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Guest Column: 10 Ways to Spot (and Avoid) Puppy Mills When Adopting

By Samantha Randall — YouTuber, podcaster and editor-in-chief at Top Dog Tips.

“Rescue Me” is a recurring column by Samantha Randall, editor-in-chief at Top Dog Tips. She’ll provide personal anecdotes and perspective about her life as a pet lover with a passion for cat and dog rescue. Today, she talks about the difference between legitimate breeders and illegal puppy mills and why you should care.

During my years working in the pet industry, I have found that a lot of people do not really know the difference between an illegal puppy mill and a legitimate breeder. There are many unwritten rules that all pet owners should be aware of when adopting a dog. Here are 10 that will help you decide whether you’re making a responsible choice when adopting from a breeder (and the same tips apply to any rescue organization):

  1. Examine Kennel Conditions — If you visit a breeder and they have their canines in cramped, filthy cages, you are at a puppy mill. A reputable breeder often keeps their moms and pups in pristine, climate-controlled kennels, and many keep them in the house.

Don’t expect a full tour if you are in someone’s house. However, you should still ask to see one of the parent dogs and one of the littermates. They should look clean, happy and healthy. The area that the puppies stay in should provide plenty of space, be clean and have everything the pups may need, including fresh water and toys to play with.

  1. Watch for Inbreeding — If you visit a breeder and they are actively using more than one generation of a dog family to breed, you are at a puppy mill. A legitimate breeder will not breed parents with kids, sisters with brothers, or first cousins because of the health problems that come from inbreeding. Many responsible breeders will also do DNA testing to ensure healthy puppies will be produced.

Some breeders think breeding brothers and sisters or first cousins is fine. Just ask yourself: “Is it healthy for humans to have these breeding practices?” Of course, the answer is no. Dogs are mammals, just like humans.

  1. Socialization — If you visit a breeder and the animals are fearful and skittish, you may be at a puppy mill. The animals at a legitimate breeder are happy and well-socialized. Now I am not talking about shy dogs, as pups have different personalities just like people. Trust me, you’ll know the difference!

When dealing with purebred puppies, a lot can be predicted, including behavior. You will always meet puppies with different personalities, but if your puppy is fearful of the breeder or acts wild, that points to serious issues with socialization.

  1. Pay Attention at Pet Stores — If you bought your new pup from a pet store, chances are high that he or she came from a puppy mill. Unless it is a pet store that focuses on rescue animals for adoption, be cautious and do your research.
  2. Visit the Facility — If you contact a breeder and they want to meet you somewhere, you are probably talking to the owner of a puppy mill. A legitimate breeder wants you to come by their facility. They have nothing to hide, and they want you to feel comfortable and protected through the entire process.

Some people do breed in their homes, and for safety reasons, they don’t want people coming to their house. If they say this is the case, make sure you get plenty of references, including a reference from a veterinarian. Also, ask the breeder to meet you at your vet’s office so the puppy can have an unbiased checkup before you buy.

  1. Vet References and Memberships — If you ask a breeder for references and they can’t give any, then you are likely talking to the owner of a puppy mill. I am not just talking about references from other clients because puppy mills often pay people to give good references. They should be able to provide a vet reference along with two or three client references. They should also be active members of breed clubs and kennel clubs.

If they are members of the AKC or a special breed club, don’t take their word for it. Verify their registration with the club.

  1. Ask and Be Asked — If you are doing business with someone who doesn’t ask you any questions, you could be dealing with someone that has a puppy mill. A true breeder wants their puppies in good homes. You will have to tell the breeder some things about yourself and your home. It won’t be a transaction done with just money and a handshake.

A legitimate, caring breeder will be checking you out almost as much as you are checking them out. If you just meet in a parking lot and neither of you has to give any information outside name and phone number, that should look a little shady to you.

  1. Look for the Contract — Not only will reputable breeders ask questions, they may have you sign a contract. It could state that you will let the breeder know of any health issues or even state that you will return your pooch to the breeder if you can no longer keep it.

When you are dealing with a breeder who truly cares about their dogs, you may need to sign a contract similar to the ones you fill out at a rescue. The contract will also help you protect your purchase.

  1. Examine the “Papers” — Puppy mills will often overcharge for dogs that have “papers.” I once saw a dachshund in the window of a pet store that they wanted $1,000 for because it was papered. A dachshund and its papers usually go in the range of $250 to $500 from a reputable breeder. With puppy mills, it is all about money. This gets tricky. A puppy mill will have papers but so will a reputable breeder. What you want to do here is research the pedigree. Make sure there is no inbreeding. Also research the average price for the papered dog. Make sure the one you have your eye on is in that price range. You can also get great purebred dogs from animal rescues if you don’t care about the papers.
  2. Remember the 8- to 12-Week Rule — If the breeder is pressuring you take the puppy when it’s 6 weeks old, or worse, under 6 weeks, then you are likely dealing with a puppy mill. For health and social reasons, a puppy should ALWAYS stay with its mom for 8 to 12 weeks.

People who have a dog that gave birth to an accidental litter or people who don’t really care about the litter may push the pups out the door at 4 to 5 weeks. This is not the healthiest time for a pup to leave its mother. Someone who cares about the breed and the dogs will give their pups that needed mommy time for good health and behavior.

The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.

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