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The Problem With Puppy Stores

January 16, 2011

Doc Truli Was a Puppy Pusher

a brown fuzzy dog bed packs with sleeping puppies: dapple long-haired dachshund, tan pug, tan and white rat terrier, black and white long haired chihuahua, and black and tan short-haired chihuahua

Heart-stopping cuteness sells puppies!

Years ago, yours Truli was puppy pusher.  Yes, Doc Truli admits, she worked in a pet store that was also a veterinary clinic, grooming parlor, and boarding facility.  She also worked in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  Arguable, the puppy-mill capital of the American East.  Doc has an insider’s perspective.

Veterinary Applicants Must Work With a Veterinarian

Every veterinary candidate in the US must receive a letter of recommendation from a veterinarian with whom they have worked as part of the veterinary college application process.  The future veterinarian should work in medicine with animals to gain a feel for the profession and decide if the goal is actually suited to the person, hence the requirement to work with a veterinarian.

The clinic in which Dic Truli worked was clean, impeccably designed, with board-certified, capable people working within.  In fact, the veterinarian had graduated first, first! in her graduating class from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, arguably the best veterinary university in the United States.  The job opened up in retail puppy and kitten sales.

How to Design a Better Pet Store

The establishment had been co-owned by a veterinarian and a social worker.  The goal was to run a pet store and hospital that were better.  No parvo pups, no mange, no puppy mill puppies.  Just healthy, happy baby animals to join hopeful new families.

The owner sourced the puppies and kittens only from local breeders for the first year.  That practice stopped quickly because the animals were sick much of the time.  A breeder with only 1 or 2 litters per year cannot offer health guarantee or any money replacement if a puppy becomes ill or grows too old to sell while undergoing treatment.

So, the second year in business, the owner of the place travelled across the US and visited the brokers.  Puppy brokerage is big business.  The breeders sell the litters to broker houses.  The brokers have large kennels where 10 or 50 or 500 puppies might be in one kennel facility waiting transport to the store or buyer.  The veterinarians writing health certificates in these broker houses often check the puppies in their kennels, and not in a quiet medical room.  They can miss heart murmurs and other medical abnormalities that could end up causing heartbreak for a family in months to years to come.

A puppy mill is a puppy farm.  The animals’ needs are taken into account insofar as the care they receive increases profits.  Amazingly, dogs can reproduce under abysmal conditions.

Still, clean, well-run brokerages with puppies delivered two-by-two via air transport were the standard when Doc Truli worked in the biz.

We took strict steps to ensure healthier, happier puppies.

Steps to Healthier, Happier Pet Store Puppies

a brown fuzzy dog bed packs with sleeping puppies: dapple long-haired dachshund, tan pug, tan and white rat terrier, black and white long haired chihuahua, and black and tan short-haired chihuahua

Do you see the problem with this pile of puppies?

  • Only two puppies play together at a time, with strict sanitation between groups.
  • Newspaper down in the play area to encourage early paper training.
  • Exercise out of cages.
  • No wire floors in cages.
  • Toys, beds and comfortable furnishings (sanitized of course)
  • Separate air circulation from the public or the hospital to minimize disease spread
  • Veterinarian on premises
  • Should have done, but no one does because it s expensive: 5 to 7 day quarantine before new puppies are mixed with current puppies in “inventory”

So, now can you tell what is wrong with this picture?

Yep, 5 puppies together in the pet store window.  They share air, toys, poop, everything!  One pup has parvo, they all have parvo.  One pup has upper respiratory infection…you get the idea.  But, boy-o-boy, do they ever look cute and happy cuddled up together in that window.

Even with a social-worker who intended to run the perfect pet store, and a veterinarian devoted to the health of animals, the pet store had insurmountable problems that I challenge any pet store to overcome.

Insurmountable Pet Store Flaws

  • Bringing together babies from different houses and families all in one place and mixing their viruses, worms, and bacteria
  • Needing a steady, good supply of puppies and kittens that do not have health problems, preferably from the breeder’s home environment that the buying public would like to imagine
  • Caring for 10-30 babies at the same time, often by providing minimum wage helpers who are college students working part-time or people on some sort of recovery program who believe working with animals will rehabilitate them…problems happen.
  • Keeping the price in line with what the public expects, but still sourcing the puppies at good places and providing individual toys and attention
  • Affording proper medical care

Sourcing Puppies

Many pet stores insist they do not get puppies from puppy mills.  Really?  They can say this with a clear conscience partly because there are variable definitions of what constitutes a puppy mill.  Some people say more than 5 litters a year from the same household.  Some say it has to be cages outside and female breeding animals exposed to the elements.

