In October 2017, California became the first state to pass a law to deter the use of puppy mills by potential puppy buyers. Under the new law, pet stores must work with animal shelters and other rescue operations to obtain dogs, cats and rabbits, and are prohibited from using breeders. However, private and individual customers can still use puppy mills, and nothing in the act adds direct regulations on domestic animal breeders in the state.
Over the past several years, there has been a nationwide conversation among pet lovers about the ethics of puppy mills. At the center of the debate is the competition for owners between adoption/rescue groups, and breeders. According to the American Pet Products Association (APPA), 34% of currently owned dogs were raised by a breeder, as opposed to 23% coming from an animal shelter or other humane rescue group. Origination data is not entirely clear however, as the American Humane Association (AHA) and the American Veterinarian Medical Association (AVMA) put breeder-acquired ownership figures at less than 20%. Shelter-based ownership figures vary even more, with the AVMA putting the adoption population at 84.7% and the AHA estimating a 22% adoption population. Available figures for breeder-acquired cats are below 5%. While it is difficult to claim that adoption and rescue agencies are at a disadvantage for owners strictly because of breeder competition, the sheer number of pets in shelters (5-8 million dogs and cats) and getting euthanized every year (3-4 million dogs and cats), makes many wonder why people use breeders at all. Proponents of laws like California’s believe that people who buy breeder-bred animals could have instead adopted an animal from a shelter.
Another facet of the “puppy mill” debate is the living conditions in breeder facilites. Claims of animal cruelty plague the reputation of breeder businesses. Though breeder operations are governed by Federal USDA regulations and inspections, irresponsible breeders can evade these oversights and sell animals that have been bred improperly, leading to pets with physical and psychological ailments. Many times, these irresponsible breeders will focus on quantity, instead of quality of the animals (hence the term “mills”) possibly leading to poor health, abandonment, or even death of the animals. Since these disreputable breeders often sell to pet stores, instead of directly to screened buyers, laws like the one California just passed will likely serve as a significant deterrent for negligent breeders. However, some detractors of the bill say many cities statewide (including LA, San Diego, and San Francisco) already ban “mass breeding” and other unhealthy practices, so this new law is more likely to constrain the breeders who do not engage in these poor practices, yet sell to pet stores, than the irresponsible breeders.
Aside from animal welfare, steering potential pet owners and pet shops to animal shelters should benefit the state’s taxpayers. Publically run animal shelters cost the state approximately $300 million a year. If this law has its intended effects and decreases overcrowding in animal shelters, the state can accordingly decrease spending on housing, feeding, and servicing shelter animals. While California may pinch some pennies with decreased animal shelter populations, the breeding community may suffer economically under this bill. California has roughly 800 active breeders selling animals in the state. Even if only a small percentage are fully reliant on pet stores for income, that is still dozens of California’s workers being effectively forced out of a job under this law. However, some of this job loss may be offset by impacted breeders selling to out-of-state pet stores who do not have similar laws.
Though California’s new law was a key win for anti-puppy mill and animal welfare advocates, there are still some detractors. For example, this law may present challenges to those seeking specific breeds for their pet. Consumers may no longer easily get breed specific animals in pet stores, and specific breeds may become more costly. This might be particularly cumbersome for someone looking for a service animal of a particular breed best suited to help manage a condition. The American Kennel Club released a statement saying the law “not only interferes with individual freedoms, it also increases the likelihood that a person will obtain a pet that is not a good match for their lifestyle and the likelihood that that animal will end up in a shelter.” Further, this legislation may have the unintended consequence of increasing animal deaths and abandonment at puppy mills, because the mills no longer have access to their main customers. If the mills have not sold off all their animals by the 2019 effective date of this law, the animals may have nowhere to go. Breeders whose business is hurt as a consequence of this law may spend even less money on the care of the animals, or be forced to surrender the animals to a shelter. But given the delayed effective date of the law and the continued legality of breeder use by individual parties, the foreseeable issues will likely be negligible in light of the positive changes.
Since California passed this law, a Massachusetts lawmaker has also proposed a similar bill that would deter the practice of commercial breeding. Though California is the first state to pass this kind of prohibition, cities all over the country have been passing similar ordinances, so it is likely that states will follow suit if California’s law works as intended.