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  • Molly Weinfurter

What is a Puppy Mill?: Definition, Signs, and How to Stop Them

Updated: May 27

Most dog lovers know that puppy mills are bad, but not everyone can give a clear answer when asked, “What is a puppy mill?” Unfortunately, many new dog parents who know to avoid puppy mills end up supporting one of these bad breeding businesses unknowingly. So, let’s take a look at the puppy mill definition, along with some information on how to avoid puppy mills and help put an end to them.

If you have no idea what a puppy mill is, don't feel bad. The only reason I know so much about the topic is because my first dog as a kid was a puppy mill survivor. So, I learned a lot about puppy mills and how to stop them at a young age, and I keep doing whatever I can to help as many of these dogs as possible.

What is a Puppy Mill?

There are many ways to define a puppy mill, but the most general definition is “a commercial breeding facility where profit comes before health and well-being.” These breeding facilities are typically at a much larger scale than an ethical breeder, producing as many puppies as possible from a variety of breeds.

Sad Dachshund at puppy mill

Why Do Puppy Mills Still Exist?

Knowing the definition of a puppy mill, it seems obvious that puppy mills shouldn't exist. Yet, in the United States, puppy mills are still legal. Some states have breeding laws to improve the conditions of the dogs at mills, but those laws are still very loose and not always enforced.

Not only are puppy mills legal, but they’re thriving. Even though many people know about these horrific facilities, they’re still selling enough puppies to stay in business. This is because the places selling puppy mill dogs, such as pet stores and online retailers, are very good at lying to make people believe they’re supporting a good breeder.

No one would outright tell you they’re sourcing from a puppy mill, which is why pet parents need to be extremely cautious when getting a puppy from a breeder. Puppy mills sadly still exist because the public is funding them, whether they realize it or not.

Are Backyard Breeders the Same as Puppy Mills?

Backyard breeders are another form of unethical breeders, but they’re not always the same as puppy mills. The term backyard breeder is typically defined as an irresponsible breeder.

Sometimes, these breeders are puppy mills, but other times, they’re just someone who tries to breed their dogs for fun without being knowledgeable about health testing and ethical breeding practices. Both puppy mills and backyard breeders should be avoided if you want a healthy dog and want to support an ethical business.

Ethical vs. Unethical Dog Breeders

Understanding the differences between an ethical breeder and an unethical breeder can help you ensure you don’t accidentally support a puppy mill. 

In general, an ethical breeder only focuses on one breed at a time and they do it because they care about the breed standard, not about the money. When taking proper care of all the dogs, breeding isn’t a very profitable business. So, an ethical breeder will have a strong love for dogs and will be very knowledgeable about the breed. Puppy mills typically have so many dogs that it's impossible for them all to get proper care and socialization.

Ethical breeders will let you meet the parents of the puppies and see where the dogs are bred. They’ll likely only have one or two litters at a time, so you may need to get on a waitlist to get a puppy. A good breeder will want to make sure you’re a good fit for the breed and the specific puppy you take home, and if it doesn’t work out, they will happily take the puppy back into their care.

Overall, an ethical breeder is a small-scale breeder that’s very transparent with how they breed and care for dogs while an unethical breeder will try to sell puppies as quickly as possible with few questions asked. While I generally support animal rescue above breeders, I think it's important to acknowledge that there are good breeders out there (but you need to do lots of research to find them).

fluffy puppy in pet store

Signs a Breeder is a Puppy Mill

As mentioned above, there are lots of things that set a reputable breeder apart from a puppy mill. However, it can still be tricky to tell the difference since puppy mills are great at telling you what you want to hear.

Below are some signs that a breeder is a puppy mill. If you notice any of the following when looking for a puppy, that’s not a good business to support.

The Puppy is Sold Through a Pet Store or Online Site

A reputable breeder will want to be the one to sell their puppies so they can make sure you’re a good fit before bringing the dog home. So, if a breeder is shipping their puppies to a pet store or through an online retailer, they’re not able to make sure the puppies go to a good home. Thus, puppies sold this way come from large-scale breeding facilities that don’t care where the puppies end up.

