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13 Signs That A Puppy Is From A Puppy Mill

Written by: Molly Weinfurter
Molly Weinfurter is a writer for iHeartDogs, and she’s passionate about helping animals in need. She volunteers for Bailing Out Benji and a local dog rescue.Read more
| Published on June 30, 2024

If you’re a first-time dog owner, finding a puppy can be overwhelming. You might be tempted to take the easiest route possible, but if you do that, you could unknowingly support a puppy mill. If you’ve heard of puppy mills, you know they’re bad. Yet, you might not know where these horrific facilities sell their puppies. And if you don’t know what a puppy mill is, be prepared to have your heart broken when you Google it.

Most people who buy puppies from puppy mills have no idea they’re doing it. So, before you take home an adorable furry friend, be cautious. Here are 13 signs to help you determine if the puppy you’re looking at is from a puppy mill.

Husky puppy frolicking

Before we dive in, let’s take a moment to recognize the difference between responsible breeders and puppy mills.

Reputable Breeders vs. Puppy Mills

While shelters and rescues should always be considered, some people have their hearts set on a puppy from a breeder. If that’s the case, you need to be careful who you trust.

Getting a dog is a big commitment, and it shouldn’t be a quick and easy transaction. Any reputable breeder, rescue, or shelter will know that. Reputable breeders rarely breed for the money, but instead, they do it because they love a certain breed. They want to ensure that each puppy they breed and raise goes to a loving home, so they won’t have a surplus of dogs to give away.

Businesses selling puppies from puppy mills are different because they’re focused on the money. They want to sell as many puppies as they can. So, they probably won’t take the time to make sure the puppy is a good match for your family and vice versa. Therefore, no matter how eager you are to buy a puppy, you need to be willing to be patient to make sure you find the ideal dog from a caring source.

Signs That a Puppy is From a Puppy Mill

If you notice any of the following signs during your puppy search, walk away and get your dog somewhere else.

#1 – They’re at a Puppy Store

Puppy stores are becoming less common in the United States, but they still exist. Puppy stores usually carry an excess of puppies of various breeds, which the stores ship in from several breeders. The only reason a breeder would ship their dogs somewhere else is if they didn’t care about their well-being.

Good breeders like to raise the puppies themselves and choose who gives them a loving home. If the puppies are shipped to a retail store, the breeder can no longer do that. So, almost all puppy stores supply from puppy mills. Animal welfare organization Bailing Out Benji has compiled a list of breeders that pet stores in the US use, proving the link to puppy mills.

Bulldog at pet store

RELATED: Pet Lovers Rejoice As New York Gets Closer To Banning Puppy Stores

One exception to this puppy store rule is if a pet supply store owner is also a dog breeder and sells their litter of puppies at their store. It’s a rare instance, and you can tell the difference because there will be one litter occasionally as opposed to dozens of litters daily. Some pet stores may also partner with rescues by having a space for adoptable dogs and cats, but the rescue will still be involved with adoptions.

Related: 12 Good Probiotics for a Puppy

Many cities in the US have banned the retail sale of puppies, preventing backyard breeders from sending puppies to these locations for profit. Most of these humane pet store ordinances have an exception for pet stores working with shelters and rescues.

The following states currently have a statewide ban on retail puppy sales:

  • California
  • Illinois
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Washington

Maine and Washington’s laws only apply to new puppy stores, so some stores may still sell puppies from puppy mills in those states. Best Friends has a full list of the US cities with humane pet sale laws.

#2 – They’re Sold Online

Another common option for puppy mills is online stores. Of course, some breeders may advertise their litter of puppies online, but most reputable ones don’t have to because puppies are in such high demand that they have a waitlist. If you’re interested in a puppy you see online, you should still meet the puppy in person and visit the place the dogs were bred.

If the online store only lets you browse puppies online, add a puppy to your cart, and have them shipped to you, then it’s a puppy mill. Sadly, pets are treated like any other retail product under the law. But any dog lover knows that puppies don’t deserve that. Adding a family member isn’t humane if you purchase them the same way you would a new TV.

#3 – The Puppies Come from Out-of-State

Puppy mills usually ship their dogs to different locations to sell them, which is how puppy stores end up with so many. If the breeder isn’t local, that limits your ability to see where the puppies came from. Here are the states with the most puppy mills:

  • Missouri
  • Indiana
  • Ohio
  • Iowa

Young puppies in basket

Of course, this rule is different for shelters and rescues. Organizations often ship dogs from high-kill shelters to rescues in other states to save their lives. The rescue will give you information about where those dogs came from, while puppy stores tend to be vague about which breeders they use. Yet, any good breeder shouldn’t mind their information being public.

#4 – You Can’t Meet the Parents

If the breeder won’t let you meet the parents, walk away. Not meeting the parents is like buying a car without knowing the make. Don’t do it. Most of the time, breeders who make excuses for not showing the parents didn’t breed the puppies. Instead, they’re selling them secondhand for unknown reasons.

Seeing the parents is one of the most important parts of buying a puppy because it proves that the dogs are treated well. Puppy mill parents are usually kept in tiny wire cages their whole lives, living in their own feces. Reputable breeders often keep their breeding dogs as family members. They should be able to tell you all about their breeding dogs’ histories, so you know what to expect for your puppy’s health.

