In 1952, Patti Page recorded a song called, “How Much is that Doggie in the Window,” which was written by Bob Merrill. Many of us over a certain age have heard the lyrics, the most memorable of which are: “How much is that doggie in the window? The one with the waggly tail. How much is that doggie in the window? I do hope that doggie’s for sale.” The song goes on to talk about the singer leaving her sweetheart alone to take a trip, not wanting him to be lonely, and getting him a dog to keep him company and protect him from robbers. In 1952, the average cost of a new house was just over $9,000, the average wages for a year were just under $4,000, a gallon of gas cost 20 cents and a new car cost less than $2,000.
I was born in the decade after the song was released and grew up in a time when the sight of a pet store with animals for sale was not uncommon. This was a different era, long before the days when animal welfare for companion animals or related to animal shelters was on the radar of most of the public. Pets were sold in stores. They ranged from dogs to rabbits to hamsters to rats to fish. I don’t recall ever having seen a kitten in a store, but I’m sure they were there.
The concept of selling pets in stores seems harmless at a glance. People in America are animal friendly and many of them share their lives with companion animals who are considered family members. We got our first cat when I was very young and I have lived all of my life in the company of companion animals much like many other Americans. It would seem this a simple case of demand creating supply. But make no mistake. Times have changed drastically and what once may have been a harmless norm in our society is anything but that now. So how much is that doggie in the window? Way too much.
Dogs have been a part of American culture from the days we first set foot on this continent. I won’t recount the history of our domestication of dogs as species here or cover our relationships with dogs as settlers in a new land. Our relationship with dogs dates back thousands of years. Prior to the Victorian era, dogs were defined by their function. By the early 1900’s, different types of dogs were being developed by breeders who wanted specific features and characteristics in their dogs. We have so many breeds of dogs now that it is easy to forget the are the same species.
Commercial dog breeding operations first became a part of American culture following World War II and were introduced by the United States Department of Agriculture. In response to widespread crop failures in the Midwest, the USDA began promoting purebred puppies as a fool-proof “cash” crop. This concept was well received by farmers facing hard times; breeding dogs does not require the intense physical labor that it takes to produce edible crops, nor are dogs as vulnerable to unfavorable weather. Chicken coops and rabbit hutches were “re-purposed” for dogs, and the retail pet industry - pet stores large and small - boomed with the increasing supply of puppies.
There is much disagreement in our country about what to call places where large number of dogs are bred to be sold in stores. Some call them commercial dog breeding operations. Others call them dog farms. Still others refer to them as “puppy mills.” As I blogged about a couple of years ago, I refer to them as mills due to volume of dogs being produced. I have been told that some commercial breeders take great offense at this phrase. Following a 2015 ruling by a federal judge in a case brought by the Missouri Pet Breeder’s Association about an ordinance banning the sale of dogs in Cook Count, Illinois, from commercial breeders, Hank Grosenbacher (former president of the Missouri Pet Breeders Association), was quoted as saying he was unhappy with perceptions of large commercial breeders. "Puppy mill was a moniker given out by the activists and the Humane Society to be extremely negative, perhaps even more so than a racial slur," Grosenbacher said. In the case of Smith v. Humane Society of the United States, 519 S.W. 3D 789, 801 (2017), a puppy mill was defined as a commercial farming operation in which purebred dogs are raised in large numbers. That’s good enough for me.
No matter what we call these factory farming operations, the sale of dogs in pet stores and pet shops is big business in America. Millions of dollars change hands. Approximately 68% of U.S. households have pets (approximately 85 million households) and approximately 90 million of them are dogs. Approximately 4% of all dogs are purchased from pet stores. The problem is not so much the number of dogs being sold in stores as where those dogs come from in our current society. They do not come from a nice, local breeder down the street and may not even come from a breeder in the same state where the pet store is located. A Fact Sheet published by the Humane Society of the United States contains the following highlights:
Pet store puppies come from puppy mills. Responsible breeders do not sell their puppies to pet stores because they want to meet their puppy buyers in person—and a majority of national breed club Codes of Ethics prohibit or discourage their members from selling their dogs to pet stores.
Puppies sold in pet stores come from all over the country—and many come from breeders with one or more Animal Welfare Act violations. Some breeders found selling to pet stores have a record of repeat violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act.
Pet stores often do not disclose the origin of the puppies they sell. Most pet stores do not disclose the true origins of their puppies, instead using deceptive sales pitches about “USDA licensed” or “professional” breeders. Unfortunately, the federal Animal Welfare Act provides survival standards for dogs, not humane care standards.