A puppy mill really is a puppy farm.  The animals’ needs are taken into account insofar as the care they receive increases profits.  Amazingly, dogs can reproduce under abysmal conditions.  Some states have legislated minimum requirements, like a smooth floor over a percentage of the floor of the cage, or a certain number of hours per week outside of a cage.  Seems a shame to have to legislate exercise, doesn’t it?

As an aside note: as a veterinary student in Pennsylvania, Doc Truli learned that the puppy mill farms with the worst dog conditions that also ran dairy cow operations had the most milk quality violations as well.  It seems farmers who give substandard care to one species, do not excel with other species, either.

Broker Brands

The brokers buy puppies from breeders, farms, mills, the newspaper, wherever.  The same broker often will have different quality brands. For example, a labrador puppy with a heart murmur could be sold for $50 as the “mall store” brand and a sibling from the same litter that passes a physical and looks good might be sold for $350 as a “premium puppy.”  By sold, I mean to the pet store, not you.  This is all going on behind the scenes before you ever set eyes on the puppy in a store.

International Puppy Mills

Do you really believe that a woman selling Yorkies for $1,200 from a cute storefront in Miami got them from her brother who is a breeder in Colombia?  If you do, then you are throwing your money away.  She has been in business for 25 year under 5 different aliases and 3 family members’ names and sells Colombian puppy mill puppies in the US.  They die at alarming rates and you are supporting the market for further importation through your ignorance and unbridled selfishness.  As have enough other people for 25 years to keep her family in income.

Outraged Pet Store Owners

Doc Truli has read pet store owners claims that they are better.  That they do not get their puppies from brokers.  Then where?  Provide the pedigree on the day of purchase, not mailed a week later.  Buyrers–check the address on the health certificate (required in many states).  Do you really believe some nice Lake Woebeggon family in Minnesota raised your puppy and just had to sell him or her to a pet store in Manhattan?  Really????

I challenge a pet store selling 5-10 puppies a week, as they must to pay rent in any major US city, to source all of their puppies from reputable breeders.  And by the way–why would any show breeder, or breeder purporting to improve their breed, sell a puppy to a store?  Maybe extra males they can’t show.  You will see many more male than female puppies at pet stores.  The breeders and mills can use one or two males to cover tens of females, after all.  (“Cover” means inseminate or breed with in animal husbandry terminology.)

Health Problems Made Worse By Pet Stores

Crowding, mixing, stressing puppies and kittens brings out disease and spreads disease.  Changing foods from the breeder to the broker to the store to the new home alone is very stressful.  Shipping puppies via airline cargo when they are 8 weeks old.  Trucking puppies for 5-7 days across the country.  These necessary activities make puppies weak and sick.  Almost all pet store puppies arrive at the store in this way.

Parvo virus, distemper viruses, bordetella, fleas, ticks, hookworms, roundworms, ringworm, lice, and parainfluenza are deadly common through the stress and then mixing of babies at the point of destination.

Worse than that, you cannot calculate or ever truly know the psychological trauma of the lonely scary travel.  Doc Truli is constantly amazed by how resilient and happy puppies are anyway, considering what they have gone through.  Just because the little tail wags, does not make it okay to buy our dog babies from brokers and farms.

People Keep Buying Pet Store Puppies

We Need a Law to Keep People From Perpetuating the Problem

Why do people keep buying pet store puppies and kittens?  The obvious reason–you see the cute face, you fall in love, you buy.

  • “I was saving him from that awful place.”
  • “I know it’s wrong but…”
  • “They said they don’t get them from mills.”
  • “The animal shelter judged me and turned me away.”
    • This one breaks my heart.  I knew a family with 4 kids ranging in ages from 4 months to 12 years old.  Their 15 year old dog dies from old age.  They went to the shelter to adopt and the adoption coordinator told the mom she did not have time to care for the three-year-old homeless dog the family wanted to adopt.  The family went to a pet store and bought a puppy-mill lab puppy. Doc Truli has heard these stories over and over.  Shelter volunteers should take heed!
  • “Every breeder I went to just had a runty, shy puppy left.  I went to the store and bought a happy puppy.”
  • “My husband’s away on business.  I wanted my girls to have something to take care of.”
  • “My friend got their puppy there.”

Doc Truli sees a common thread through these “reasons.”  Expediency.  Selfishness.  Entitlement.  Even the family turned away at the shelter — judged and abused by well-meaning volunteers — could have taught their 4 children a lesson by trying harder.  Petition the director, go to a different shelter, wait until homeless dog showed up at the vet’s.

