Does Your Pup Have His "Pet Papers"? The Truth About Puppy Mills

Does your puppy have his "pet papers"? Tracing a pet's history is key to understanding his development, behavior, and expectations. It's also invaluable to determining whether your pup is a product of a puppy mill.

The sad reality is that, all too often, pets that have been purchased at a pet store often originate in puppy mills, the factory-like conditions under which female pets are forced to give birth to an unhealthy number of litters in unsafe, cramped conditions. The resulting offspring are sold at pet stores for a quick profit. And although so many of those puppies and kittens playing the windows of pet stores seem happy and playful, it is essential for pet parents to break the vicious cycle of the puppy mills by preventing them from breeding pets this way in the future, and supporting safer pet practices instead.

Puppy mills have been growing as the number of pet parents have been steadily rising, and pet stores have been doing their best to meet the demand. The pet stores typically buy young puppies from a private breeder, but there is no formal process for private breeders to operate and sell puppies, thereby making it easy for those who do run puppy mills to slip through the cracks and sell the animals as well-bred, healthy pups.

The issue gained much more widespread attention in 2008, when Oprah Winfrey dedicated an episode of her highly rated daytime talk show to exposing the truth about puppy mills. The episode was critical in revealing how the pet industry operates, and how widespread the crisis has become. The Humane Society estimates that there are almost 10,000 mills in operation throughout the U.S. For the episode, Oprah sent reporters to tour a puppy mill in Pennsylvania, who brought back footage that was shocking and disturbing. Most older females and young males are killed -- puppy mills generally maintain a ration of one young male for 20 young female dogs to breed as many puppies as possible. Many animals spend their entire lives in a tiny cage, outside, often dying of exposure to extreme weather. Even if dogs have lived with a breeder for several years, they often don't have names.

Oprah's show intended to educate her audience about this little-known industry. An avid animal lover and longtime pet parent herself, Oprah made it clear that operating a puppy mill should be considered animal abuse. The show also showed the people and foundations who are dedicated to making a difference, such as the Lange Foundation, a no-kill shelter that rescues animals who are close to being put down. Jillian Lange, who founded the Lange Foundation in 1993, drives to pet shelters and saves as many pets as she can. She's not content to rest on her laurels, though. She says, "When I get in the car and leave here, all I do is think about the ones left behind."

Even Amanda Hearst, a philanthropist and frequent collaborator with the Humane Society, was revealed to have a dog bred in a puppy mill. A conscientious pet parent, Amanda did her homework before buying her dog, but was ultimately misled by the pet store. She says, "I even made sure that my pup, Finn, had his papers." In order to educate the public about these practices, Amanda has co-chaired the Humane Society's Make History Gala at New York City's Pierre Hotel to raise funds for ongoing tri-state public education, awareness, and information program on why, how, and where to get non-puppy mill dogs.

It can be difficult for a pet owner to make the distinction between a puppy mill- bred dog and a puppy from a happy home and mother in a pet store. Although the obvious solution would be to suggest that every potential animal caregiver adopt a pet instead of buy one from a pet store, some potential pet parents are honest and realistic enough to decide that they may not be equipped to handle behavioral and physical difficulties that a pet that has undergone trauma may exhibit. Some may just have a serious case of puppy love at first sight after seeing a pet that they bond with while they pass by the pet store. However, it is crucial for every potential pet parent to investigate the origins of their new pup as much as possible. Of course, for those puppies already bred this way, we must do what we can to find loving homes for them, but this is a catastrophe whose only cure is prevention.