Bailing Out Benji, an organization that educates about puppy mills, has data on where pet stores are getting their puppies to prove that they’re not sourcing from reputable breeders. I regularly volunteer with this organization, and we always make sure we have evidence before calling a breeder a puppy mill.

However, keep in mind that some stores, such as Petco, host dog adoption events for local rescues and shelters. Those types of stores are okay because they’re supporting dogs in need instead of profiting off the mistreatment of dogs.

You Can’t Meet the Parents or See the Breeding Site

The reason puppy mills source to pet stores so often is because it makes it impossible for you to see the breeding site. Pet stores are often clean and cute, so it separates the horrific mills from the people buying the puppies.

If you buy directly from a breeder, don’t be afraid to ask to meet the puppy’s parents and see the breeding location. A good breeder should be happy to show you those things. If they come up with excuses, such as offering to meet in a parking lot, be wary of them.

The Breeder Always Has Puppies Available

Breeders who constantly have puppies available are likely overbreeding their dogs or having too many dogs on their property. Well-bred dogs are in high demand, so a qualified breeder will usually have a waitlist for their upcoming litters. It’s rare that an ethical source will let you take home a puppy immediately, especially if they didn’t ask you many questions first.

The Breeder Has Several Breeds

Ethical breeders typically focus on one breed, maybe two in rare cases. They often get into breeding because they love the breed and want to produce healthy dogs of that breed standard. If a breeder has a bunch of different breeds at once, there’s a good chance they’re just in it for the money.

Since a good breeder loves their specific breed so much, they’ll be able and willing to answer lots of questions about that breed. An unethical breeder is more likely to be vague about breed-specific questions.

Doodle Poodle Mix Puppy

They Offer “Designer Breeds”

“Designer breeds,” such as Doodles and Pomskies, are extremely trendy right now. However, they’re mixed breeds with no real breed standards. So, puppy mills typically take advantage of this by producing lots of them at once and charging insanely high prices for them.

There’s a Lack of Paperwork

It shouldn’t be easy to adopt a dog. Dogs are living creatures and members of the family, so there should be plenty of paperwork involved to make sure you will take great care of the dog. You should also be given lots of paperwork that includes the dog’s medical history and health testing. It may seem like a hassle, but all this paperwork is a sign that the breeder cares about the puppies.

Whenever you fill out paperwork, make sure you look at the fine print. Puppy mills and puppy stores that require signed paperwork often have predatory leasing agreements and fees.

The Puppies are Younger Than 8 Weeks Old

Puppies should stay with their mom and littermates until they’re at least 8 weeks old. Don’t trust a breeder that’s encouraging you to take a puppy home sooner than that.

The Breeder is USDA-Licensed

Licensing seems like it would be a good thing, but in many cases, a USDA license is something to be skeptical of. Breeders must have a USDA license if they have more than four breeding females. Thus, this license is typically only needed for large-scale breeding businesses, and a small ethical breeder wouldn’t need one.

Ways to Help End Puppy Mills

When dog lovers learn what a puppy mill is, they’re eager to stop them. However, ending puppy mills is easier said than done. The puppy mill definition is so broad that it’s difficult to create laws to stop them, and even if we do, not all legislators are willing to pass these bills.

Yet, even though there’s no instant fix for puppy mills, there are ways we can cut off their sources and reduce their profit.

Protesting puppy mill store
Here's a photo of me protesting a puppy-selling store with Bailing Out Benji

Don’t Buy Anything from Puppy Stores

If a store is selling puppies, walk out the door. Even if you’re only buying supplies and not animals, you’re still supporting a business that gives lots of money to puppy mills. Instead, visit a pet store that only sells supplies and encourage others to do the same.

Introduce a Humane Pet Store Ordinance

Cutting off a puppy mill’s sources is a great way to shut them down. Puppy mills make a lot of profit from selling to pet stores, so many cities are introducing Humane Pet Store Ordinances to prevent the sale of puppies in pet stores in that area.

Best Friends has a list of all the Retail Pet Sale Bans in the United States, so you can check to see if your city has one yet. Even if your city doesn’t currently have any puppy-selling stores, an ordinance would prevent new businesses from entering and it could help you eventually get a statewide ban.

