Understanding Puppy Mills & How They Operate

Puppy Mills have always been a hot topic in the pet community. Many people know them from news stories where rescues save dogs from a puppy mill or pet store horror stories about sick dogs. The truth is that puppy mills aren’t elaborate underground operations as the news makes them out to be. 

In many states, they are a legitimate way to mass-produce puppies to sell at pet stores. What are puppy mills though, how did they come about, and are they all bad? What are the ways to tell when you’re buying a dog from a puppy mill?

Understanding Puppy Mills & How They Operate. Boston Terrier Society.
Bella. We bought her from a local breeder.

NOTE: Before we get started…In this article, I try to be unbiased. I’m sure there are some great puppy mills out there who operate to make money for themselves and raise healthy happy dogs. I’m trying to help people understand the world of puppy mills without an angle.

What Are Puppy Mills?

Puppy mills are legal facilities where puppies are raised commercially. Think of this as a big industrial farm for pigs or cows. However, instead of the farmer raising livestock, they are raising dogs to be sold for profit. 

Many mills have dogs that are AKC recognized so puppies can sell for higher profits. The mills mass produce popular breeds of dogs that tend to be sold out quickly in pet stores. By buying dogs from a puppy mill, you can generally get them cheaper than you can from a breeder thanks to the factory-like nature in which the puppies are bred. 

In some ways, it’s similar to the dairy industries production process. Some puppy mills are run pretty much the same way that big-name dairy farms do. Farming dogs has sparked controversy from animal rights groups.

Problems With Puppy Mills

Check out the Humane Societies “Horrible 100“. The Horrible 100 is a list of one hundred puppy mills and dog breeders who had inhumane issues around the country. Missouri for several years running has been the state with the most problems on the Horrible 100 list.

The issues range from no water to so little food given to the dogs you could see their ribs. Check out the report for the full investigation.

Commercial Breeders

A puppy mill is a commercial animal breeder. Many states have different definitions of what defines a regular dog breeder from a commercial breeder. Usually, the distinction between a breeder and a commercial breeder is on how many female dogs a person has or how many puppies are born per year. 

If the limit exceeds more than five to ten females, a state’s laws will mark the breeder as a commercial source of puppies. Many states will make mills pay a fee or obtain a license to continue breeding the dogs. These fees are often small, and states like West Virginia make the fees less than $50 a year. Some states don’t require any payment or inspections at all.

Further Reading: Guide To Finding A Reputable Boston Terrier Breeder.

What Is The Difference Between A Puppy Mill & A Regular Breeder?

Puppy mills and breeders have two completely different ways of producing puppies. Puppy mills exist to raise puppies and generate a profit. Breeders, while they still make a profit, typically have a love for the breed and have one or two dogs they breed.

Careful breeding can also result in higher prices as the breeders will put more money into the proper care and nutrition of the puppies. Plus, because breeders are small scale, they are not buying puppy related products in bulk at lower prices.

Puppy mills, on the other hand, are more interested in making the most money while still producing dogs healthy enough to be sold to stores.

Breeder Standards

As stated above, many breeders go into business to make a little extra money on the side, further the breed, or even to keep the breed going. Breeders spend more hands-on time with the dog and have more of a personal connection with the animal. 

Even breeders who are looking to make extra money off of the puppies will generally put a significant amount of care into the mother dog. A breeder has to worry about reputation more than puppy mills, and sick pets will make it hard for them to make a profit. 

More Interaction

Breeders tend to interact with the puppies, and some even start training them from birth. Living in a home gets the dogs used to being handled. 

Not Everyone Will Be Sold A Puppy

Most breeders will also be protective of who is adopting their puppies and will turn down buyers if they feel they’re unfit. Contracts of adoption where the puppy has to be returned to the breeder if trouble arises aren’t an uncommon sight. 

Quality Breeding

You will also find that a breeder works to only breed the best traits into their dogs. Proper breeding includes trying to create a lineage with even-tempered dogs. Health problems, the breeders, will work to only mate healthy adults to try and eliminate common issues.

Puppy Mill Standards

Puppy mills don’t have owners come and pick up their dogs; they are instead sold to stores. Many stores never even see the facilities where the dogs are bred. While some basic laws have to be met in most states, they can be relaxed. Check out the ASPCA chart covering state laws, State Puppy Mill Chart.

Minimal Care To Maximize Profit

Some states only require the animal to have food, water, and proper shelter. Vet care, along with the size of the kennel the dog is kept in aren’t heavily mandated by law. Many of the breeder dogs may not ever get to see sunlight. The living situation of most dogs housed in mills only consists of the minimum amount of care the dogs need to survive.

Puppies Must Be Sold

Puppy mills aren’t picky as to where their dogs are sold or where they are going as long as it doesn’t bring repercussions. 


While a mill doesn’t want health problems that pop-up early on, they aren’t nearly as concerned with furthering the breeds. Health problems are why puppies from a mill are so much more likely to get sick than a puppy who is brought from a reputable breeder. 