#5 – You Can’t See the Facility

If you call a breeder and they say “let’s meet somewhere” when you ask to visit their kennel, it’s a puppy mill. Usually, they will try to get you to meet in a store parking lot or a park. Unless there are extreme circumstances, there is no reason why you shouldn’t see where your puppy was born.

Reputable breeders should be excited to show you where they breed the dogs so they can tell you as much about the parents and the litter as possible. Puppy mills sell puppies to pet stores as a way to avoid showing you their facility.

Puppy peeking out of pen

#6 – The Breeder Has Lots of Breeds

Reputable breeders focus on one breed, maybe two, MAX. If you find a site offering five different breeds (and their mixes!), it’s a puppy mill. It’s not possible for one breeder to properly care for that many dogs at a time. So, even if they have good intentions, there’s no way all the dogs’ needs will be met.

Breeders like to focus on one breed that they’re passionate about. Thus, they should know a lot about the breed and be eager to answer any questions you have. If a breeder is vague when talking about the breed, then they might not be doing it for the right reasons.

#7 – There are Always Litters Available

When you call the breeder and ask if they have puppies, here are two responses you might hear: “I have one litter coming, but there is already a waiting list,” or “oh yes, I have three litters on the ground and two more on the way.” The first response might be frustrating, but it’s a trustworthy sign. The second response shows that they have more puppies and breeding dogs than one breeder can handle.

RELATED: Puppy Mill Survivor Begs To Be Adopted With 14-Year-Old Friend

If the breeder has 30 puppies, that is definitely a puppy mill. Since good breeders only have one or two breeding pairs at a time, it’s impossible for them to always have puppies available. So, be skeptical of breeders that are willing to hand you a puppy that same day.

Tiny Shih Tzus

#8 – There Aren’t Proper Medical/Vaccine Records

Puppy mills don’t like to spend money on veterinary care because it eats into their profits. So, the parents may not be vaccinated, and the puppies probably are not. Or, conversely, they have so many puppies they lost track, and your pup got vaccinated twice. A reputable breeder won’t hesitate to share the medical history of the parents and puppies.

If dogs aren’t properly vaccinated in a space with a lot of dogs, the puppies have a high risk of getting sick. That’s why many puppy store reviews complain about their puppies getting severely ill or dying shortly after leaving the store.

#9 – The Breeder Gives Extreme Promises

Be wary about a breeder promising a certain size, temperament, or characteristic that seems extreme. This is especially true for breeders selling mixed breeds like Doodles because mixed breeds can be unpredictable. For example, a dog came into a clinic that was supposed to be a Pomeranian and Husky mix that the breeder had promised would never grow over 7 pounds. She was 42 pounds.

Of course, breeders want to tell you the best traits of each dog, but they should also want to be honest. Anyone who cares about the dogs they’re selling will share as much information as possible with you, even if it’s not exactly what you want to hear. Otherwise, you might end up buying a dog that’s not a good fit for you.

Woman with scruffy dog

#10 – The Cleanliness is Questionable

This goes for the dog and the breeder’s home or kennel. Puppies from puppy mills are more likely to smell like a kennel and have poor coat quality. Closely inspect a puppy’s physical appearance before bringing them home. Matted hair, urine stains, and signs of illnesses could all be linked to a puppy mill.

However, keep in mind that some puppy mills are good at keeping the puppies looking good while the parent dogs suffer.

#11 – There’s Minimal Paperwork

Your breeder should care enough about what happens to the puppy that they have a contract protecting both you and the puppy. Reputable breeders have a spay/neuter agreement, breed papers, a health contract, and a request that you return the dog to them if it doesn’t work out (rather than dumping them at the shelter). They’ll want to make sure you’re committed to giving the puppy the best care possible.

On the other hand, read the fine print of any paperwork you’re given. Puppy stores sometimes trick customers into pet leasing and loans with high interest.

Newborn puppies snuggling

#12 – The Puppies are Too Young

Another way puppy mills can cut their costs is by giving you the puppy early. Then, they don’t have to give them shots or feed them for as long. Question any breeder wanting to give you the puppy before they’re eight weeks old. This is the minimum age you should be taking a puppy from their mother and littermates, but most breeders will wait even longer just to be safe.

Puppies taken from their mothers too early may face health issues and are more likely to suffer from behavioral problems, especially toward other dogs.

#13 – The Breeder is USDA-Licensed

Being licensed seems like the opposite of a red flag, but reputable breeders are seldom USDA-licensed. A USDA license is only needed if a breeder has more than four breeding females at a time, which is a lot for one breeder to handle. So, the only businesses that have this license are puppy stores, brokers, and online retailers.

RELATED: After 11 Years In A Puppy Mill, Rescued Senior Dog Finally Rests In A Bed

If a breeder is bragging about being USDA-licensed, walk away. The other licenses and certifications breeders need will vary based on where they live and how many puppies they sell each year.

Samoyed puppy at pet store

Be Cautious When Buying a Puppy

A great way to start your new dog search is to check out shelters and rescues first. They already have lots of homeless dogs that need love, and they’re of all ages and breeds. Sometimes, the perfect dog for you ends up not being what you pictured in your head, and that’s okay. It’s good to be open-minded when meeting adoptable dogs.

If you still have your heart set on buying a puppy from a breeder, keep all the puppy mill signs in mind and be patient. Take your time when choosing a puppy and make sure they’re the right match for your family. Any breeder trying to rush you into a purchase is not someone you should trust. Reputable breeders care about dogs, so they put their well-being above profit.

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