Husbandry and Medical Concerns in Puppy Mills

Poor Grooming Practices

Grooming practices are minimal in puppy mills and usually are performed by the kennel owner. We have witnessed animals whose legs were bound together by the severe matting between them, making it uncomfortable if not painful for the animal to stand or be at rest. Matted hair has occluded ear canals and created ear, eye, and skin infections due to the tension created by the matts, the lack of airflow to the skin, and the retention of bodily secretions such as urine, feces, and ocular tears in the matted hair.

Severe Parasitism

Parasitism in commercial breeding is so much more than just an annoying infestation of fleas or worms witnessed by a concerned and disgusted owner. Severe parasitism robs the body of necessary nutrients and leads to poor nourishment, poor health, anemia, vitamin and mineral deficiency, vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, and weight loss. This is not something that should be tolerated.

Dog with severely matted fur
A neglected puppy mill dog with visibly matted fur.

The deworming protocols followed by mass breeding facilities are often comprised of redundant doses of Pyrantel or a similar general dewormer. No dewormer or anti-parasiticide is effective against all parasites. We rarely see the most common of parasites such as roundworms in commercial breeding dogs, but we have seen recurrent problems with coccidia and giardia. Both diseases are a health concern for the infected animal, and both diseases indicate poor environmental conditions. Giardia is a concern because of its zoonotic potential and the risk it poses to the family who purchases a puppy that may be infected with the parasite.

Severe Periodontal Disease

Severe periodontal disease is routinely seen in breeding stock. The apparent age of the teeth greatly surpasses the actual age of the dog. Breeding stock at two years of age will often have the teeth of an eight year old pet. Eight year old breeding stock rarely have many quality teeth left. Such severe dental disease can be painful and a serious health risk if left untreated.

Dental disease is likely a result of poor diet, poor air quality/ventilation, and poor grooming practices. The dogs often have a painful, infected mouth with loose and missing teeth. Some teeth are so infected that the periodontal ligament, which holds the tooth in the socket is non-existent, and once the tartar is removed, the tooth falls out of the socket. In some circumstances, the oral infections have resulted in fractures of the mandible. I have seen 8 month old puppies from these facilities that are in need of dental care due to the amount of tartar on their teeth. Teeth in older dogs are literally rotting out of the head. The severe infection within the mouth predisposes the dogs to infections in vital organs such as the heart, liver, kidney, and bladder.

Many of these dogs end up suffering from edentulism, or lack of teeth. Edentulism leads to an inability to retain the tongue within the oral cavity since part of the function of the dental arcade is to guide and house the tongue. This leads to difficulty with prehension of food and water, but many dogs will adapt. Some dogs will prefer to eat canned food, others will still prefer solid kibble.

Hereditary Conditions

When hereditary diseases are discovered in breeding stock, it is usually because their puppies are afflicted with severe conditions and are returned to the breeder by the purchaser. If commercial breeding stock has an undiagnosed condition such as hip dysplasia, even if it is aclinical in the parent, it can lead to an increased percentage of puppies affected and an increase in severity of the condition in the affected puppies. As veterinarians, our role in pre-breeding exams is frequently considered optional by commercial kennel owners seeking to minimize their overhead costs, and often excluded altogether; the sad result is an increase in hereditary disorders.

Inadequate Socialization

Dogs that spend their entire lives in a cage are socially deprived. Even after being rescued, they may be afraid of being outside of that cage because it is their comfort zone. After years of constant confinement, dogs rescued from puppy mills are often afraid of all things new to them, and that includes the feel of grass, a summer's breeze, or a loving hug.

Dog after grooming
The same dog has now been adopted by a loving family.

Some dogs will head press into the back of the cage, fearful of making eye contact, but within 24-48 hours of rescue, they will wait at the front of the cage for our arrival, yet still be afraid to make eye contact. By the end of the week, they are wagging their tails and waiting for us to let them outside to play. Picking them up initially elicits an overall muscle tension or trembling that gradually subsides to some degree over the first few weeks. Some of these dogs turn around faster than others, but the vast majority will make wonderful pets if the new owner is educated on what to expect.

The Humane Society of the United States has more information on efforts to regulate puppy mills. Veterinarians in Missouri can go to for information on a ballot initiative that will improve the lives of dogs in commercial breeding operations in that state.

This information is adapted from Dr. Lisa Hindle Deppe's presentation "A Veterinarian's Experience with Iowa's Puppy Mill Dogs," as given to the Care of Animals in Commercial Enterprises Legislative Study Committee on September 29, 2009 in support of the proposed Puppy Mill Bill, which recently became law in Iowa.