A growing body of evidence continues to point to secondhand smoke as the primary cause of certain kinds of cancers and other health problems in companion animals.
Dogs living with owners who smoke are at particular risk for lung and nasal cancers.
Cats trapped in smoke-filled environments are at risk for malignant lymphoma, a common feline cancer which in under a year takes the life of three out of every four cats that develop the fatal disease.
“The evidence is striking,” says Steven Hansen of the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center.
“Most veterinarians believe pretty strongly secondhand smoke presents a strong danger to dogs and cats with pre-existing respiratory problems,” he says.
“And extrapolating, why would you expose a healthy animal?”
Dr. Becker’s Comments:
It’s probably not a huge surprise to learn that just as human health is at risk from second and third-hand smoke, so is the well-being of four-legged family members in smoking households.
Cigarettes and other tobacco products contain deadly toxins, and toxins poison every living thing, including beloved companion animals.
I have personally witnessed the devastation pet parents feel when I inform them their precious pet has developed a cancer that is linked to exposure to cigarette smoke.
As a pet owner, it’s difficult enough to hear that your dog or cat is seriously ill.
But many people who learn it is their own bad habit or that of a family member that caused their pet’s illness, experience tremendous feelings of guilt on top of the anxiety and sadness that comes with caring for a very sick or dying pet.
Smoking-Related Cancer in Dogs
Your dog is aging about seven times faster than you are. Compared to the lifespan of humans, everything in your dog’s lifetime is sped up – including how quickly toxins act on his system and how fast diseases like cancer develop as a result.
Some breeds of dogs exposed to second and third-hand smoke are more prone to develop nasal cancers.
Dogs with long noses, like collies, German shepherds and most varieties of hounds, are more likely to develop tumors in their noses and sinuses than other breeds. Survivability rates for canine nasal cancer are dismal – most pups die within a year.
Symptoms of nasal cancer include sneezing, bloody nasal discharge, and swelling in the nose or sinus area.
Canine lung cancer from cigarette smoke occurs more often in short-nosed dogs like pugs, boxers, Pekinese and other brachycephalic breeds. Their shorter nasal passages allow more carcinogenic smoke particles to reach their lungs.
One study found that dogs living in smoky environments have a 60 percent greater risk of lung cancer. Chronic coughing, extreme fatigue and weight loss are some of the warning signs of lung cancer in canines.
Cats Get a Double Whammy from Cigarette Smoke
A Tufts University study concluded that cats living with smokers are twice as likely to get malignant lymphoma as kitties living in smoke-free homes.
Part of the reason for the increased risk is that in addition to inhaling tobacco smoke, cats also ingest the toxins from cigarettes when they groom themselves. Grooming activity moves carcinogens from your kitty’s fur into her mouth and bloodstream.
All pets in a smoking household are at some risk of developing disease, including birds. Birds are very sensitive to inhaled pollutants, and they can also be harmed by tobacco and nicotine residue on items (and people) in their environment.
It’s Not Just About the Smoky Air
There are other ways your dog, cat or other pet can be poisoned by tobacco products, including:
By eating any portion of a cigarette or cigar
By drinking water that is contaminated by a cigarette butt
By ingesting a stop-smoking aid like nicotine gum or a nicotine patch
Nicotine is toxic to pets, and eating a cigarette, chewing tobacco, or even just a portion of a cigar can be fatal.
Signs of nicotine poisoning include drooling, constricted pupils, vomiting, diarrhea, tremors, seizures and cardiac abnormalities. If you think your pet has ingested a nicotine product, call the Animal Poison Control Center at 888-426-4435 immediately and/or get him to a vet or emergency clinic right away.
How to Minimize Your Pet’s Exposure to Smoking Products
Don’t smoke inside your home or any place your pet spends a lot of time, and don’t allow others to poison your pet’s environment, either. Remember, it’s not just about contaminants in the air. Smoke particles cling to everything inside a home, so the rug your dog lies on, or the comforter your kitty naps on are coated with cigarette residue if people smoke indoors.
Don’t leave butts for your pet to find, in ashtrays, other receptacles, or on the ground.
