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How Much is That Doggy in the Window?

Though it may hard to view your dogs (as cuddly as they may be) as finished products coming straight from a quasi-factory, this is a pretty accurate description of their origins. 60.2 million American households are estimated to own dogs.  Though not all of these dogs were purchased, the pet industry today is estimated to bring in $2 billion annually on live pet purchases. This industry is broken. Besides the fact that puppy mills — types of commercial dog breeding farms — everywhere are mistreating animals, contributing to their future health problems and prioritizing profit over puppies, there is simply no need for the industry to exist at its current size. While 2.02 million dogs each year are sold originating from puppy mills, 3.9 million dogs enter animal shelters nationally each year.  Additionally, for those who seek hypoallergenic dogs or certain breeds, 25% of shelter dogs are estimated to be purebred.

The current dog industry is a complicated business made up a variety steps between breeding and final purchase. The process involves small-scale farms, large breeding organizations, a variety of independent and chain pet stores, and, to some degree, animal shelters and rescue organizations.  Though it is not realistic to completely dismantle the inefficient institution that is the pet industry, it is not too radical to consider shutting down all puppy mills through both state and federal regulatory action. Though there is a clear moral argument against puppy mills, economic inefficiency, government neglect, and sheer industry corruption all supplement the legitimacy of calls for puppy-mill prohibition.

Recently, the puppy-mill problem has gained national attention due to a puppy laundering scheme in Iowa designed to subvert state regulations. The revelation of this scam has elucidated two main problems concerning the pet industry. First, it has help to expose the inhumane conditions of puppy mills, and the fact that profit is regarded as more important than the health of the animals, but it has also shown that the laws governing pet distribution are simply not strong enough. In this case, they were easily subverted, allowing abuse to continue. Stronger legislation should be imposed at the state and federal levels to prevent future mishaps by banning puppy mills and the sale of commercially bred dogs. However, this will not be so easy to accomplish given current federal regulations concerning puppy mills, and pushback from some states.

Though it is impossible to know just how many puppy mills exist in the United States, most estimates pin this number at around 10,000 in total with only 3,000 officially licensed, and thus subject to inspection by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).  The puppy mills that are licensed are governed at the federal level by the Animal Welfare Act which dictates loose standards for living conditions, as well as licensing requirements. The act outlines that standards “shall include minimum requirements with respect to the housing, feeding, watering, sanitation, ventilation, shelter from extremes of weather and temperature, separation by species, and adequate veterinary care,” but does not further detail what these should be. Created in 1966, the act does not reflect the animal care standards of today, and does not go far enough to punish those who do not meet the standards required. Additionally, the legal ambiguity of these tenets show an inefficiency on the part of the government to take responsibility for this industry it has placed under its purview. Violators, who are found during infrequent inspections, face small fines and hardly ever lose their licenses. The lack of regulation from the USDA under the Animal Welfare Act has only gotten worse since the Trump administration took office as evidenced by a blackout in 2017 when 9,000 animal welfare records were pulled from its website, many of which governed dog breeding.  This not only was a betrayal of government transparency relating a larger problem outside of the scope of the industry, but also made it harder to create new legislation against violating breeders, without evidence of these violations.

On the state level, only one state has banned the sale of commercially bred animals. California’s 2017 Assembly Bill 485 requires that pet stores can only offer rescue dogs for adoption.  Hundreds of cities and counties have also adopted similar legislation, and current legislation has been proposed in state legislatures such as New York, but there is not much action on the state level to combat this issue. In fact, states are experiencing legislative attempts to undermine the regulation of the pet industry at the hands of pet store lobbyists. Lobbyists are calling for so-called preemption laws at the state level to render any progressive local laws ineffective. These laws make it illegal to ban the sale of commercially bred dogs at a higher level than many of the local laws that have so far been passed.  In Ohio, this tactic has been successfully realized with the passage of the “Petland Bill”.  This bill was a complex piece of legislation that prevented the state from banning the sale of commercially bred dogs in stores, but also contained some components dealing with animal welfare.  These portions of the law included stiffer penalties for animal abuse to hid the true malicious intent of the law protecting the interests of the pet industry lobby. These “Petland” bills have been popping up in the past few years in other states as well such as Tennessee and Georgia, with the same goal in mind.  Lobbyists argue for these bills under the banner of consumer choice, and the free market, one going even so far as to say that “We don’t live in Venezuela. We don’t live in Cuba.”  However, calling upon socialism and reintroducing the concept of consumer choice circles back to the overarching flaw of the pet industry which is the fact that more pets are not needed. Retail bans, which would help to shut down puppy mills would not diminish a demand for pets, but redirect this demand to different organizations.

Under the principle of federal supremacy, the strongest ban and end to puppy mills would be at the national level which would completely render any state preemption law irrelevant.  However, this seems unlikely to happen due to the current administration’s aversion to increased regulation. Change is still though very possible at the state level. The current bills in committee limbo have the potential to permanently alter the pet industry for the better.  Once these rules become more frequent at the state level, greater action can be taken to shut down puppy mills thus fixing the pet industry and aiding in problems of pet overpopulation.

Photo: “Puppy Mill