‘Those dogs are terrified.’ Puppy mills can leave lasting damage, animal advocates say. But they aren’t banned by any province

 Kim Kearns says she will never forget what she saw as she walked inside the 100-year-old barn.She remembers stopping in her tracks. The person behind her tapped her on the shoulder to urge her to keep moving.The barn was roughly 30 by 20 metres, no heating or air conditioning — and was filled wall to wall with 180 dogs.It was dim inside. Kearns couldn’t see any food or water bowls, but the floor was covered in dog feces.“The dogs had never seen the light of day,” Kearns says.Kearns, a former cruelty inspector with Cambridge Humane Society, was called to the scene alongside 35 other volunteers, in Vaughan, Ont., in 2001.The “all hands on deck” call was for one of the largest puppy mills Canada has ever seen.Puppy mills are commercial breeder sites where dogs are kept in unsanitary and often cramped conditions. Mills prioritize increasing profits, rather than a standard of care for the animals. The results can be heartbreaking.Donna Power, co-founder of Stop the Mills, says there was a “huge increase” in puppies being sold online during the COVID-19 pandemic.“The prices for the puppies went up exponentially,” says Power.In 2011, Toronto became the second city in Canada, following Richmond, B.C., to ban the sale in pet stores of puppies from puppy mills. But that doesn’t mean they’ve gone away. Currently, mills are not banned by any provincial government. There are about 2,000 puppy mills across Canada, with the majority of mills in Ontario and Quebec, according to the not-for-profit group Legal Line.Humane Canada estimates the number is in the thousands but there are no definitive statistics.Laura Pelkey, founder of Riverview Rescues, says she has “definitely” seen an increase in puppy mills, especially in the Ottawa Valley’s Whitewater region, since 2020.Pelkey says she frequently receives messages from members in her community in Whitewater about suspected mills.“People contact me after they’ve bought their sick dog. They tell me about the conditions the dog was in … They believe that rescuers have the power to shut these mills down, and unfortunately, we don’t.”The rise of the mills has in part been blamed on the use of the internet to advertise and sell puppies. While the farm puppy mill that Kearns remembers may have been 20 years ago, she says the situation in Canada is not improving.“I couldn’t even imagine being a cruelty inspector now, because I think it’s a lot of pressure on them and they just don’t have enough resources.”Power was recently involved with the rescue of 38 dogs found at a puppy mill in Palmer Rapids, west of Ottawa. She assisted in fundraising for vet bills, which are expected to cost $60,000.The dogs were in “horrendous conditions,” some living outside in the snow with no shelter, or in cages filled with feces.“It’s a terrible, terrible stain on our province,” Power says.A puppy mill is not defined by the number of animals.Puppy mill owners are breeding dogs solely for profit, and dogs are seen as commodities. They do not care which dogs are bred together or the animal’s health, which is why mill puppies are often sick or have genetic problems.A breeder could breed a lot of animals, but proper breeding is very expensive and typically the standard of care is lowered with the more dogs you have.The mill sites can lead to numerous medical issues for dogs. One common illness is canine parvovirus, more commonly known as parvo, which can be fatal.Parvo is highly contagious and can spread through direct contact with a sick dog or contaminated objects such as feces, food, water and kennels. Due to the unsanitary conditions of puppy mills, dogs can easily contract parvo and spread it. Young puppies under four months old and unvaccinated dogs are most at risk.Puppy mill dogs can also suffer from heart disease, respiratory diseases and anatomical abnormalities, such as the lower jaw being too short, due to inbreeding, says Dr. Michael J. Blackwell, a veterinarian who works at the University of Tennessee. Mills also cause behavioural problems, because the dogs do not receive the socialization and exposure they need to develop properly.Irith Bloom, a dog trainer and founder of The Sophisticated Dog in Los Angeles, has worked with adult dogs that have been rescued from puppy mills.“Those dogs are generally terrified of the entire world because they get even less socialization than puppies. They spent their entire life in a metal cage with metal bars under their feet, basically defecating right where they are.”Despite the significant amount of problems puppy mills pose for animal welfare, the mills themselves are legal, though owners can be charged with violating animal cruelty laws. Under the Criminal Code of Canada, pet owners may be charged with animal cruelty if they fail or neglect to provide their animals with adequate shelter, food, water and care.There are no inspections, so mill owners generally are only found and charged with animal cruelty if a person reports the mill to law enforcement. In addition, provincial laws and municipal bylaws require breeders to obtain a permit to breed animals, which limits the number of animals a person is allowed to own.But there are no specific federal or provincial laws regarding puppy mills.“The bottom line (is) that under the law, animals are property. So it is legal for people to sell animals like this,” says Victoria Shroff, one of the first and longest-serving animal-law lawyers in Canada.“The lack of legal protections basically means that people can do what they want, how they want, if they want, with their animals.”Shroff says Canada would need to see puppy mills banned at the federal level. That way puppy mill owners could not simply move to a different province to continue their operation.Shroff calls this the “cruelty loophole.”If someone is going to choose to buy an animal online, it is important to know the red flags or signs of a puppy mill.“Either you or someone you know should go visit the facility and see what it’s like,” Bloom says. “And if they won’t let you visit the dogs, if they won’t let you come see the puppies, that in itself is a red flag.”However, the most impactful way to stop puppy mills is to stop buying animals, especially those sold online.Many animal rescue workers and advocates alike urge the public to “adopt, don’t shop.”Pelkey says some may be hesitant to adopt a dog from a rescue or shelter because people may not know what to expect with a rescue dog.“Rescues put their heart and souls into ensuring that they get the proper family for the proper dog.”She says she encourages adoption because rescues support families even after adoption, unlike puppy mills and backyard breeders who “get the money and move on.” Shroff, through her Canadian Animal Law Study Group, works to make sure animals are treated like family members, rather than commodities.“We don’t buy family members, we adopt them.”Kate Carveth is a reporter based in Milton, Ont. 

