Business Ethics: Puppy Mills vs. Prolific Breeders Is There a Difference?

The issue of what makes a good breeder has been near and dear to my heart. I have had a phenomenal breeder who was like a silent-partner and extra source of health information in the raising and caring of my dogs throughout their lives.  Yet, with all I know, I too have had horrible experiences with a problematic breeder (from being denied access to visit the pups and mom after having flown to her country to see them, to failing to fulfill sales promise and not reimbursing the financial costs I had incurred to rectify her mistakes, to failure to share critical health information when a littermate died from auto-immune disorder at 18 months, to her failure to comply with KC procedures on type of registration).   These two breeders in my life exemplify the extreme opposites of the types registered breeders of registered purebred dogs.

To help friends and clients who are interested in getting a puppy, I have developed a list of questions that may help identify some red flags so the individual may be better informed and avoid unethical breeders.  Yet there seems to be quite the range of people who have puppies available for sale: from backyard breeders, to the occasional breeder of registered dogs who have been health tested and extensive research into the lineage of the parents, to prolific breeding kennels with health-testing and registrations, to puppy mills. 

The question is: how do you know if the breeder is an ethical breeder?

The gold standard is the “reputable breeder” who occasionally breeds registered dogs who have been health tested, there has been extensive research into the lineage of the parents, and both structure and temperament are considered of both parents when choosing mates.  These individuals spend a lot of time supporting the physical, mental and emotional development of each puppy and invest a lot of time, energy and money into the physical, mental and emotional support of the mother. They have an intensive selection process as they want to ensure a good home for their puppies.  These breeders might break-even with sale of the puppies, but none of them do it for the money. They may even feel quite ambivalent about charging or receiving funds.  I deem these breeders the gold standard from an ethical perspective, because their ultimate guiding principle is to: do no harm, and improve the quality of life for their breed of choice.

So if that’s the gold standard from an ethical perspective, it is clear that puppy mills are clearly unethical breeders as they do incur harm on the dogs (parents and pups) and society (via costs of surrendered dogs, and dogs with significant health and behavioral problems).   However, I wanted to figure out the difference between puppy mills and prolific breeding kennels, so I looked up the definition of puppy mills:

 “an establishment that breeds puppies for sale, typically on an intensive basis and in conditions regarded as inhumane.”

Oxford Dictionaries

So what is inhumane and what is intensive?  These are not as clearly defined, and this is where the prolific breeding kennels and puppy mills may blur together or separate into distinct entities.

Intensive Breeding: There are several factors that could be included in this. 

  1. How often is a single bitch bred?  Once? Twice? Three times?  These seem to be deemed acceptable numbers for a single bitch.  More than that and boundary becomes more blurred.  If the breeder has registered dogs, you can examine for yourself how often a bitch has been bred through registry databases. (NOTE: you may have to look up the bitch under different kennel names as she may be transferred from one kennel to another, but her registered number should be the same.)

  2. How frequently is the single bitch bred?  Back-to-back breedings are generally viewed as intensive breeding.  The mother’s body has been busy supporting the development and lives of her puppies.  The mother’s body prioritizes the puppies’ needs over her own body’s needs.  The mother needs time to refurbish her “stocks” not only for her own health, but for the needs of future puppies.  A minimum of one heat between breedings is even pushing it for some individuals’ standards.  Registry databases can also provide that information – look how far apart the litters are: ~2 weeks for initial heat + 9 weeks for pregnancy + 8-10 weeks puppies with mom = 19-21 weeks.  Heats typically are 6 months apart.  So two litters from the same mother within a 10-12 month period is likely back-to-back breeding.

  3. How old are the dog and bitch at the time of breeding? More intensive breeding operations will use dogs and bitches at sexual maturation, not full physical and mental maturation.  Anyone who uses a male or female before 24 months of age is engaging in unethical breeding practices. These parents are not yet fully mature physically, and proper health testing cannot fully indicate latent conditions.   Mentally, they are also not yet fully mature, and final temperament cannot be fully assessed, nor has the dog had time to fully prove its mental functioning via sport/performance tests.  This fails the “improve the breed standard” test.

