Thirty years ago, I led an animal shelter in Topeka, Kansas and we were often called upon to assist when authorities raided illegal and inhumane puppy mills. These neglected, ill animals needed safe havens where they could receive treatment and ultimately be placed for adoption. We accepted this difficult and heartbreaking duty because of the compelling need to save these animals and help stem the fraud perpetrated on unsuspecting purchasers of their offspring.
The memories of the atrocities I witnessed as I worked alongside State inspectors, veterinarians, and animal welfare colleagues at these locations still haunt me to this day. The gross and callous disregard for basic animal needs and extreme suffering were unconscionable.
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) defines: “A puppy mill is an inhumane high-volume dog breeding facility that churns out puppies for profit, ignoring the needs of the pups and their mothers. Dogs from puppy mills are often sick and unsocialized. Puppy mills commonly sell through internet sales, online classified ads, flea markets and pet stores. In fact, the majority of puppies sold in pet stores and online are from puppy mills. Responsible breeders will be happy to meet you in person and show you where the puppy was born and raised—and where their mom lives too.”
Pet owners who purchase the puppies born in puppy mills are often burdened with genetically defective and ill animals. Hydrocephalus, epilepsy, and liver shunts (a birth defect causing blood to bypass the liver) are just a few of the dozens of severe genetic problems that can be expected in puppy mill dogs. Illnesses such as parvovirus, distemper, ringworm, and mange are other common diseases and ailments in puppy mill dogs, caused by poor medical care and sanitation. Purchasers often spend thousands of dollars on veterinary expenses trying to save their new pets, but many times the animals are too ill and die despite all efforts. Others may have life-long expensive medical conditions to manage. Additionally, puppies from these sources may have genetic behavior problems such as aggression or excessive shyness.
Compared to their parents, the puppies that make it out of these places are the lucky ones. The dogs kept for breeding are doomed to lifetimes of living in these horrible situations, forced to produce litter after litter. Purchasing puppies from puppy mills supports and sustains these unconscionable businesses and mean more and more dogs will suffer lifetimes of neglect and abuse.
The identification of puppy mills as inhumane operations is not new, but the potential for this kind of animal abuse is growing and needs greater attention. The COVID-19 pandemic has created a great demand for pets because people have been isolated or working from home, providing a great opportunity to introduce a new pet into the home. This demand has ignited many fraudulent breeders and brokers of puppies, and complaints have skyrocketed. In fact, the Better Business Bureau reports that online puppy scams rose by 500% in 2020, and consumers are expected to have lost more than $3,000,000, not to mention incalculable distress and disappointment.
This fraud upon the unsuspecting public and gross abuse of animals is happening right in our own community. In February 2021 in Los Angeles County, Gustavo Gonzalez was ordered to pay $203,000 in restitution to 63 victims of his puppy scam operation in which he sold dozens of sick and underaged puppies to families wanting to adopt. Many of these puppies died after arriving in their new homes. In addition to the restitution, Gonzalez was sentenced to 87 days in jail, placed on probation for a year, and waived time credits for the nearly two years he had already spent in jail. He was brought to justice by the tireless investigative work of the spcaLA and the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs, and the prosecution by the Los Angeles County District Attorney.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office has issued several warnings about these scams, which can include passing off mixed breed puppies as purebreds to fraudulently command high prices. In December 2020 the County D.A. warned that victims may be duped into purchasing what they believe to be purebred dogs for thousands of dollars, when in fact they are not purebred. https://da.lacounty.gov/community/fraud-alerts/scammers-try-pass-off-puppies-purebreds.
Some fraudulent breeders may also pose as animal rescue groups, to attract purchasers who seek to adopt a pet in need rather than purchasing one that is purpose-bred. However, these groups are also scammers who are puppy millers or brokers in disguise. In June 2017, the D.A.’s office issued a fraud alert about these animal shelter scams: http://da.lacounty.gov/community/fraud-alerts/animal-shelter-scam.
“These people are making a profit, so you have to stop the demand,” said spcaLA President Madeline Bernstein. “It’s a high profit business and there’s no incentive to invest in the welfare of the dogs in these situations. If we stop the demand, the suppliers lose their market and the buyers and animals are protected.”
So, what is a prospective new dog parent supposed to do? Here are some do’s and don’ts about obtaining your new family member:
First, check out the available pets at your local animal shelters. New animals arrive daily, and many wonderful dogs are there through no fault of their own and will make outstanding family companions.
Look at available pets offered by animal rescue organizations, many of whom do identify themselves by breed interest. (Many puppy millers have established nonprofit organizations they call “rescues” to avoid the appearance of being puppy mills, but these are just fronting for their for-profit businesses. They may even sell them in pet stores!)