Kim Kearns says she will never forget what she saw as she walked inside the 100-year-old barn.

She remembers stopping in her tracks. The person behind her tapped her on the shoulder to urge her to keep moving.

The barn was roughly 30 by 20 metres, no heating or air conditioning — and was filled wall to wall with 180 dogs.

It was dim inside. Kearns couldn’t see any food or water bowls, but the floor was covered in dog feces.

“The dogs had never seen the light of day,” Kearns says.

Kearns, a former cruelty inspector with Cambridge Humane Society, was called to the scene alongside 35 other volunteers, in Vaughan, Ont., in 2001.

The “all hands on deck” call was for one of the largest puppy mills Canada has ever seen.

Puppy mills are commercial breeder sites where dogs are kept in unsanitary and often cramped conditions. Mills prioritize increasing profits, rather than a standard of care for the animals. The results can be heartbreaking.

Donna Power, co-founder of Stop the Mills, says there was a “huge increase” in puppies being sold online during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The prices for the puppies went up exponentially,” says Power.

In 2011, Toronto became the second city in Canada, following Richmond, B.C., to ban the sale in pet stores of puppies from puppy mills. But that doesn’t mean they’ve gone away.

Currently, mills are not banned by any provincial government. There are about 2,000 puppy mills across Canada, with the majority of mills in Ontario and Quebec, according to the not-for-profit group Legal Line.

Humane Canada estimates the number is in the thousands but there are no definitive statistics.

Laura Pelkey, founder of Riverview Rescues, says she has “definitely” seen an increase in puppy mills, especially in the Ottawa Valley’s Whitewater region, since 2020.

Pelkey says she frequently receives messages from members in her community in Whitewater about suspected mills.

“People contact me after they’ve bought their sick dog. They tell me about the conditions the dog was in … They believe that rescuers have the power to shut these mills down, and unfortunately, we don’t.”

The rise of the mills has in part been blamed on the use of the internet to advertise and sell puppies. While the farm puppy mill that Kearns remembers may have been 20 years ago, she says the situation in Canada is not improving.