  4. How many litters are on the ground at once? This is a fancy way of saying how many litters are in the breeder’s care at a given time.  More than one may be considered intensive by some.  The concern is in the amount of attention and care each litter requires for proper development.  This is both in terms of medical / nutritional / environmental cleanliness care, but also (and equally important) social development and exposure to environments/stimuli (i.e., neurological-development) care.  Multiple litters make is operationally challenging to ensure all these needs are met.

  5. Pups are sent to their new homes before 8 weeks of age.   The best age to send to a new home is not 100% agreed upon; however, the Kennel Club (UK) recommends 8 weeks of age, and prohibits before 6 weeks of age.  Legally, puppies may only be imported into Canada once they reach 8 weeks of age.  However, these extra weeks incur expenses for the breeder (more food, time, and energy). 

  6. How many breeds are being bred at a given time? The gold standard of breeding is to improve the breed standard.  To do this, it requires a significant amount of time to study and become knowledgeable about lines in breeds.  If someone is breeding more than two breeds, it is highly questionable they are fulfilling this gold standard. 

However, the definition of puppy mills by the Humane Society of the United States includes the consideration of profit over dog welfare.  This is where we get into the business of breeding

“…dog-breeding operations that put profit above the welfare of dogs.”


In business research, we often seek to measure people’s intentions, but without asking them we cannot accurately infer others’ intentions.  Even with asking them, social desirability (where people will lie or adjust their answers to be more social acceptable and avoid negative evaluation by the one asking the questions) prevents us from getting a likely true or accurate response.   So it is rather difficult for the future puppy buyer to accurately assess the breeder’s consideration of profit versus dog welfare.  (In research, we measure people’s likelihood of responding with social desirable answers, and statistically control for that in the thing in which we’re interested, or we alter the wording to remove social desirability.)

Simply put, if you ask, “Are you intending to make a living off the backs of the dogs?” they won’t answer this accurately.  If someone is truly placing profit over dog wellbeing and you asking them questions about intensity of their breeding practices, you may not (likely not) get valid answers.  This is why using kennel club database information to ascertain the breeder’s true intensity is critical.  If they are not registered breeders and the pups are not registered, then there is no valid way to ascertain their breeding intensity practices easily.

When we can’t measure using a direct and accurate question, we use proxies.  Profit is a fairly simple thing.  It is calculated as:


While we can’t ask what their priorities are, we can use signals on income and expenses to infer their profit.  With that in mind, the following are some proxy variables I suggest may indicate the business operandi is “PROFIT > DOG WELFARE”:

  1. The breeder’s way of life is not clearly sustained with other sources of income.  Do they have dependents (children and their lifestyles) or others (spouse/partner, employees, parents plus their lifestyles) also relying on their income source? Do they have a job that, on its own, sustains their (and their dependents) apparent lifestyle and assets?  If not, then the breeding may be a major supporter of that lifestyle. (By the way, Canada Revenue Agency has forensic accountants to find individual’s illegal (or undeclared) sources of income using this very method.)

  2. The breeder is engaging in at least one of the intensive breeding practices listed above:
    • Back-to-back breeding = more frequent cash flow to help meet those monthly bills, and more litters/year = more income.
    • More breeds = more market niches (not everyone wants a border collie, or havanese, or cocker spaniel) to access for more sales = more income.   
    • More litters on the ground = fixed costs (electricity, heat) are shared by multiple litters and not just one litter = more profit.
    • Pups to new homes before 8 weeks = fewer costs, more profit.* (6-7 weeks might be excluded from this under special circumstances.)

  3. The breeder is engaging in advertising or aggressive marketing practices.  The gold standard breeder rarely needs to do advertising or seek puppy owners.  An exception may be if the mother has a much larger litter than what was expected, but even then the breeders are conservative on their ways of finding appropriate homes for their puppies. Breeders interested in profit need to maintain a long waitlist for the number of puppies they will be selling.  Again, more pups sold within a year, the more income.  Aggressive marketing techniques can include: ingratiation (make you feel special enough to put your name on their waitlist), use of commitment & consistency (get you to agree and then alter the price/conditions after), in addition to other means (e.g., social media, videos).