Understanding Puppy Mills & How They Operate. Boston Terrier Society.
Bella wishing she could have that treat!


Mills are also less likely to worry about temperament when breeding. Many puppies won’t even be socialized or handled by a human until they arrive at the pet store. It is also common for puppies from mills to have separation anxiety from being taken from their mother sooner than usual.

Further Reading: Want to rescue a dog instead? A Complete List Of Boston Terrier Rescues In the U.S. and Canada.

How Do You Know If The Breeder You Are Buying From Is A Puppy Mill?

While most pet stores are where you’re going to find puppy mill dogs, some mills will put ads online. They will make the ads sound playful and may even hire professionals to write their ads. The mills make it so neither the writer or the respondents ever honestly figure out where the dogs are coming from. 

Thankfully, you can generally lookout for several red flags to indicate whether the ad is legitimate.

Spotting Mill Ads

If the ad sounds too good to be true or sprinkles in a lot of flavorful words about why you should buy that breed, then that could be your first red flag. If you message the seller, pay attention to the return message. 

  • Is the way they’re talking completely different than how the ad sounds? 
  • Did you ask questions about certain statements in the ad, and the respondent seemed not to understand what you were talking about? 

It’s highly likely that a puppy mill will have more than one person responding to inquiries. A breeder is going to know what they put in their ad and be able to respond with a clear answer.

Next, where did you find this ad? Many breeders will have their own sites or advertise on websites specifically tailored to the pet trade. Encountering an ad on Craigslist or Facebook’s marketplace is a lot less official than through pet-focused sites. 

More red flags go off if the ad doesn’t contain any photos or has a low price for the puppy. A breeder who has provided a puppy with proper food and veterinary care isn’t going to have a special sale on their puppies. 

Furthermore, look out for ads that say the pets are contract-free or they don’t come with a health guarantee. Most breeders will guarantee the health of their puppies for up to a year.

AKC Approved Is No Guarantee You’re Not Buying From A Mill

Be warned mill dogs can be AKC approved. Many people who search for puppies see the AKC as a stamp of approval; this isn’t always true. The AKC falls into a grey area where puppy mills are concerned. While an AKC dog is usually purebred, it doesn’t guarantee that it doesn’t have health problems or genetic disorders. Many mills will buy or get the dog they are breeding registered with the AKC to put a higher price on the puppies they are selling. AKC registration is also a tactic commonly used to trick buyers into thinking they are buying from a breeder.

Ask Lot’s of Questions

This rule should go for anything you are buying online, ask a ton of questions. A breeder is going to expect a prospective owner to want to know about their dogs. These inquiries usually include details about the puppies parents and the breed itself. Many breeders will have pictures available of the mother and father. 

You can also ask to see photos of where the dogs are being kept. Generally, if you are talking to a breeder, these pictures will be easy to obtain. You can even set-up a meeting time with most breeders to come and look at the puppies before you decide on the dog you wish to reserve.

If you find your questions aren’t being answered and it’s hard to get photos, then you may be buying from a puppy mill. Another sign is having to meet in a remote location to pick your new pet up. 

Also, you should be able to contact other buyers. Most breeders will have a list of references to help you feel assured. Additionally, most breeders will want you to come to their home to pick up your new dog and fill out the adoption contract. It’s not very often a breeder will tell you they have to meet you in the Walmart parking lot. 

Is The Breeder Concerned?

When you first talk to a breeder, they often inquire about why you are looking at that particular breed. They commonly will also ask about what you want out of your new companion. Phone interviews conducted before being offered the chance to reserve a puppy are also common. 

The breeders want to make sure you sound well put together enough to adopt the dog. You may also be asked where you plan to keep the dog. Reputable breeders tend to turn away applicants who have stated that the puppy will be held on a chain. A good breeder will also inform you about themselves and the dogs they breed. If they sound excited when talking about their dog, then there’s a good chance you’re in the right place.

How Often Does The Breeder Breed Their Dog?

Another sign of a mill is the rate of puppies being offered. Breeders are concerned about over breeding their females. If you notice a particular user always has puppies available, then something is wrong. Overbreeding can quickly kill a mother or create puppies that are in poor health. A breeder should also have retired dogs from time to time. Many breeders who don’t have room will sell retired adults for a discounted price to responsible pet owners.

What State Has The Most Puppy Mills?

Missouri is the state that currently has the most puppy mills. Missouri is believed by some animal rights organizations to have upwards of 1,600 puppy mills presently in operation. Out of the possible 1,600 mills 23 from Missouri have had their license revoked for inhumane conditions. 

Some reports have even indicated that one-third of pet store puppies may come from the state. The Missouri government has passed animal rights laws to try and crackdown on mills, but the overwhelming amount of puppy mills makes it difficult for the state to keep up with inspections. Many animal rights organizations are urging the state to take more severe actions against the mills.

Kansas City Star Article: Missouri is the horrible puppy mills capital, report says

Do The Amish Run Puppy Mills? Boston Terrier Society.

