Campaign to drive puppy mills out of business gaining momentum across the U.S.

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Puppy mills

Astor, a French bulldog, is one of the 27 dogs that arrived in Chicago after being rescued from three puppy mills in Missouri at the Anti-Cruelty Society on Thursday March 24, 2011. (William DeShazer / Chicago Tribune)

The goal is to drive puppy mills out of business and discourage impulsive purchases of dogs. With the impetus of the Puppy Mill Project, a non-profit educational campaign launched in 2009, Chicago joined Los Angeles, Phoenix and over 40 other cities March 5 in banning pet stores from selling dogs, cats or rabbits. My hope is that by the end of 2015 at least 40 more cities will follow suit, including major markets like New York, Houston and San Francisco.

Many pet stores tell customers the animals they sell are from "loving family breeders." The truth is, the pets are typically from puppy mills or commercial breeding facilities (much like puppy factories, pumping out puppies as fast they can). What's more, puppy mill dogs live in horrid conditions, crammed into cages, often sitting in their own waste. Females are often literally bred to death.

Still, rather than argue about where the dogs come from, I know where they're not from: responsible breeders. Ethical home breeders would never sell a dog or cat without knowing about the family intending to purchase, including whether their lifestyle is a good match for the breed. If a family rents, a reputable breeder will want to see the lease to make sure pets are allowed. Animal shelters are also discerning about who adopts their animals.

Pet store staff ask just one question: "Cash or credit?"

Making matters worse, we now know through genetic testing that what people pay very good money for often isn't what they thought they were getting at a pet shop. That cute little Yorki-Poo might not have a smidgen of either Yorkshire Terrier or Miniature Poodle in its immediate genetic history. Selling under false pretenses is fraud, yet pet stores have been getting away with it for years.

Animal rescue volunteers and veterinarians will tell you they often know a puppy mill dog just by looking at one. Even if a pup appears fine at the time of purchase, underlying illness or a congenital problem may be discovered weeks or months later.

Housetraining may seem simple enough, but not for dogs who've previously been 'trained' to relieve themselves in their kennels. Aside from such treatment being inhumane, these dogs can be exceedingly difficult to house train.

Puppy mills dogs aren't properly socialized, either. Behavioral issues, from house training to aggression, are common reasons for pets being given up to shelters.

Opponents of the pet store bans say buyers can just get their money back, at least in cities and states with lemon laws. This is true, but lemon laws don't account for the animals' suffering or families who end up brokenhearted if a pet must be returned to the store - or worse yet, dies. Live animals aren't washing machines.

Domestic rabbits were covered by the law because despite public education, they're still sold at many pet stores around Easter. Most end up at shelters or rabbit rescue organizations by the end of summer. As for cats, while catteries that breed Siamese, Main Coons, or other purebreds based on volume are rare, they do exist.

The pet superstores like Petco, PETsMART and Pet Supplies Plus, get it right. They offer animals from local rescue groups, shelters and/or animal control agencies. The non-profits are responsible for adoptions at the stores. Simultaneously, the pet shops sell accessories -- leashes, collars, pet food, hay for rabbits, cat litter, toys, etc.

The argument that small, individually owned pet stores can't follow the same humane model is rubbish. In fact, most pet stores these days don't sell dogs, cats or rabbits.

According to the 2013-2014 American Pet Product Association Pet Owners Survey, only three percent of dogs are purchased from pet stores, but that still represents thousands of animals. Only one percent of cats are purchased from pet stores, and only seven percent of rabbits, according to the survey.

Even with increased public education about the origins of animals sold in pet stores, people continue to buy them, often saying they feel sorry for "the poor animals," not realizing that their purchases keep unscrupulous breeders in business.

Certainly, it is hard to resist "that doggie in the window." We've bred dogs for thousands of years with Neoteny tendencies -- big round eyes, large foreheads and other appealing characteristics. Such characteristics are similar to those of human babies. And as with human babies, we're hard-wired to respond; hormones like oxytocin make us feel warm and fuzzy when we spy a puppy.

Opponents of the bans suggest that preventing pet stores from selling dogs, cats and rabbits will only send more people to the Internet. True enough. But on the Internet, shoppers have to proactively search for the pet they want, eliminating impulse buying. And just maybe they'll land at petfinder.com or another site with adoptable animals.

Last fall, changes in the Animal Welfare Act mandated restrictions on selling animals online, so it's not as easy as it once was. There will almost certainly be future restrictions.

While it's true that even cities the size of Chicago, Los Angeles and Phoenix can't alone close down all puppy mills and unscrupulous breeding facilities, the more cities that pile on, the better. The hope is that if demand dissipates, so will supply. Meanwhile, pet adoptions may rise, and puppy mill breeding decline.

(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is http://www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.)

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