Twenty years ago, people knew that a “puppy mill” was a substandard kennel where unhealthy, overbred dogs were kept in horrendous conditions.

Today it’s not that easy. In the last decade of the 20th Century, animal rights activist groups began to broaden the term to cover pretty much any kennel that they didn’t like. As a result, commercial kennels and hobby breeders with more than an arbitrary number of dogs or litters have become targets for anti-breeding groups that lobby for laws to restrict these law-abiding operations. These organizations stir up public support for breeding restrictions and high license fees by deliberately blurring the lines between responsible breeding operations and real puppy mills. They use emotional rhetoric and pictures of dirty kennels and sickly dogs to imply that most or all breeders will subject their dogs to abusive lives unless they are regulated.

Shelter and rescue workers who receive dogs from raids on squalid kennels often lead the fight for laws restricting or regulating breeding in an effort to close kennels they label as puppy mills. Some responsible breeders are so incensed at the existence of substandard kennels that they are willing to accept these punitive licensing schemes even though the costs may limit or destroy their breeding programs.

Lawmakers who write bills aimed at preventing puppy mills leave the definitions up to those who lobby for the laws. As a result, publicity campaigns highlight kennels where dozens or hundreds of dogs are kept in poor conditions, but the bills themselves often target responsible hobby and commercial breeders with far fewer breeding dogs.
So, how do we evaluate those bills and make sure that substandard kennels are cleaned up? First we have to define “puppy mill.” Is it…

A dirty, trashy place where one or several breeds of dogs are kept in deplorable conditions with little or no medical care and puppies are always available?
Any high-volume kennel?
A clean place where several breeds of dogs are raised in adequate conditions and the breeder usually or always has puppies for sale?
A place where a single breed of dog is raised in acceptable conditions and puppies are usually or often available?
A place where lots of dogs are raised, where breeding is done solely for financial gain rather than protection of breed integrity, and where puppies are sold to brokers or to pet stores?

The answer depends on who you ask…
A hobby breeder dedicated to promoting and protecting a particular breed or two might consider all of the above kennels to be puppy mills. Animal shelter and rescue workers who deal daily with abandoned, neglected, or abused dogs might agree. Operators of clean commercial kennels, licensed by the US Department of Agriculture or by state law, will strongly disagree, for the very mention of “puppy mill” damages their business and that of the pet stores they deal with.

John Q Dog Owner probably thinks of puppy mills as those pictured on fundraising pamphlets by the Humane Society of the US and other animal rights charities. He has seen the cameras pan back and forth over trash, piles of feces, dogs with runny noses and oozing sores, dogs crammed into shopping carts and tiny coops, rats sharing dirty food bowls and dry dishes. He has seen the kennel owner captured on tape, dirty, barely articulate, and ignorant of dog care, temperament, genetic health, or proper nutrition. But is the television crew simply seeking the sensational and applying these appalling conditions to the entire dog producing industry? Are the photos on the fundraising appeals accurate depictions of the majority of high volume kennels or are they used to generate disgust for breeders and dollars for treasuries?