Dispose of nicotine gum or patches appropriately.
After smoking, wash your hands before handling your pet. If your dog likes to snuggle in your lap, change to clothes you haven’t smoked in. If your kitty likes to rub his head against yours to claim you as his own, make sure he’s not being exposed to smoke particles clinging to your hair.
And finally, consider quitting. If you haven’t done it for the sake of your own health, maybe concern for the health of your furry best friend will be just the incentive you need to give up your smoking habit once and for all.
Electronic cigarettes – those battery-powered devices that simulate smoking – are becoming more common in households. And while some manufacturers are using childproof measures, this frequently doesn’t deter dogs and their urge to chew.
Nicotine toxicity is not a new toxicity, and whether from cigarettes, patches, insecticides or gum, the level of toxicity and signs seen remain the same.
Here are some factors that make e-cigs and the liquid nicotine with them different:
Potentially a high nicotine concentration of 1 to 10 percent
The product may often be poorly labeled
Liquid formation that means absorption more quickly for faster onset of signs, leaving less time for decontamination efforts
While carriers may be propylene glycol and glycerin, there have been reports of them containing diethylene glycol, which can cause acidosis and kidney injury
Products may be flavored, such as milkshake or chocolate, making them more attractive to pets
Nicotine acts on nicotinic acetylcholine receptors that are present in the autonomic nervous system. It causes an initial stimulation of the autonomic ganglia at lower doses and blocks them at higher doses.
The body systems most commonly involved are the CNS, cardiovascular system and gastrointestinal tract. Initially excitation, tachypnea, salivation, lacrimation, emesis, diarrhea may be seen clinically. Those can be followed by muscle weakness, twitching, depression, tachycardia, shallow, slow respiration, collapse, coma, cyanosis, cardiac arrest, death.
An investigation into the underworld of America’s overcrowded
dog farms, the secret shame of the pet industry.
Every year, tens of thousands of dogs are born into the filthy conditions in unregulated puppy mills nationwide. Amiee Stubbs
* * * * * * *
The house on Hilton Lake Road was unremarkable, a brick one-story with an under-watered lawn and a scrimshaw of patchy shrubs. It was flanked by bigger and smarter homes on a two-lane strip in Cabarrus County, 25 miles north of Charlotte, North Carolina, but nothing about it suggested to passersby that inconceivable cruelty lived at this address. It wasn’t till we opened the side-yard entrance that the horror inside announced itself. A stench of complex poisons pushed out: cat piss and dog shit and mold and bleach commingled into a cloud of raw ammonia that singed the hair in our nostrils. Twenty of us – blue-shirted staffers from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS); several members of their forensic camera crew; the sheriff of Cabarrus County and his deputies; and a contingent of veterinarians from a local animal hospital – tiptoed around the filth underfoot into a house caked in pet fur and waste. Damp laundry draped across every flat surface; the floor was a maze of cat crates and garbage. From somewhere in the house, we heard the howling of dogs, but they weren’t in the bedrooms or the tumbledown john or the kitchen piled high with dishes.
Then we found the door that led to the basement. Down there, dozens of puppies in dust-cloaked cages stood on their hind legs and bawled. There were Yorkies and poodles and Maltese mixes, but their fur was so matted and excrement-mottled it was hard to tell which from which. Bred for profit, most of them would have been sold in pet stores or on websites by their third or fourth month of life.
HSUS staffers had gathered evidence that the breeder, Patricia Yates, was selling puppies on multiple websites without a license, and had a stack of buyer complaints lodged against her. But it took a tip from an anonymous source to alert the Sheriff’s office to the scale of Yates’s operation. “We’d been out there before, but had no idea it was this severe,” says Lt. David Taylor, an animal-control cop who helped launch the investigation. Obtaining an arrest warrant was the least of it, though. When you bust an illegal kennel, you’re suddenly swamped with sick dogs, often double what had been reported. It took Taylor a month to coordinate with HSUS – the rare non-profit with the money and equipment to house and treat puppy-mill rescues – before launching the raid on Yates’s kennel.