“I couldn’t even imagine being a cruelty inspector now, because I think it’s a lot of pressure on them and they just don’t have enough resources.”

Power was recently involved with the rescue of 38 dogs found at a puppy mill in Palmer Rapids, west of Ottawa. She assisted in fundraising for vet bills, which are expected to cost $60,000.

The dogs were in “horrendous conditions,” some living outside in the snow with no shelter, or in cages filled with feces.

“It’s a terrible, terrible stain on our province,” Power says.

A puppy mill is not defined by the number of animals.

Puppy mill owners are breeding dogs solely for profit, and dogs are seen as commodities. They do not care which dogs are bred together or the animal’s health, which is why mill puppies are often sick or have genetic problems.

A breeder could breed a lot of animals, but proper breeding is very expensive and typically the standard of care is lowered with the more dogs you have.

The mill sites can lead to numerous medical issues for dogs. One common illness is canine parvovirus, more commonly known as parvo, which can be fatal.

Parvo is highly contagious and can spread through direct contact with a sick dog or contaminated objects such as feces, food, water and kennels. Due to the unsanitary conditions of puppy mills, dogs can easily contract parvo and spread it. Young puppies under four months old and unvaccinated dogs are most at risk.

Puppy mill dogs can also suffer from heart disease, respiratory diseases and anatomical abnormalities, such as the lower jaw being too short, due to inbreeding, says Dr. Michael J. Blackwell, a veterinarian who works at the University of Tennessee. Mills also cause behavioural problems, because the dogs do not receive the socialization and exposure they need to develop properly.

Irith Bloom, a dog trainer and founder of The Sophisticated Dog in Los Angeles, has worked with adult dogs that have been rescued from puppy mills.

“Those dogs are generally terrified of the entire world because they get even less socialization than puppies. They spent their entire life in a metal cage with metal bars under their feet, basically defecating right where they are.”

Despite the significant amount of problems puppy mills pose for animal welfare, the mills themselves are legal, though owners can be charged with violating animal cruelty laws.

Under the Criminal Code of Canada, pet owners may be charged with animal cruelty if they fail or neglect to provide their animals with adequate shelter, food, water and care.

There are no inspections, so mill owners generally are only found and charged with animal cruelty if a person reports the mill to law enforcement.

In addition, provincial laws and municipal bylaws require breeders to obtain a permit to breed animals, which limits the number of animals a person is allowed to own.

But there are no specific federal or provincial laws regarding puppy mills.

“The bottom line (is) that under the law, animals are property. So it is legal for people to sell animals like this,” says Victoria Shroff, one of the first and longest-serving animal-law lawyers in Canada.

“The lack of legal protections basically means that people can do what they want, how they want, if they want, with their animals.”

Shroff says Canada would need to see puppy mills banned at the federal level. That way puppy mill owners could not simply move to a different province to continue their operation.

Shroff calls this the “cruelty loophole.”

If someone is going to choose to buy an animal online, it is important to know the red flags or signs of a puppy mill.

“Either you or someone you know should go visit the facility and see what it’s like,” Bloom says. “And if they won’t let you visit the dogs, if they won’t let you come see the puppies, that in itself is a red flag.”

However, the most impactful way to stop puppy mills is to stop buying animals, especially those sold online.

Many animal rescue workers and advocates alike urge the public to “adopt, don’t shop.”

Pelkey says some may be hesitant to adopt a dog from a rescue or shelter because people may not know what to expect with a rescue dog.

“Rescues put their heart and souls into ensuring that they get the proper family for the proper dog.”

She says she encourages adoption because rescues support families even after adoption, unlike puppy mills and backyard breeders who “get the money and move on.”

Shroff, through her Canadian Animal Law Study Group, works to make sure animals are treated like family members, rather than commodities.

“We don’t buy family members, we adopt them.”

Kate Carveth is a reporter based in Milton, Ont.

 

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