Puppies sold at pet stores often have serious health or psychological problems. Some of the illnesses common to pet store puppies include zoonotic diseases which can be spread to other pets and humans. Buyers are often faced with enormous vet bills or even the death of the puppy within days or weeks of purchase.
The bottom line is pretty simple when it comes to this subject. If you don’t want to support large commercial dog breeding operations, do not want to support breeding operations in which dogs are not treated in ways of which you would approve, and don’t want to risk the spread of illnesses from those dogs to other pets and humans, don't buy a dog from a pet store. My entire platform promotes adoption and rescue of dogs to bring an end the needless killing of dogs in our nation’s animal shelters. The variety of dogs available from organizations within driving distance of where you live may astound you and if you want a dog who is not near you, adoption may still be an option for you depending on the rules of the organization. If you want a dog from a breeder, that is your right. Seek out a breeder which meets your standards, allows you to see the conditions in which the dogs live and has a proven track record of producing healthy dogs.
Although some in advocacy circles pronounce, “do not breed or buy while shelter dogs die,” I do not. I just don’t think it’s reasonable to expect everyone to adopt a dog and although I am not a fan of breeding dogs, it is perfectly legal. Some people who breed dogs are hobby breeders who do it for the love of the breed. My dentist breeds Black Russian Terriers, one of whom was Best in Breed at Westminster some years back. The dogs she breeds go on to live wonderful lives in carefully selected homes. I feel pretty confident that any money that changes hands is far outweighed by the money spent on the dogs. As far as those people who breed dogs as their sole source of income, they have have a right to make a living that way regardless of whether or not you approve of it.
You can also go one step further and support local laws which prohibit the sale of animals in pet stores or pet shops which come from breeders or brokers (brokers are the middlemen of the dog supply chain; they purchase dogs from breeders which are then sold to pet stores to sell to the public). With each passing month, more and more places across the country enact preemptive laws to preclude national pet supply chains from setting up shop in their communities and selling dogs who are imported from commercial breeders in other states or from within the state. People, and the elected officials who govern them, are taking a stand to say, “not in our city.” The reason preemptive laws are so important is that once a pet store begins selling animals, trying to stop that process is incredibly difficult because it is considered interfering with commerce. There are advocates who protest weekly at pet stores that sell animals not because it will cause the business to behave differently, but it hopes of reaching consumers and educating them that buying pet store animals enables the commercial dog breeding industry.
The state where I live is currently on a roll of sorts with local laws being enacted to provide that pet shops or pet stores must source dogs from local animal shelters and from rescue groups which do not get dogs from breeders or brokers. These laws have no effect on the ability of people to get a dog from a breeder of their choice. The process is just not facilitated by local retail stores. I have heard from opponents of these laws that they are intended to bring an end to commercial dog breeding or to “shut down puppy mills.” I don’t agree with that premise at all.* The laws are consumer protection laws at their core. The CDC determined that pet store dogs have spread diseases to the human population, making this a human health issue. Many dogs sold in stores are sick or have genetic defects making the treatment costs an expense the consumer likely does not expect. I am also told that some sales from pet stores are not actually sales at all and that people are only leasing the animals. I have no idea how that contract language would read, but I feel confident that most people who get a dog at a pet store think it belongs to them and have no idea the animal is leased to them. Beyond that, every community has the right to set standards for the types of businesses which operate within their borders for the greater good of all and to avoid the potential negative effect of retail pet sales on local animal control systems or adoption of animals from the public from shelters and rescues.
It is up to all of us to make good choices related to how we acquire the animals who share our homes and lives. You can show that you don’t support commercial dog breeding operations through the choices you may and the laws you support.
To learn more about the commercial dog breeding industry and all the money at work, I encourage you to watch the documentary film "Dog by Dog." I consider it must-see viewing.
I also encourage you to view the information on the Harley's Dream website. Harley Taylor was the 2015 American Hero Dog and a puppy mill survivor.
*note - I do not support any breeding operation which fails to provide proper care to the animals being bred or their offspring. If the side benefit of local laws is not supporting commercial dog breeding operations which are substandard, I see that as a good thing.
(pet store images courtesy of Hector Parayuelos, Viking and Nicole Mays)
I am an animal welfare advocate. My goal is to help people understand some basic issues related to companion animals in America. Awareness leads to education leads to action leads to change.
image courtesy of Terrah Johnson