Back up the stairs, we followed more barking to a porch bricked in by the owner. It was pitch-black inside, and the smell was a hammer. Here were the parent dogs in desperate shape: blinded by cataracts and corneal ulcers; their jaws half-gone or missing entirely after their teeth had rotted away. Some were so feeble they couldn’t stand erect; their paws were urine-scalded and their wrists were deformed from squatting on wire their entire lives.
Out the back door and up a dirt trail, the worst was yet to come. A cinder-block kennel, hidden from the street, housed the bulk of this puppy-mill stock: 50 or 60 more parent dogs who’d likely never seen sunlight or spent a day outside this toxic room. They wept and bayed and spun in crazed circles as we toured the maze of cages. Some went limp as the rescuers knelt to scoop them. Each was photographed, then carried downhill to the giant rig at the curb. There, teams of vets from the Cabarrus Animal Hospital worked briskly to assess each rescue. Once triaged and tagged, they were loaded into crates on the Humane Society’s mammoth truck, an 80-foot land-ship with clean-room conditions, and taken to a staging shelter. One hundred and five dogs came out of that house, many of them pregnant or in heat. I turned to John Goodwin, the director of the puppy-mills campaign for HSUS, and asked him how many puppies sold in this country – at Petland and Citipups and a thousand other pet stores – come from puppy mills as dire as this one.
“Most every pup sold in stores in America comes from this kind of suffering – or worse,” he insists. “If you buy a puppy from a pet store, this is what you’re paying for and nothing else: a dog raised in puppy-mill evil.” The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals posts a database of pet shops for consumers to check before they buy. Input any ZIP code and you’ll see the list of stores that sell pups rather than offer them for adoption. That vastly ups the chances that the dogs are from mills, not from reputable breeders. Another click shows you ghastly shots of the mills those stores buy dogs from. Those pictures weren’t taken by animal-rights zealots, but by United States Department of Agriculture agents who inspect breeding kennels. Pet stores usually buy their dogs from federally licensed breeders, meaning kennels with five or more breeding females that breed a lot of pups. “Puppy mills house breeding dogs in small, wire-floored cages, separate puppies from their mothers at a very young age, and ship them hundreds of miles to pet stores around the country,” says Matt Bershadker, president and CEO of the ASPCA. (Both Petland and Citipups deny they sell mill dogs, but reams of evidence and buyer complaints collected by HSUS argue otherwise.)
Yates was arrested and charged with animal cruelty. (Twelve counts were filed against her; a hearing is scheduled for February.) Yates was outraged; I heard her exclaim that “these dogs are the love of my life!” That evening, I caught up with Sára Varsa, the senior director of operations for animal rescue at HSUS. Varsa, a veteran of 50 animal-welfare raids, was quarterbacking the care of those hundred-plus dogs at a temporary shelter in a warehouse. When told what Yates had said, Varsa pointed to two poodles, both of them desperately underfed. Delicately, she lifted the male from the crate and put him, trembling, in my arms. He was blind in both eyes and had thumb-size infections where his molars used to be. “Is this how you treat the dogs you love?” said Varsa. “Is this how you raise your beautiful babies?”
Since dogs first crossed the Siberian land bridge and set foot in human encampments in North America, they have been much more than pets and companions to us – they made life tenable in this primal place. They chased off wolves and bears while we slept, caught and retrieved the game we ate, and dined on the garbage we left behind. Over the course of 10 millennia, a bond was forged between species that hunkered together for survival. (Early tribes survived subzero cold by sleeping beneath their dogs – hence the term “three-dog night.”) It took most of those millennia to truly domesticate dogs – they lived largely outdoors till the 1970s, in those quaint addenda called doghouses. Once inside the door, though, they were in for good, to be loved and spoiled like toddlers. The number of pet dogs in America boomed between 1970 and today, tripling to almost 80 million. Pet-shop commerce boomed in tandem, from practically nothing in the Fifties to nearly $65 billion in 2015. Where once you adopted your pup from the neighbors, now there is a Furry Paws down the block with dozens of designer puppies in the window.