If you’re interested in getting more details about a Humane Pet Store Ordinance, you can contact Bailing Out Benji. I helped pass one in my city, and while I was really nervous speaking at the council meeting, it was well worth it to know that I prevented more puppy mills from selling in my community.

Report Suspected Puppy Mills

If you suspect that a breeder is mistreating their dogs, you can report it to any of the following places:

  • Your state agency

  • Bailing Out Benji

  • Humane Society of the United States (HSUS)

  • The USDA

Since breeding laws are very loose in most places, reporting a puppy mill won’t guarantee that it gets shut down. However, reporting a facility can raise some attention, which may lead to more frequent inspections.

Contact Your Legislators

Contacting your legislators is crucial if they’re about to vote on a bill related to animal rights. However, it’s beneficial to reach out to them at any other time too. Seeing that residents care about this issue may make them more likely to vote in favor of humane pet store laws and it could encourage them to make the breeding laws stricter.


There are lots of ways to volunteer to help fight against puppy mills. Organizations like Bailing Out Benji hold educational events and protests to spread awareness about the issue. Rescues and shelters often take puppy mill dogs into their care, so you could also help by fostering one of those dogs or helping care for them at the facility.

I have fostered puppy mill dogs and educated about puppy mills at events. All these types of volunteering are so rewarding.

Educate Others on Ethical vs. Unethical Breeding

Simply talking about puppy mills can go a long way. If you know someone who’s planning to get a dog from a breeder, let them know of some warning signs to look out for to ensure they don’t unknowingly support a puppy mill. Sharing social media posts about puppy mills is also a great way to get the information out there.

Share Rescue Dog Stories

Sometimes spewing facts doesn’t resonate with people. However, seeing a puppy mill survivor’s experience is a great way to pull at someone’s heartstrings and encourage them not to support a bad breeding business. 

If you have a puppy mill survivor, if you’ve fostered one, or if you just saw a video about one online, share it on social media or with friends to show them the real-life struggles that puppy mill dogs face. After seeing what these dogs have been through, it’s hard not to feel passionate about ending puppy mills.

My first dog as a kid was a puppy mill survivor. She spent about six years breeding puppies, so she was terrified of humans by the time she was rescued. However, with love and patience from my family, she slowly came out of her shell. She was never super comfortable around humans, but every little milestone was a huge success for her. I've had similar experiences with dogs I've fostered.

If you're interested in giving a home to a rescue dog, here are some tips for choosing the perfect dog for your family.

Scared puppy mill rescue dog
This is one of the puppy mill survivors I fostered - he was terrified at first :(

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Petland a Puppy Mill?

Petland sources its puppies from puppy mills across the country. It’s the largest chain pet store that sells puppies. These stores claim to get their dogs from reputable breeders, but research shows otherwise.

Are Puppy Mills Illegal in the US?

Unfortunately, puppy mills are still legal in the US. Some states have breeding laws, but most of those laws are vague and not well enforced. 

What Do Puppy Mills Do with Unsold Puppies?

Sadly, many puppy mills will either dispose of unsold puppies or keep them as breeding dogs. In states where dog auctions are legal, they may auction them off. Some may give away their unwanted dogs and puppies to shelters and rescues.

Is There a Puppy Mill Rescue?

Many shelters and rescues will take in puppy mill dogs as much as they can. However, some rescues specialize in saving discarded breeding dogs, such as National Mill Dog Rescue.

Do the Amish Run Puppy Mills?

Yes, many puppy mills are run by the Amish. They typically view dogs as livestock instead of companions.

Do Doodles Come from Puppy Mills?

Yes, Doodles usually come from puppy mills and backyard breeders because they’re a mixed breed with no breed standard. The same is true for other "Designer" mixes.

It’s Time to End Puppy Mills

Every dog lover can probably agree that ending puppy mills is a long-overdue task. Even if you just found out the answer to “What is a puppy mill?", there’s a good chance you don’t want these bad breeding businesses around.

Ending puppy mills completely may not happen any time soon, but little by little, with education and awareness, the number of dogs suffering in these mills can be reduced greatly.


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