“Puppy Farm” or “Commercial Breeder”?

As the diverse range of topics on this blog testifies, philosophical questions concerning practical ethics crop up every day, in a variety of circumstances. Today, I had my own ethical dilemma – this time regarding puppies. Having just moved into my new house, I am now searching for a puppy. When I saw an advert for some puppies for sale in a small village in South Oxfordshire, I became excited: could this be the one?

This morning, after I had arranged an appointment to visit the pups, I began searching online for more details. Specifically, the pups were being sold by what is known as a “commercial breeder”: a business that breeds and sells puppies, primarily for profit. To me, this sounded almost identical to the oft-maligned “puppy farms”, or “puppy mills”. As one website (www.dogstuff.info) describes it, a puppy farm is

 A business that mass-produces dogs for a profit with little or no regard for the health and well-being of the puppies and dogs.   It is a facility where puppies are sold to brokers, pet stores or individuals without regard for the puppy.  They usually have many breeding animals in many different breeds and often, but not always, substandard health, living and socialization conditions.

Now, that sounds bad – and indeed puppy farms are maligned across the UK. The national Dogs Trust has a campaign against puppy farms (“battery farming of dogs”); as does the Kennel Club, and a dedicated charity – Puppywatch – exists to try and stop puppy farming. What about commercial breeders? A commercial breeder is

A person who maintains large numbers of breeding females and/or stud dogs and who breeds more than three litters of puppies a year from the bitches or who provides stud services for more than fifteen bitches a year (based on UK income levels) …   production of puppies only because there is a market or one needs a bit of extra money is still commercial breeding… commercial breeding differs from puppy milling notably in that commercial breeders sell only to individuals and never to brokers or pet stores.

This difference in terminology, it seems, largely comes down to the fact that puppy farms sell to an intermediate (which subsequently sells the pup to a buyer), while a commercial breeder sells directly to the buyer. But what are the ethical differences? Are puppy farms worse than commercial breeding organizations?

It would be hard to argue that the mere act of selling to an intermediary constitutes a significant moral difference. If I were to buy a puppy from well-respected and caring breeder, but then subsequently sell it onto a neighbor at a profit, would that be morally wrong? It seems intuitive to me that it would not be morally wrong – that the key issue here is the welfare of the animals concerned. We do not have moral concerns about, for example, buying or selling food produce from either the supplier directly (e.g. at a farmer’s market) or through an intermediary (e.g. a greengrocers). Rather, it seems intuitive (to me, at least) that the ethical issue arising from the production of puppies for profit is directly linked to the experiences and quality of life that the dogs receive.

Indeed, in the place I went to I have to say that it certainly seemed to fit my idea of a puppy farm. There were four litters of puppies, all locked inside in small pens in an outhouse. The mothers and puppies seemed dirty and afraid of humans. As the owner explained, that is ‘normal’ because they are on their own a lot of the time without humans. It was explained to me that each bitch has four litters consecutively (the ‘safe’ amount) and is then got rid of. I went to see the other dogs there – the male dogs and the females not with litters at this time. All the dogs were locked away in kennels outside, with some concrete space to run, at least, but no grass or anywhere to play. While there I felt extremely uncomfortable, almost as though the clear wrongness I felt that was going on there was being transferred to me. It sounds hyperbolic but I started to feel dirty that I was even there. The line between puppy farm and commercial breeder, it became evident, is worryingly thin. Even as someone who knows a lot about dogs, this was an eye opening experience.

Why does this matter? I think it matters because this existing terminology and seemingly arbitrary division helps to obscure the issue, allowing puppy farms to flourish on the basis of being commercial breeders – simply by selling directly to customers instead of an intermediary. More broadly, it highlights that the way we define and use these concepts has important consequences for how we perceive things ethically.  If there is little to no clear ethical differences between commercial breeders and puppy farms merely as a function of whether the animals are sold indirectly or directly, what use is this distinction? Its main purpose seems to be to legitimize cruel treatment of dogs under the guise of a registered ‘business’. If the public are to be made aware of the dangers of puppy farms, campaigns must focus on the real underlying issue – that of cruel treatment to animals – rather than the specific details in which the animal is sold.

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