Of course, in America, we industrialize anything that turns a profit. Beginning in the 1950s, struggling pig and poultry farmers began breeding puppies for extra income. “It was a cheap and easy fix: You just converted your coops into indoor-outdoor kennels,” says Bob Baker, the executive director of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation. Baker, an animal activist for 40 years and a walking encyclopedia on the commercial dog business – he’s been a senior investigator for the ASPCA and the HSUS – watched the trade evolve from a mom-and-pop sideline into a multinational behemoth. “Pups cost nothing to raise, you’d sell them for $50 a head in town, and every five months you had a whole new litter – then dozens, as the puppies began breeding,” he says. What followed was a 40-year explosion of puppy mills, which are defined by HSUS as commercial kennels where profit counts more than the dogs’ well-being.
There are, by HSUS’s estimate, about 10,000 puppy mills in America, though the organization concedes that no one knows the real number: It’s an industry born and raised in shadows. The USDA only licenses a fraction of all kennels, about 2,500 of various sizes, which can range from five adult breed dogs to more than a thousand. States also license and inspect kennels, accounting for another 2,500 breed sites that aren’t registered with the feds, says Kathleen Summers, the director of outreach and research for HSUS’s puppy-mills campaign. “But in rural communities, there are thousands of backyard kennels selling online and evading government regulation.” A breeder only needs a federal license if he or she sells the dogs sight unseen, i.e., through a middleman like a pet store or a puppy broker. But if the seller deals directly with the puppy’s buyer, either selling face to face, through classified ads or, increasingly, via pop-up websites, there is little or no oversight of their business.
Three years ago, the USDA passed an amendment requiring online sellers to get federally licensed, which would submit them to annual inspections and standard-of-care rules. At the time, the department expected thousands of breeders to step forward and comply with the law; to date, less than 300 have. When asked about sellers who disregard the law, Tanya Espinosa, a USDA spokeswoman, says, “It is virtually impossible for us to monitor the Internet for breeders. . . . [We] rely heavily on the public and their complaints.” Good luck with that: Open your browser, type a breed in your state and thousands of websites appear. All claim to be local, loving and humane. Far too often, they are none of the above.
“If you ask to see their property and they say, ‘Let’s meet in a parking lot,’ you’re likely dealing with a puppy-miller,” says Kathy McGriff, a reputable ex-breeder of clumber spaniels who kept a close eye on her trade while she was breeding. “And if you want to write a check but they only take PayPal, you’re dealing with a puppy-miller.” As a rule, she says, breeders who are even the least bit evasive are millers raising dogs in deplorable places. “Reputable breeders don’t deal in volume, and we only sell to people we’ve checked out. It’s the most basic rule in our code of ethics: Never sell a puppy sight unseen.”
With dog sales, as with any commodity of late, the Internet has been the great disrupter. The HSUS estimates that roughly half of the 2 million pups bred in mills are sold in stores these days; the rest are trafficked online. The number of stores that still sell puppies has cratered over the course of the past decade, as groups like HSUS, the ASPCA and CAPS (Companion Animal Protection Society) have conducted stings of high-priced stores across the country and found them packed with sick puppies from Midwest mills. “We filmed undercover, got endless tape of purebreds in terrible shape, and followed up on buyer complaints,” says Deborah Howard, the founder and president of CAPS. Howard sends investigators out to infiltrate mills, exposes the stores that do business with those breeders, and coordinates with advocates across the country to ban the retail sale of puppies in big cities. “We’ve got reams of complaints from people with sick puppies, and they all say it was an impulse buy,” says Howard. “I mean, a dog is a commitment for 15 years – at least Google-search the seller for complaints.”
• • •
Given the duress in which mill pups enter the world and make their way to the stores – birthed by sick and stressed-out moms; snatched from their litters at eight weeks of age and loaded onto trucks for the hours-long drive to the next stop in the supply chain, puppy brokers; kept in a warehouse with hundreds of other pups, many of them sick with respiratory problems or infections of the eyes and ears; then again trucked with dozens of those dogs for the one- or two-day drive to distant states – it’s remarkable that any of them survive the gantlet, let alone turn up well. Puppy brokers are wholesalers who buy from breeders, keep a running stock of dozens of breeds, then sell and ship the pups for a hefty markup.
