guarantees very carefully. They are often designed to protect the store's interests more than yours. They can be full of exclusions and loopholes, and often require you to return a sick puppy to the store in order to get a refund. The store management will often use the puppy's health certificate as proof that the animal was healthy when he or she left the store, leaving the buyer helpless if the puppy becomes sick just a few hours or days after purchase.
"Consumers know our puppies are from good breeders because they 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 earlier generations). Puppy mills routinely sell puppies with papers from prestigious sounding kennel clubs. 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 clean environment.
"We know this is a good breeder. We've never had a problem with any of their puppies."
Keep in mind that even facilities with mostly healthy puppies and problem-free inspection reports may be keeping dozens or even hundreds of breeding dogs in cages for their entire lives. These parent dogs live behind bars from birth until death, without ever feeling grass under their feet, enjoying a treat or toy or having loving human contact or proper veterinary care. They are bred repeatedly until they can no longer reproduce, and then they are destroyed or discarded.
The real tragedy of puppy mills is that keeping breeding dogs in such a way is perfectly legal. Only the public can stop the cruel cycle of puppy mills, by refusing to buy the puppies that keep these kinds of breeders in business.