Commit to never buying a pet store puppy or kitten today!  Write it down!  On physical paper.  And tuck that paper into your Bible or a beloved book.  Whenever you pick that book up and see that paper, remember your vow.  Do not perpetuate the problem!

The United States Should Ban Pet Stores, preferably City by City

Local action sticks best.  The power of the vote is strongest when it is closest to home.  West Hollywood, CA, Albuquerque, NM, and South Lake Tahoe, CA, have banned pet stores.  Switzerland made pet stores illegal decades ago.  We should follow suit in the US.

Alternative Adoption Strategy

The glut of dogs, cats, puppies and kittens at American animal shelters should be enough to convince anyone we do not require an industry to populate our homes with puppies and kittens!

Some humane society’s have started offering boutique adoptions.  A store-like environment where you can go and meet potential cats and dogs who are up for true adoption.  Once pet stores are banned, families adopt homeless animals at far higher rates.  Let’s keep this trend going!


What is a Puppy Mill?

Pennsylvania’s Puppy Mill Law

US Cities Banning Pet Stores

Boutique Adoptions

5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 19, 2011 10:31 am

    Thank you so much for this excellent post, Doc Truli.

    I really appreciate that you told about your experience working in a pet store, and how even you and your partner, with the best of intentions, ended up going the wrong road. It seems to be the nature of the beast.

    Yes, I do think in a lot of cases, the problem is laziness and selfishness, however, in other cases, it is ignorance. Until I got into the purebred world, I had never heard of “puppy mills.” Well, they sounded bad, but I thought it was hyperbole, until I saw a film and article about what they are really like (about one in Penn., actually). I was horrified. I’d had no idea that’s where pet-store pups came from. It revealed a whole side of the pet world I’d known nothing about.

    And I believe I was likely duped, too, with the purchase of my first cat, Ferdinand. This was, again, before I knew about mills, but I was an animal rights activist and believed in adopting from shelters, concerned about overpopulation, etc. I had planned to get a kitten from a shelter, but I didn’t know of any I could get to without a car. (This was before the internet and petfinder!)

    However, there was a groomer and pet supply store near where I lived, and wandering in one day, they had three kittens. Well, I fell in love with one, but my conscience tweaked me. So I asked, thinking I was clever, “Where did these kittens come from?”

    The store owner said a family down the street had an unexpected litter, and she was just taking them off her hands. And I believed her, partly because I wanted to, and partly because it wasn’t “a pet store.” It was a pet supply place that “happened” to have these three kittens, I thought. I kept going away and coming back, and I finally bought Ferdinand.

    I don’t regret it. He was a wonderful, wonderful cat. The most loving, devoted cat ever. But I realized later, when I saw another small litter of kittens there, that her story was probably bogus, and that she’d known just what to say to ease my conscience and make a sale.

    There really is no excuse for buying from a pet store once you know anything about them and puppy mills.

    However, I would like to see more posts like yours about rescues and shelters who have impossible and often arbitrary rules about whom they adopt to. I know several people with disabilities who have been refused dogs (or cats!) because of ableism — the shelter workers saying they cannot take good enough care for this or that reason. Well, IME, people with chronic illness who are home all the time and have little human socializing opportunities make the MOST caring, devoted owners.

    It’s even worse when trying to adopt for a dog to get as a service animal. The hoops I had to jump through, and then basically get told by rescue that I couldn’t get a dog to train as a service dog because, “Service dogs live short, unhappy lives.” (That first dog I did end up with, a bouvier, who they told me I should not train as a SD, but I did anyway, lived past age 13 and was definitely not unhappy!)

    A good friend whose first guide dog she trained herself, using positive-reinforcement, came from a shelter. He was a border collie mix with tons of health problems, and she dedicated her life to keeping him healthy. All other pups from his litter died very young. That shelter celebrated them as a wonderful success story; they were so proud of the life he had with his human partner.

    But she moved to a different state, and when he died, none of the shelters would adopt to her — because she was disabled, because they felt service dogs were “enslaved,” etc. They had BC pups, and they wouldn’t adopt one out because it would be a working dog! Try handing off a BC to your avg pet owner who doesn’t give the dog a job and see how that goes!

    She finally found a good breeder with an older pup that they donated, and that’s how she got her successor. But, the rescues and shelters are shooting themselves in the foot if they don’t get past some of their discriminatory and frankly unrealistic/”ivory tower” views of who can be a good owner, which includes attitudes about money, too.