The biggest of those brokers, the now-defunct Hunte Corporation, professionalized the trade in the Nineties. They bought up other brokers, made large investments in equipment, trucks and drivers, and moved thousands of dogs a month from their facility in Goodman, Missouri. “I saw tons of sick puppies – vomiting blood, blowing diarrhea – that Hunte bought in that condition from breeders,” says “Pete,” an undercover investigator for CAPS who worked at Hunte in 2004. “Of the 2,000 pups they’d have on-site, hundreds were in their ‘hospital’ getting antibiotics. A day or two later, they’d load ’em on 18-wheelers and send them, still sick, to the stores.”
Per CAPS reporting, the dogs who proved too sick to sell went back on a truck to Missouri; Hunte buried the dead ones out behind its plant. In 2003, state inspectors in Missouri cited Hunte for dumping more than 1,000 pounds of dead puppies per year – the maximum allowed under Missouri law – in its back yard. Not that Missouri is an outlier in the disposal of sick and dead dogs. In Pennsylvania, two breeders shot 80 Shih Tzus and cocker spaniels rather than provide veterinary care. (Many millers prefer small breeds now; they’re popular in cities, sell for top dollar, and are cheaper to feed, house and ship.) In Kansas, a breeder had to put down 1,200 dogs after failing to inoculate them for distemper.
The USDA has exactly one law to govern the care and housing of commercial dogs. The Animal Welfare Act (AWA), enacted in 1966, sets down the barest standards for breeders. Dogs, per the AWA, can be kept their entire lives in crates inches bigger than their bodies. They can be denied social contact with other dogs, bred as many times as they enter heat, then killed and dumped in a ditch whenever their uterus shrivels. We have millions of dogs on our streets, put down two million of them every year – and impose no limits on the number of dogs millers can breed. In England, by contrast, you need a license to breed even a single dog – and only 5,000 were euthanized in 2015.
“There’s this gross disconnect between our feelings for dogs and the way we guard them from abuse,” says Wayne Pacelle, the president and CEO of HSUS. “The USDA has a total of 100 inspectors to inspect thousands of breeders in 50 states.” But they also have to inspect every zoo, circus and lab that uses animals for research testing. “We’ve been petitioning them for decades to improve the law – require bigger crates for breed dogs, give them access to outdoor dog runs and much prompter vet care when they’re sick – but they can’t even enforce the bad law on their books,” says Pacelle. An internal audit in the USDA indicated as much. Per a scathing report in 2010 by its Office of Inspector General, the department chose to prioritize “education” of breeders over punishment, “took little or no enforcement action against most violators,” failed to respond to “repeat violations,” and collected insufficient evidence in the few prosecutions it brought against criminal breeders.
The USDA oversees thousands of licensees nationwide with a yearly budget of about $28 million. “For perspective, the Defense Department spends the equivalent of our budget every 25 minutes,” says Espinosa, the USDA spokeswoman. “Our dedicated personnel conduct roughly 10,000 unannounced inspections annually and work diligently to enforce the AWA.” And what has that enforcement produced by way of penalties? Less than $4 million in fines over the past two years, a dozen or so breeders forced to turn in their licenses – and exactly none handed over for prosecution. Not the miller in Iowa who threatened to stab an inspector with a syringe and confessed that he shot a dog in the head while his girlfriend held it down. Not a fellow Iowan who threw a bag of dead puppies at an inspector. In fact, just a handful of breeders on HSUS’s Horrible Hundred list – compiled every year from public records of chronic offenders – have been put out of business. And none of them have been made to answer in court for their proven mistreatment of dogs.
• • •
For weeks after the raid, I kept in touch with Sára Varsa, HSUS’s rescue team director, for updates on the poodle she’d let me hold. Pollo, as the staff called him (he high-stepped like a chicken), had somehow pulled through after multiple surgeries at the Cabarrus Animal Clinic. The vet removed his right eye, which was all but useless after a long-untreated rupture; pulled his few remaining teeth; and sealed a gaping fissure in what was left of his upper jaw. Even after all that, though, Pollo bounced right up, relieved to suddenly be in less pain. “The only time he cried was when we took his little girlfriend to be seen by the vet,” says Varsa, referring to the toy poodle who’d shared his cage. “They’d been together so long, they were like an old couple. He sobbed and shook while she was gone.”