  4. There is minimal or no health tests done on the parent(s).  Health tests cost money, which cut into profits.  If the breeder is charging top dollar but providing minimal or no health tests, there is likely profit considerations present.  Remember, as with breeding frequencies, you want independent evidence of the tests (see a copy of the reports, or better yet, find their records on the kennel club or health record databases). 

  5. The breeder does no performance trials (e.g., conformation, obedience, rally-o, agility, flyball, scent work, trail work) with the bitch (and dog if they have both).  Trialing dogs is costly, and training them to do well in these trials/shows/tests is also time consuming and costly.  Breeders interested in profits will not be doing these much with the breeding dogs, if at all, to minimize costs and maximize profits.  They may do performance trials with other dogs, but regarding breeding, the profits considerations are on the male and female being bred.

  6. The breeder does in-house breeding.  This, by itself, does not indicate a profit > wellbeing, but it does reduce stud fee costs, but it can also increase health-testing costs, performance trial costs (if done).  If they use in-house breeding before either parent is 24 months of age, this is a fairly solid indicator profit is a factor in the decision making.

  7. The dogs are kept in low-cost housing of some nature.  The reduction of fixed costs (housing) helps increase profits.

  8. The dogs’ health (physical and appearance) is poor.  It costs money and time to ensure a dog is well groomed, well fed, well exercised, well trained and healthy.  Short cuts on this increase profit.  This is where puppy mills become quite evident as the dogs’ physical conditions can be readily apparent to the layman’s eye.  However, unethical breeding can exist prior to squalor for the dogs.  How is the dog’s coat (shine, grooming, quality, vibrancy of colour)?  How is the bitch’s physical condition (muscle mass, tone, and core stability)?  These are more subtle but also important indicators.

  9. The breeder charges at or above market rate for the breed.  The price tag, alone, is not a good indicator, but in conjunction with the above indicators of costs, a breeder who does no health testing or performance trials should not be the market rate or above.  Above market rate should have all indicators of high costs (very few breedings, a lot of performance trials and a lot of health tests, and high stud fees) to substantiate that fee.  If the breeder is a very prolific breeder, keep in mind their prices may affect market rate as well by inflating it if their price is higher than gold standard breeders.

  10. The breeder does not help with rehoming or take back the pup/dog. Circumstances can change.  Gold standard breeders are very keen on taking back any puppy (or adult dog) from their breeding to help find it a new home.  The last thing an ethical breeder would want is to see one of their pups surrendered to the local shelter.  Since this is done with no income (no sale price) and incurs costs to the breeder for feeding, plus time to find a new suitable home, this activity cuts into profits. 

In conclusion, there may be prolific breeding kennels who meet the gold standard, but there can also be prolific breeding kennels of registered dogs who engage in unethical practices that merit puppy mill label even though they don’t look like the squalor and deathly conditions we think of when we consider extreme examples of puppy mills.

The key point is:

Do They Consider Profit Over Dog Welfare?

To that end I provide here some business indicators that together paint a picture of their likely focus on profits.

Whenever we put profits over wellbeing in any pursuit in life – be that the wellbeing of our dogs, the wellbeing of our employees, or the wellbeing of society – there are significant consequences to that decision.  Businesses and individuals who support the unethical breeder, support the incurrence of these costs but rarely do they help pay to recover these costs. 

In terms of unethical breeding, it is the puppies (who become adult dogs) and their owners who pay the biggest cost.  Thus, is behooves everyone who wants a pup to do their homework.  Do you want to support unethical breeding or do you want to put your money towards ethical breeding.

Oh, and as a little follow-up, businesses that engage in unethical or corrupt business practices tend to engage in at least one rationalization to make them feel good about themselves. As a client of them, you may also seek to engage in one or more of these rationalizations…. For more details on that, see my blog on Rationalizations. It discusses a slightly different issue, but it is the same rationalizations.


%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close