Make sure the rescues you contact are legitimate organizations and not fraudulent scammers by considering these questions:
Does the group offer strictly purebred or “designer” breed puppies only? Legitimate rescues may focus on certain breeds but accept and rehome mixes as well, and dogs of all ages. Bona-fide rescues also usually have very few puppies, because puppies are less likely to be unwanted and therefore require rescue. When they do have puppies, litters are kept healthy by staying with their mother or a foster until they are at least eight weeks old.
Does the group appear genuinely interested in your suitability as a pet parent? Do they ask you questions to make sure you will provide a good home, or are they just eager to unload an animal and collect your money?
Does the group spay/neuter and microchip all animals prior to adoption into new homes? Reputable rescue groups will always seek to prevent pet overpopulation and maximize an animal’s chance to be found again if lost. They also ensure current vaccinations, have their animals checked by veterinarians, and offer complete information about their animals’ health.
View where the animals live. Fake rescues often keep their pets in filthy, hoarding conditions. Make sure the dog is either in a proper facility or a foster home. Insist on seeing your potential pet in the environment where it is being cared for.
Ask how the dog came to the rescue. In most cases, it should have come from an animal shelter or from an owner who could no longer care for it. Puppies purchased from puppy mill auctions or sources out of the country should not be offered.
There are no organizations that regulate animal rescues. Do your due diligence and research them online to ensure they have an established and reputable profile.
If you are committed to obtaining a specific breed and there is not a rescue group for that breed that can assist you, you might turn to a legitimate breeder. If you do, be sure to:
Meet the breeder in person. The breeder should be very knowledgeable and care about their breed. Legitimate breeders do not indiscriminately place their puppies without ensuring they are going to good homes. Breeders who show their dogs have demonstrated a commitment to maintaining the quality of their breed. The breeder should have suitable experience breeding and showing dogs,
See the conditions in which the dogs are raised. It should be clean and odor free, with lots of socialization opportunities for the dogs. Ensure they are fed a quality diet and have a structured health plan for all animals. Puppies should be vaccinated and dewormed on a schedule.
See the parents and evaluate their behavior and health. Sometimes the sires (father dogs) are not on the premises. If not, find out who they are and why this sire was chosen. It should be to complement the dam’s (mother’s) characteristics, or his outstanding genetic composition and breed titles, not just because he was conveniently available.
The breeder should be able to certify that the puppies and parents are screened and guaranteed against genetic problems common with the breed, such as eye and orthopedic problems. The breeder should offer refunds or exchanges if there are problems with the puppy down the road.
Whether you obtain a dog from an animal shelter, rescue group or reputable breeder, be sure to:
Make certain that puppies are at least eight weeks of age. They need to be with their mothers and littermates this long to develop good immune systems, proper dog socialization, and to be properly weaned and eating solid food.
Research the going price for the animal. It is customary for rescues to charge a couple hundred dollars to offset their costs for spay/neuter and care, but more than $500 is excessive (except in unusual cases). There are customary prices for puppies from legitimate breeders depending on the breed and whether the puppy is show or pet quality. Excessively low prices for a highly desirable puppy can be a sign of a fraudulent offer.
Obtain a contract of sale/adoption that documents your agreement, transfer of ownership, and return/reimbursement policies.
Purchase puppies on the internet, craigslist, or other mass marketing platforms. Bogus breeder websites with stock photos are easy to set up and mislead purchasers as to the nature of the seller and quality/health of the animals.
Meet sellers in random public areas like parking lots. This is done to avoid allowing you to see the conditions in which the animals live and later be able to track down the illegitimate seller.
Pay for the puppies with Zelle, Venmo, gift cards, wire transfers, or other untraceable or difficult to recover payment sources. Use a credit card in case you need to dispute the charges.
Rely solely on photographs of the puppies or the living conditions. These can be easily faked.
Pursue purchasing a puppy from evasive or difficult to reach people. If they are unwilling to answer your questions or stop returning phone calls, walk away.
Get duped into excessively high and questionable shipping schemes. Many scammers accept payment for the puppy, then demand thousands of dollars more in shipping.
A pet is a lifetime commitment and should be selected with good judgment and research. Buying a cute puppy from a questionable source risks the heartbreak of having a very sick animal and perpetuating the greed and cruelty of scammers. If you come across a potential scammer do your part to stop this practice by reporting your experience to your local animal law enforcement and business monitoring agencies. Bringing a new pet into your home should be a joyful and positive experience. I wish all new pet owners many years of love and companionship with a healthy and happy pet!
Marcia Mayeda has been the Director of Animal Care and Control for the County of Los Angeles since July, 2001. She is a Certified Animal Welfare Administrator (Society of Animal Welfare Administrators).