Heather Seifel, the clinic administrator, brought him home till she could match him with an adopter. She took him outside and set him down in her yard; he’d no clue what to do with himself on grass. That trepidation is common to mill survivors, she says, the “weirdness of ‘What do I do now, now that I can finally be a dog?’ ”
Weeks before, I’d heard essentially the same words from a man named Wes Eden, whose family runs a boarding barn, the Lone Star Dog Ranch, near McKinney, Texas. Eden is a devotional rescuer of dogs whose methods make other advocates queasy. Each year, he saves dozens of breeding dogs by buying them, for top dollar, at puppy auctions, where millers “sell each other their trash,” says Eden. There used to be dozens of places to get unwanted dogs for a price. But after HSUS staged raids in several states, the ranks of the auction sites shrank to just a handful – two of them in the state of Missouri. It was at the bigger of the two, Southwest Auction Services, that I observed Eden in action one obscenely hot Saturday in early September. A tall young man with an artisanal beard and a crown of kohl-black hair, he was bidding on French bulldogs that were battered and sick after eight or nine years of being bred. Not that they came cheap: Bulldogs are prized these days, and as long as “they’ve still got a couple of litters left,” someone was going to bid them up, Eden says.
The auction was held in a hangar-size warehouse in the blink-and-you’ve-missed-it town of Wheaton, Missouri. HSUS’s Goodwin and I had flown in that weekend to watch several hundred people buy and sell breed stock to one another. Everyone was white, and almost everyone middle-aged. The mood in the room was church-fair festive; the breeders chatted convivially when not engaged in the bidding. One by one, some 300 dogs were placed on a table and sold. Their crates were stacked in an uncooled space in the walled-off half of the warehouse. It was stifling back there, and the air unbreathable from the waste of unwell dogs. “I saw dogs with stomach hernias and bleeding rectums and ears rotted off from hematomas,” says Eden. Each time the door opened and a dog was brought in, the stench would funnel in with her. It mixed with the aroma of pork-belly tacos that were sold in heaping bowls at the concession stand behind us and were lapped up hungrily by the crowd. From a dais, two auctioneers called out bids while touting the dogs’ untapped value. “She’s a 2012 model and showin’ a belly; she’ll work hard for you!” (One of those auctioneers – Southwest’s owner, Bob Hughes – defended the dogs’ health over the phone to me, saying they had “imperfections like all of us do,” but had been cross-checked by Hughes’ vet before he sold them. “If [the vet] thinks they’re at risk of suffering, we return them to their breeder or give them to rescue groups, free of charge,” he said. But neither Eden nor any of his rescue group peers have ever seen or heard of Hughes adopting out dogs. “He’s certainly never offered one to me,” says Eden.)
On that day, at least, the issue was moot: all 300 dogs were sold. “I spent everything I brought there – $60,000 – and cleared three tables of dogs,” says Eden, who raises all his buy money from small donations online. Twenty-one dogs went off in his van for the six-hour ride back to Texas. Once back at his boarding barn, they were swiftly seen by vets; many required costly operations. All the money for those surgeries – $1,000 to fix a hernia; a couple of thousand dollars for sedation and an MRI – came from Lone Star’s donors. Eden has a waiting list for every rescue, a pool of people ready to roll up their sleeves for the complex needs these dogs present. “Some of ’em have to be taught to walk and climb stairs – they’ve never taken a full stride in those cages,” says Eden. Asked why he seeks out the oldest, saddest dogs, he says, “If they don’t deserve happy endings, who does?”
But Eden, for all his fervor, is derided by groups like HSUS. They accuse outfits like his – I counted at least three at the auction – of putting blood money into the pockets of the breeders. “That 60 grand he spent will buy a lot of new breed stock – for every dog he saved, dozens will suffer,” groused Goodwin. Eden concedes the point, but won’t back up an inch. “Look at the faces of these dogs,” he says. “How can you deny them?”
