A helpless dog huddles in a small wire-bottomed cage, without heat in the winter or shade in the summer. Her fur is matted and filthy. Forced to breed over and over, she will likely never know a soft bed or a gentle touch. And when she ceases to produce puppies, what is to become of her? Most likely she’ll face death at the hands of someone who thinks of her only as a now-useless commodity. Unfortunately this is reality for thousands of dogs in Iowa puppy mills.



A puppy mill is any dog breeding facility where profit is valued about the welfare of the dogs and puppies. One court case, Avenson v. Zegart defined the term as “a dog-breeding operation in which the health of dogs is disregarded in order to maintain low overhead and maximize profit.”

The adult breeding dogs are not considered pets, nor are they treated as such. They are often crowded together in small wire cages and typically receive little social contact with people and little or no professional veterinary care, even when open sores or other wounds are evident.

The facilities can vary widely in cleanliness and quality, though it is common to find the dogs housed in makeshift shelters such as salvaged cargo truck boxes, semi trailers, or old agricultural buildings without heat or adequate ventilation.


The dogs are usually kept in wire cages to allow for excrement to fall away from the surfaces of the living area. They aren’t taken out of those cages except for purposes of breeding or for other basic necessities.  They aren’t provided with nurturing human contact or socialization. The wire bottomed cages are painful for their feet.


Most of these dogs are not provided adequate vet care nor nutrition and are often exposed to climate extremes without shelter from our frigid winters or sweltering summers. The females are bred over and over again with every heat cycle until their bodies wear out.


Because the breeder has a finite number of breeding dogs, inbreeding is often an issue. That, combined with the stressful conditions, the inadequate exercise and nutrition, and lack of preventative vet care often results in puppies that are less than ideal, health-wise. And because they are not socialized, neither with humans nor with other dogs under normal circumstances, the puppies often have underlying temperament issues.


There are an estimated 10,000 USDA-licensed commercial breeders in the US, so competition is significant. That means that any one puppy doesn’t bring a lot of money. So quantity is the key to profitability. And since females only come into heat approximately two times a year, a breeder must have many, many breeding dogs to be profitable.


As a general rule, the adult dogs are bred until they stop producing puppies or develop other health issues, at which point they may be shot, drowned, abandoned, or in rare cases, relinquished to animal rescue organizations that have indicated a willingness to accept and process them for possible adoption to private homes.


Is Every Professional Dog Breeder a Puppy Mill Operation?


No, there are many reputable dog breeders who care for their animals properly and do not aim to produce puppies in high-volume operations. Many limit their practice to one or two breeds, and their adult dogs are kept as pets, working dogs, athletes, or show dogs. Their dogs typically receive regular veterinary care, training, and plenty of attention and socialization with people and with other dogs.


Reputable breeders keep careful records about the lineage of their animals and so can breed dogs selectively to improve their health, temperament, appearance, and other qualities. The breeding dogs are often tested for potential hereditary problems and are properly vaccinated.


Good breeders typically sell directly to private owners and often require a signed contract wherein the buyer promises to return the dog if they cannot keep the dog permanently as planned. Good breeders provide their dogs with veterinary care to ensure the health of the adult dogs.

Who Inspects Puppy Mills? 

The USDA and Iowa Department of Agriculture (IDALS) are in charge of oversight of puppy mills, but they have not been doing their job of enforcing the bare minimum standards of care as outlined in the Animal Welfare Act. Despite regular inspections, breeders are allowed to continue operating facilities where dogs live in inhumane conditions— cages overflowing with pools of urine and feces, food laden with dead cockroaches, and dogs infested with ticks and unattended injuries including a mutilated leg and other atrocities — all without penalty.


Why Are Commercial Breeding Dogs Under The Umbrella Of The USDA? 


In late June 1965 one Pennsylvania family’s pet Dalmation, Pepper, went missing. The story sadly ends with Pepper the victim of a dognapper who sold her to a New York state hospital where she was used in lab experiments, was euthanized and cremated. A Pennsylvania senator, Sen. Joseph Clark, and a New York congressman, Rep. Joseph Resnick, heard the story and enacted legislation to help address the growing problem of thieves taking family pets for sale to laboratories.


And so the Animal Welfare Act came to be, primarily to address the source of animals used in lab experiments. Over the years the Act has been amended numerous times to become what it is today.


The Act provides for minimum standards related to dog breeding. The USDA performs inspections of licensees, but the USDA budget doesn’t provide for an adequate number of inspectors. And even if there were enough inspectors, the standards are so inadequate as to qualify as bare minimum standards for survival.