Pet store puppies damaged by puppy mill practices

Back in 2008, Best Friends launched our puppy mill initiatives after identifying puppy mills as one of the primary sources of animals entering our nation’s shelters.

A revealing Best Friends–led study, just published in the current issue of the "Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association," adds more weight to that analysis. Led by Dr. Frank McMillan, director of well-being studies at Best Friends, in collaboration with a highly regarded research team, the study compared the behavior profiles of pet store puppies with those acquired from hobbyist, noncommercial breeders. It is estimated that 99 percent of pet store puppies are sourced from high-volume commercial breeders, which is to say they come from puppy mills.

Dogs acquired as puppies from small, noncommercial breeders were selected for comparison for the following reasons:

1. They enter their new homes at approximately the same age as pet store pups do.
2. Their history prior to purchase is known.
3. They are, for the most part, purebred dogs.

In fact, the only difference then between the sampled groups was the nature of their breeding, whelping, weaning and prolonged, stressful transport. One is set in a commercial breeding environment with hundreds or even thousands of other dogs, while the other is set in a hobby breeder’s home environment with only a mother dog or a small group of household pets.

The difference in findings between the two groups was profound, but not surprising.

Problem behaviors exhibited by pet store dogs read like answers to a shelter surrender questionnaire, with the strongest effects observed in relation to aggressive behavior. For example, sexually intact pet store dogs were three times as likely to have owner-directed aggression as were sexually intact dogs acquired from small breeders. Pet store dogs were nearly twice as likely to have aggression toward unfamiliar dogs.

Additionally, pet store dogs were also 30 to 60 percent more likely to have stranger-directed aggression, aggression to other household dogs, as well as fear of dogs and nonsocial stimuli, separation anxiety, and touch sensitivity. Other undesirable behaviors included escaping from the home, sexual mounting of people and objects, and most forms of house soiling.

This Best Friends' research effort is a follow-up to a 2011 study conducted by Dr. Frank and the same research team that compared adult puppy mill survivors to a sampling of dogs without any puppy mill history. The results of that study were equally dramatic, but likewise not at all surprising.

The adult breeding dogs from puppy mills showed significantly elevated levels of fears/phobias, compulsive/repetitive behaviors, and heightened sensitivity to being touched. "The most prominent difference was in the level of fear," says Dr. Frank. "Compared to normal pet dogs, the chance of recovered puppy mill dogs scoring in the highest ranges for fear was six to eight times higher.”

The physical abuses associated with puppy mills are well documented. Puppy mills are just another version of factory farming, where the profit margin for the mostly rural mill operators is small. Production cost savings are paid for on the backs of the dogs held captive for breeding and their pet store–bound puppies.

For example, small cages mean that more animals can be crammed into limited space. Understaffed workers provide only subsistence level care for the dogs and pups. Low-cost, low-quality food results in dietary deficiencies and chronic disease. Puppies are force-weaned at an earlier-than-appropriate age so that they can arrive at the pet store at eight weeks of age. Veterinary care is nominal and is limited to the replacement cost of the animal. A puppy miller typically sells a pup to a middle man for as little as a couple of hundred dollars so the incentive to invest in medical care is essentially zero. Every corner that is cut represents a corresponding slice cut from the quality of life of the puppy mill dog.

This newly published research fills in the picture of the invisible psychological damage that puppy mills inflict on innocent, young dogs.

The entire pet trade industry — from breeder to pet store — is a disgrace and needs a major overhaul. Needless to say, there is often a considerable desire to “save” pet store puppies by buying them, but that sentiment is misguided because it merely makes room for another victim. The best way to fight puppy mills is to never buy from a pet store or an online retailer.

Many thanks to Dr. Frank and his research colleagues, James A. Serpell, PhD and Deborah L. Duffy, PhD from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, along with Elmabrok Masaoud, PhD and Ian R. Dohoo, DVM, PhD from the Department of Health Management, Atlantic Veterinary College, University of Prince Edward Island, Canada. Your work has given us another compelling argument in our campaign against the shame of puppy mills.


Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society