Other grassroots groups use different tactics to bring down puppy mills. Some take to social media, building Facebook pages around graphic photos and pleas to spread the word. Then there are street warriors who picket pet stores, some with stunning results. Mindi Callison, a young schoolteacher in Ames, Iowa, formed Bailing Out Benji six years ago, and has recruited countless students from Iowa State to protest with her. Callison tells me about a local pet-shop owner who “used to have dozens of pups in his window; now he sells two or three a month.” At first, she got flamed by furious millers. Then, to her shock, a few quietly reached out, asking if she’d take their used-up dogs. “This year alone, they’ve given up almost 100, and we don’t pay a cent,” says Callison. They call her, she says, not out of charity, but to avoid the cost of euthanization.
• • •
For better than 50 years, the state of Missouri has been the Bermuda Triangle of dogs. The perfect landscape for breeders – small farms that weren’t bought by agri-giants; vast swaths of plains between its two major cities; and a live-and-let-live ethos in flyspeck towns – it has long been the number-one state in the nation for licensed operators. It also has one of America’s strictest dog laws: the Canine Cruelty Prevention Act of 2011. Enacted after a bitter, and expensive, battle over a ballot measure called Prop B, the law shines a light on the intractable problem of policing puppy-millers. When the act came in, it improved the lot of breed dogs – tripling their crate size, granting them annual vet checks, and providing money for stricter enforcement by state agents. Its rules have driven hundreds of commercial breeders out of business. There were 1,414 in 2010; now, there are 844.
With no movement in Washington to toughen federal rules, the law suggested a possible path forward: to mount ballot drives in farm states. But just five years after it took effect, Missouri’s dog law seems to have lost its teeth. Prosecutions have fallen, the number of licenses pulled has tanked and egregious breeders are breaking the rules and paying little or nothing in fines. A spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Agriculture insists that “the number of [disciplinary] referrals has decreased because the majority of breeders have fallen under compliance,” but the state predominates the HSUS Horrible Hundred list. In 2016, almost a third of the kennels that made the list were located in Missouri.
Six months ago, Kristin Akin bought a goldendoodle from a notorious puppy mill called Cornerstone Farms. Akin is a St. Louis mom who’d lost two small children to a rare immune disorder eight months apart. Last June, she went online to find a puppy companion for her young dog. She came across a website that sold pups from Cornerstone; it purported to be a local and loving kennel that bred show dogs and kept high standards. Akin asked about a puppy depicted wearing a pink bow. She was told, via text, to make a deposit. “It was a total impulse buy – I offered to drive right over,” says Akin. “They texted, ‘No, we’re coming up your way tomorrow.’ ” The next morning, she sat in a mall parking lot; a filthy brown conversion van pulled up alongside her. A door slid open, but instead of a four-month pup, out came a cowering, full-grown dog that wouldn’t look up when Akin stroked her.
Stunned, Akin took the dog home for a bath. Her legs were covered with scabs and both ears were badly infected; she had explosive diarrhea for a week. Akin kept the dog, filed a complaint with the state, and went public with her story about the breeder, Debra Ritter. “We found 11 straight years of state violations, including a bunch that were issued just before we drove out there – but zero fines paid to the [Missouri] Department of Ag,” says Chris Hayes, a Fox reporter who interviewed Ritter and aired two stories in St. Louis. Ritter, in a rambling phone chat in which she name-checks the Lord and cites him for her decision to adopt 22 kids, some with special needs, denies to me that she sold sick dogs, just the “occasional” puppy with worms. She explains that she and her husband had quit jobs to become breeders so they could stay home with their kids who were chronically ill. “These animal-rights crazies say we abuse our dogs – but I don’t see them adopting kids,” she says.
As for the violations, those were “nuisance charges” that she resolved before the inspector drove away, she says. “We Ritters aren’t perfect, but I have a great reputation for never cheating customers or causing vet bills.” Not according to Yelp, which is littered with posts from people who bought her sick pups, or the Horrible Hundred list, where Cornerstone Farms made the 2015 edition. Meanwhile, the website is still posting photos of the “puppy” Ritter sold to Akin. “I had two friends contact her by text,” says Akin. “They were told she was available.”
