How to Spot a Puppy Mill

Those who run puppy mills only care about money and have no qualms about misrepresenting themselves. With that in mind, it’s up to us as prospect buyers to ensure that we won’t unknowingly support their dirty trade.

Below you’ll find some questions to consider when dealing with a breeder. Should you suspect that you’ve come across a puppy mill, contact the relevant authorities. Not only is it the right thing to do; if your tip leads to the closing down of a puppy mill, there could be a $1,000 reward from Pet Listings in it for you, too.

Questions for consideration

  • An ethical breeder will most likely have a limited supply of puppies. They might even have a long waiting list, because ethical breeders plan for their litters, making sure that there will be good homes ready to welcome each puppy once they’ve been weaned. Puppy mills, on the other hand, will churn out litter after litter and often have many puppies available on short notice.
  • A responsible breeder knows that every breed is a science in its own right. That’s why you’re not likely to find ethical breeders who offer more than maximum two different pure breeds. Anyone who rattles off a substantial menu of various pure and cross-breeds is most likely a puppy mill operator or broker.
  • Ethical breeders will screen you as much as you screen them. They will want to ensure that their breed is right for you and that you can supply the puppy with a good, loving home. So be prepared to answer their well-intentioned questions. Puppy mill operators, by contrast, will have another focus entirely: your money, and how soon that money can become their money. They are not likely to show any sincere interest in the puppy’s future life with you.
  • When you ask the breeder why they work with a particular breed and what’s so special about it, you should expect a passionate response that is full of details and oozes enthusiasm. An ethical breeder will happily share their wealth of knowledge. Chances are they’ll keep talking until you stop them. Puppy mill operators are driven by money and are more likely to run out of things to say about the breed.
  • A responsible seller should ask that, should you later decide that you cannot care for the puppy, you will return it to them instead of selling it on or dropping it off at a shelter. They will also invite you to call back with any questions you might have post-sale. Puppy mills will take your cash or money order and give you a receipt before saying farewell for good; they are not likely to accept returns.
  • Ethical breeders are proud of their facilities and will readily invite you in. In fact, they will probably insist that you do come visit. Puppy mills often use brokers (hello, pet shops!) and might tell you that their place is “hard to find”, so “why don’t we meet in the [X] parking lot”. Alternatively, they might invite you to come visit and then call when you’re en route, giving some excuse for why you can’t come to their breeding facility and instead should meet them in the good old “[X] parking lot” – an offer you might find hard to turn down, since it would clearly show your distrust. Nevertheless, should the latter happen, do turn down any such offer and insist on rescheduling and seeing their actual facilities.
  • Ethical breeders will have lots of credentials to show you, and they won’t hesitate to give you references such as their veterinarian, any breeder’s organisation they hold membership in, and previous customers. Puppy mills will not want you to do any background checks on them. So what do you do? You do background checks. And always call some previous customers.
  • Puppy mills might claim that neutering or spaying isn’t required.
  • Ethical breeders will never try to hurry the sale along. Puppy mills can’t wait to grab your cash and send you on your merry way.
  • Puppy mills are likely to insist on being paid in cash or money order only.
  • Puppy mills might be willing to let you pick up puppies before they’re eight weeks old.
  • Puppy mills will not appreciate your documenting what’s on their premises, whereas ethical breeders will welcome the attention. So always bring a camera. If questioned about it, respond that you’re simply grabbing some snaps of the puppies for your partner to see. Then get out of the place and call in the cavalry.
  • Check on the physical and emotional conditions of the dogs you see on the premises. Are they under- or overweight? Is their fur matted or dirty? Do they appear very sleepy, or are they not being friendly and social around people and other dogs? Are they displaying repetitive behaviour such as obsessive scratching? All of the above could indicate that they come from a puppy mill.
  • Ethical breeders will provide you with ample advice on the appropriate diet and care for their particular breed. Puppy mills are not likely to show the same level of thoughtfulness.
  • Ethical breeders will have screened their female for all kinds of genetic defects before breeding her. This could have involved X-rays of hips and elbows, thyroid testings, eyesight checks, etc. The breeder should be willing to disclose any identified issues and show all related documentation. Failure to disclose any issues or reluctance to talk about the notion is a telltale sign that you’re dealing with a dodgy breeder.
  • Is there a foul smell on the premises – or have someone tried to mask that foul smell by using generous doses of bleach or deodoriser? What you’re smelling might well be the poor care conditions of a puppy mill.
  • Are the water bowls dirty? It takes very little time to keep them clean. Any filth is a sign of suspect care.
  • A puppy mill might claim that they’re a “family business” raising “happy and healthy puppies” on their “private farm”. This might well be true to an extent: they do have a family business on a remote farm, where the howls of the anything-but-happy-and-healthy puppies won’t raise any suspicion among neighbours. Don’t be fooled by their glamorous website or pictures, either. You won’t actually know anything until you’ve paid them a visit.
  • Puppy mills sometimes try to pass off puppies as being the offspring of a completely different (most likely healthy and attractive) mother. To make sure that you’re looking at the actual mother, visit at a time when you can see her nurse the puppy.
  • Puppy mills might offer to ship the puppy to you. Ethical traders will most likely insist that you drive the puppy home yourself.
  • Unless you know the seller personally, any “private” puppy sale could involve a puppy mill. Most dogs outside the breeder arena are desexed, so there simply aren’t many “private sales” to be had. Chances are that such a sale involves a broker who is showing puppies from a mill in their own home or other cosy environment. But don’t go calling the police on any private person who offers puppies for sale. Just be all the more thorough in your background checks.

Those are just some pointers for how to spot a puppy mill. Bottom line: stay sharp when you meet the breeder, and you should be able to tell what it is that motivates them. Whilst ethical breeders are trying to find happy homes for their favourite breed, puppy mills are just trying to get your money. No amount of bleach or deodoriser can hide that fact.