Purdue Develops a Program to Eliminate Puppy Mills

HERE IN THE Hoosier state, an insidious industry has taken hold. Concealed in pens lining the sides of nondescript pole barns, puppies are being bred en masse by commercial dog breeders—or, depending on whom you talk to, puppy mills. Indiana isn’t the only state with that dubious distinction. Ohio, Missouri, and Iowa also consistently rank high in the stretch of the Midwest called the “puppy mill belt.” But Indiana boasts one major difference. It’s the only state in the country with a university program now working with commercial dog breeders to teach them how to elevate their canine care standards.

At Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, the Canine Care Certified program (CCC) is pushing dog care far above state and federal regulations. In fact, the program aims to create the gold standard of what consumers can expect from commercial dog breeders, doing the ethical and scientific homework for buyers of dogs. Get a dog from a breeder with the CCC seal, and you know your new buddy came from a reputable and responsible breeder.

And yet, it can be a slippery slope delineating careful commercial dog breeders from puppy mills. The CCC was actually created back in 2013 in response to requests from Indiana Amish dog breeders who had been publicly criticized. “They knew they were doing things people weren’t happy with,” says Dr. Candace Croney, director of Purdue’s Center for Animal Welfare Science. Those breeders were meeting with the Indiana Board of Animal Health and invited Croney to attend. She was skeptical of their motives at first, but she went. It soon became clear that the breeders were raising dogs in ways “that would make the average person feel uncomfortable,” she says.

The dogs were oftentimes kept in runs or in enclosures that didn’t look that different from cages. Many of these were too small for the size of its inhabitant, and the dogs didn’t get enough time outdoors. Though the dogs were physically healthy—most of those Amish breeders did arrange for routine veterinary checks—they looked fearful even near their primary caretakers. “That was worrisome to me, and so that was when we started our work,” Croney says.

It wasn’t the kind of work people envision, of saving half-starved dogs with matted fur from chicken-wire cages. If that had been the case, Croney would have taken no part. “But to me, this was a lack of understanding of what a dog needs to be well,” she says. To be fair, the science of animal welfare is still relatively new. Even 10 years ago, a veterinary student may have struggled to find a course that covered it, Croney says. “It’s not surprising that the Amish, an underserved community, would have trouble getting this info,” she says.

After seeing the breeders’ facilities, Croney created the CCC’s original care standards—40 pages worth. Working with Purdue, breeders can now receive behavioral plans, guidelines for working with vets to screen for congenital health issues in dogs, rules about nourishment, and best practices for mental stimulation. An independent third-party auditor reviews the dogs and facilities every 16 months to ensure compliance. The program is so rigorous that only 100 breeders in Indiana have passed through to certification. And while that’s a great start, those cooperative breeders are in a distinct minority. Hopefully, participation will grow as more potential puppy parents understand the meaning of the seal and start asking for it.

Still, animal activists say the CCC’s work isn’t enough to curtail irresponsible breeders. Janie Jenkins, president of Chicago-based Stop Online Puppy Mills, says she appreciates the work Croney has done with CCC. “The kennels she works with are doing the program voluntarily, which is wonderful,” she says. But she points out that the problem of puppy mills is ballooning across Indiana.

“Puppy mills are everywhere in indiana. They’re in Lagrange, elkhart, and shipshewana, and way down south in daviesS county. they are factory-farming dogs in much the same way as chickens and pigs are factory-farmed.”

Many of them are hiding in plain sight on the internet. For example, Puppy Find, Lancaster Puppies, and Puppy Finder add a smokescreen of legitimacy to what truly are the kinds of places you picture when you hear “puppy mill,” Jenkins says. Recently, posing as a buyer, she asked to see where her future pet was being kept. Again and again, she was told that would be impossible, instead directed to photos online. And when she was ready to buy, she learned the puppy would be delivered to her. Both responses are red flags that the seller doesn’t want you to see the breeding conditions. “Always go and see the mother dog and how the puppies live,” she insists. Eventually, she traced one breeder to a location in Warsaw, Indiana, where she found more than 250 breeding dogs in a barn.

“Puppy mills are everywhere in Indiana. They’re in LaGrange, Elkhart, and Shipshewana, and way down south in Daviess County,” says Jenkins. “And they are factory-farming dogs in much the same way as chickens and pigs are factory-farmed.” Too many people wrongly assume that puppy mills are illegal. “They are absolutely legal, registered by the state as USDA commercial dog farms,” Jenkins says. The Warsaw breeder she tracked down was, in fact, USDA licensed. That sounds reassuring, but in reality it’s a low bar.

The cities of Carmel and Bloomington have adopted ordinances banning sales of dogs at pet stores with the dual goal of hindering puppy mills and encouraging adoption from overflowing animal shelters. Meanwhile, a bill is wending its way through the State Legislature, which would prevent municipalities from enacting those bans. (Ordinances already in place before January 1, 2023, would still be enforceable.) Indianapolis recently proposed its own such ordinance that would ban most retail sales of dogs (as well as cats and rabbits), except when doing so in partnership with local animal rescues. That bill also adds notable consumer protections, such as pet shops being required to microchip the animals they sell, disclose full medical histories, and provide refunds to customers, including for vet bills, if a pet dies or gets sick within a certain amount of time, or turns out to have a hereditary condition with significant health impacts. Critics of the bill see it as hiding the dirty laundry of retail pet sales, while supporters note that if pet stores disappeared, it would only drive the demand online, increasing business for unscrupulous puppy mills. At press time, Indiana House Bill 1121 was still under consideration.

Irresponsible dog breeding has led to the development of orthopedic complications in puppies, a condition usually reserved for senior dogs. Megan Cantrell, practice manager and certified pet trainer at Indy Pet Core, a standalone rehab facility, is seeing hip dysplasia in pups who are barely a year old. It’s a particular issue with ever-popular golden retrievers and the more than a dozen types of doodle dogs (poodle mixes), among the most-wanted “designer” dogs being sold in Indiana now. 

But behavioral issues are a wider concern that can affect all breeds alike. “If the puppy’s mom is highly stressed, she is more likely to genetically pass on behavioral issues to her puppies, even if they don’t have a genetic propensity to a behavior problem,” Croney explains. If a dog is raised in an environment where interactions with humans create fear and stress, then the parents are going to model those behaviors to the puppies.

That’s why Croney is doing the hard work of continuing her research into canine welfare best practices and training responsible breeders—despite the risk of being confused with the villians. “We are told all the time that we are helping puppy mills,” she says. “Absolutely not. Puppy mills are bad. I agree with that 100 percent.” Nor does any dog lover want to contribute to puppy mill cruelty in the process of bringing home their new family member. “How to solve this problem is what Candace Croney is trying to figure out,” Jenkins says. “She is endeavoring to improve the welfare of animals.” The work is a long time in coming, and still has quite a way to go. Unfortunately, research-based studies of the type that can inform and bolster efforts like CCC take a long time.