What sets Ritter apart isn’t her brazen conduct or a trail of heartsick buyers; the difference between her and most online sellers is you can actually find her on a map. “Websites give no clue about where a breeder’s based – a lot of the time, you can’t even get their name,” says the HSUS’s Summers. They hide behind sites like puppyspot.com, a huge Web broker that sells many breeders’ dogs out of its call-center office in Florida. In 2011, a lawsuit filed in part by HSUS claimed that the company (which was then called purebredbreeders.com) used roughly 800 domain names to lure buyers into thinking they were purchasing puppies “from quality, responsible breeders.” Instead, “we found puppy-millers with USDA violations,” says Kimberly Ockene, an attorney for HSUS. A Florida judge dismissed it as a jointly filed suit, and a subsequent ruling forced the buyers of sick dogs to either re-file individually or drop the matter. Still, says Ockene, “we’ve had success in some cases. Litigation can be [an] effective tool for combating the puppy-mill problem.” (A representative from puppyspot.com declined to participate in the reporting for this story.)
In short, online dog sales is the perfect crime. Courts don’t care about out-of-state victims, and the feds don’t even fine breeders, much less arrest them, for selling sick pups on bogus sites. Any amateur can do this out of his or her basement and make good, steady money for years. A prime example: Patricia Yates, the miller in North Carolina whose dogs were seized in the Cabarrus County raid. With no license or bona fides from a purebred club, she’d supported herself for years on the profits from her kennel. She might have gone on indefinitely were it not for Lt. Taylor, the Cabarrus County cop who brought her down. “Unfortunately, the laws aren’t what they could be in this state, so all we could charge were misdemeanors,” says Taylor. (Yates’ attorney, Benjamin Goff, says he is weighing “a plea deal that involves no jail time for my client.”) “But our target,” Taylor says, “is that she never has animals again, and pays back every dime the Humane Society spent to treat those dogs and find them homes.”
The HSUS expects to spend at least $100,000 on the raid, most of it for medical costs. That’s actually on the low end for post-raid outlays. Yates yielded custody of her stock to HSUS, which allowed it to quickly disperse the dogs to animal-adoption groups around the state. “There are cases where we have to hold the dogs for months because they’re bargaining chips for the miller – they trade them in exchange for dropped charges,” says Goodwin. There’s the occasional fine and suspended sentence; in rare cases, someone goes to jail. “These people should be in prison, but that won’t end the problem,” he says. “The only way you end it is choke its blood supply: Stop buying purebred dogs, and adopt one instead.” Thanks to intense pressure from animal advocates like HSUS, Petco and Petsmart – the twin behemoths of the trade, with roughly half its total income – have stopped doing in-store sales of dogs, and feature rescue adoptions instead. The website Petfinder.com, a network of rescue groups, posts tens of thousands of dogs for adoption, many of them rescued pure breeds. There, you can find any breed you like – or would buy in a store that sells dogs. The difference, says Goodwin, “is these dogs are healthy,” and won’t cost you thousands in vet bills.
Of the 105 dogs relinquished by Yates, all but two survived. Pollo, the tiny poodle, succumbed to a stroke just a month into his new lease on life. “I hand-fed him meals and wrapped him in a blanket, but he’d been through too much,” says Brenda Tortoreo, a receptionist at the Cabarrus Animal Hospital, who’d adopted him and renamed him Kip. Tortoreo, who has a pair of older dogs, adopted a second poodle from the raid. Bebe is a couple of years younger than Kip, but no less rabid for affection. For the first two weeks, she wouldn’t leave the bedroom except in her owner’s arms. Now, she gobbles up the other dogs’ breakfasts and steals their small stuffed toys. Dragging them to her daybed, she nuzzles and turns them like the puppies she’s birthed and nursed. “We love her to pieces, but cry for Kip a lot,” says Tortoreo. “I’m so sad I didn’t save him years ago. He got to feel some kindness for those few short weeks. I just hope, wherever he is now, he’ll forgive us.”