Do The Amish Run Puppy Mills?

Yes, some Amish communities do run puppy mills. It’s important to note that not all Amish participate in this practice. There are Amish that genuinely breed or sell puppies that their dogs have had.

Religious views are the main reason behind why the Amish run these mills. Dog’s are equated to the same level as livestock to many in the community. Dog’s are more commonly used for farm work in the villages. 

While some families will have companion animals, it is far less common. The Amish do not have objections to regularly breeding them for puppies to be sold. 

Snopes: Does the Amish run 20% of American puppy mills?

Are Puppy Mills Illegal?

Puppy mills have been at the center of many political debates across the country. Many states have put laws in place to make the operation of mills harder. Some other states have gone a step further by banning mills altogether. While some states have little to no laws on the subject, keep in mind that while some states may have strict mill laws, this doesn’t stop dogs from being shipped in from other states.

States That Hate Puppy Mills

While it’s hard to weed out puppy mills and keep them from re-opening legally, these states have put up a pretty good defense for dogs. Many states like California, Arizona, and Ohio have made it so that pet stores can only sell shelter dogs. 

This helps to cut out significant buyers from the puppy mills and forces them to seek out individual clients in the states where the bans have become law. Other states like New York enforce annual inspections of dog kennels. All states are held to the basic animal rights laws as set out by the USDA under the Animal Welfare Act.

Why Making Puppy Mills, Illegal is Difficult

Making puppy mills illegal is more complicated than it seems. For starters, facilities that view animals as livestock can quickly point to the countries dairy farms in their defense. It is a complicated legal battle when you have to prove that a species of animal is only fit as a companion. 

Dog Intelligence

Even if the intelligence of dogs is cited as a reason they should be companion only animals, then the pro-mill advocates would bring up the intelligence of pigs. It is a common tactic to bring up livestock animals to debunk any talk of advanced rights for dogs. Advancing companion animal rights could very well have to start with cleaning up livestock facilities that supply food to every home in America.

Financial Hardship

The next primary argument would be the loss of income from communities where the mills are a significant source of income. The mill advocates argue that breeding dogs are a way of life for some people. Stopping the mills would cause some families financial hardships. 

Stopping The Sell Of Puppy Mill Puppies

The only real way to stop puppy mills is for the public to stand with shelters and responsible breeders. Cutting out the mills slowly by refusing to buy dogs from them is the only way to rid the country of the inhumane treatment of these dogs.

Do pet stores buy from puppy mills?

It is common for pet stores to get their puppies from mills. In fact, if you walk into a pet store, there is an extremely high chance every dog being sold has come from a local puppy mill. According to the Forbes article below, nearly 99% of all puppies in a pet store are from puppy mills.

While this may seem like common knowledge, many companies try to hide the fact that their supplier is a mill. A pet store is going to make the puppy buying process seem like a playful and happy process. If you ask where the puppies come from associates may give you vague answers or talk their way around the question.

Forbes Magazine: Where not to buy a dog: The pet stores connection to the business of puppy mills.

Why Do Pet Stores Use Puppy Mills?

It is straightforward as to why pet stores use puppy mills over local breeders. Puppy mills can fill the demand for puppies at lower prices than a local breeder.

A breeder may not be able to supply the animals fast enough and the care taken into breeding quality puppies makes the price the stores will pay much higher. High rates reduce the possible profit margins that a cheaper service like a puppy mill could bring.

However, major chains like Petco and PetSmart only work with local shelters to adopt out dog instead of buying from a mill.

Mills Offer More Breed Types To Pet Stores

Next puppy mills don’t just breed one type of dog. A company can get a contract with a mill and be supplied with several popular breeds whereas most breeders will only focus on a single kind of dog. 

This means a pet store only needs to work with a few different mills to have a large variety of puppies. In addition to having a constant flow of new puppies into the store. If the pet store used local breeders, who breed their dog once per year, the pet store would need to work with hundreds of breeders at a time.

It’s important to note some stores may never actually talk to the mill. Brokers exist that buy dogs in mass from the mills or dog auctions. These brokers then target pet stores to flip the puppies and make a profit. Some brokers may even come across to the stores as concerned breeders to make lasting deals with the stores.

Final thoughts…

After looking into the world of puppy mills, I can see why they exist. There is demand in the U.S. for puppies at low prices. Since mills can mass-produce registered puppies they can fill demand at low prices, this is why mills exist. However, there are several incidents where breeders are inhumane to the dogs. On the other hand, there are puppy mills who genuinely take care of their dogs. 

My final thought on the matter is more oversight and standards among the states could help eliminate the inhumane treatment seen in the news.


Donnie Gardner

Donnie Gardner is the owner of the Boston Terrier Society. He has been raising Bella the Boston since 2010. He resides in Kansas with his wife, daughter, and Bella. His favorite activities are hanging out with family, traveling, running (but has bad knees), and reading non-fiction books.

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