    BTW, you mention dogs and cats. In my area, I know of no pet stores that sell puppies or kittens, but do sell gerbils, hamsters, birds, fish, etc. What’s the story there? Are the small animals and exotics coming from the same kinds of traumatic and/or unhealthy backgrounds?

    (I grew up with rabbits, but they were all rescues, as far as I remember, so I don’t know where pet-store rabbits come from, for instance.)

    • January 19, 2011 11:44 pm

      Thanks for sharing your unique perspective, Sharon. I can easily imagine well-meaning shelter adoption volunteers declining to let anyone they did not understand adopt a dog. Somehow, an education campaign needs to be launched to educate them and the public.

      The pets who are not cats and dogs have it much, much worse. First of all, mice and rats, fish, and reptiles are not defined legally as “animals” by the US government. That is why research labs do not have to have an IUCUCC plan for mice or rats. (Basically a care and use committee with medical, scientific, and community lay-people checking if a research use of an animal is humane and acceptable by community standards) These creatures aren’t considered “animals” legally. Therefore, there can be no abuse as a legal term. They are just property. Like a mop, or a stethoscope.

      They can do ANYTHING to mice and rats. I witnessed a PhD neurology post-doctoral researcher popping the heads off mice and scooping out their brains for brain cancer research. I was a vet student assigned to that lab for my research. I asked,”Don’t you give them any anesthesia or painkillers?” (Silly me…) He laughed and called me crazy and said I was an extremist veterinary student who only cared about animals and no one else and continued to pop off heads while he told baudy stories about his weekend activities. I was appalled for the mice’ sakes, but at least it was over in seconds for them. I was also horrified for the sake of the PhD; I felt like his soul was withered. I also felt a loss for society. Here was a researcher which ample opportunity to cure cancer or in some way make society better, but this rotten behavior would amount to nothing good, in my opinion. I’ve since learned that human history is built on horror that is lauded as heroism by history. (See the fantastic book “Medical Apartheid” for a history of violent crimes against humanity disguised as research and medical heroism.)

      But I digress–it is estimated 95% of tropical birds, fish, and lizards die during importation to the US for sale. These are wild-caught animals who were living their lives and were scooped up and put through experiences where they witnessed 95% of their compatriots die around them and on them during the trip. Farm raised critters are treated no better – but I have never seen nor heard reports of their beginnings. At the pet store, when the owner asked me to call about Afghan puppies (I was the retail and kennel girl at the time), the guy covered the phone handset and I heard him say,”Wasn’t that them there Afghan puppies you saw in the paper?” So the “special order” was “from the paper” in another state. Then he got on the phone and said, “Do you need any hedgehogs? We picked up a couple by the road the other day, I can give them to you for $50 each.” So now, they have disease, parasites, whatever, and they are not farmed or anything. Just caught by the road and sold off to a big city pet store in the Northeast. Yikes.

      Many rabbits, hamsters, etc, breed well at the store. They come from “suppliers,” then the store breeds them in-house. Some also are donated to the store when the owners tire of them or cannot keep them healthy and happy. These “pets” are then kept in the cages for breeding and profit. It’s not a pretty way to think of a beloved family member starting life.

      I hope I have given food for thought, and not just angina!
      Doc Truli

  2. January 16, 2011 7:54 pm

    Doc T…I applaude your openess, your frankness and your in depth discussion and trying to educate people. It is a tragedy to think of what goes on and it is good to hear it from someone with experience, too.

    I have bred Cornish Rex since 1989 and have only lost track of 3 cats and that was through divorce and the people not keeping me updated with new contact info–I have even ex-mother-in-laws to try and find people, to no avail. I have a 4 page adoption application, will take back a cat for any reason and are there for my families. I am also ‘there’ to try and help and educate people who don’t get a cat from me, because we all know an educated pet owner is also the best vet client too. I am sad that I have not found someone to mentor to carry on what I am proud to have accomplished but will have to say that most breeders find my standards too high…sigh.

    I do get some people who don’t know me personally saying things like breeders are bad (just like all humans–some are); that so many homeless animals need adopting that I shouldn’t bring more into the world (I am committed to these cats for their life and understand someone wanting a specific breed and temperament) and hope that with more discussion and articles and posts such as yours, there will be change for the better for those pups and kittens born into a puppy farm.

    I am retiring from breeding this year and when my current kitties pass away, I too will be looking to a breeder to find another, backed with my experience will hopefully get a fine, healthy kitten but you can be sure where I won’t go…a pet store or one stop we got it all websites! I find it hard to believe that the general public isn’t wiser about these things, but


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