Reporter asks USDA to review study on damaged mental health of puppy mill dogs

Breeder dog living in cage, photographed during an inspection of a CBE or puppy mill during which USDA found violations of health requirements / Photo: USDA

By Katerina Lorenzatos Makris

When you think about the set-up of the places known as “puppy mills,” it’s not a big stretch to assume that the dogs kept there might go at least a little nuts.

Animal welfare groups allege that dogs used at commercial breeding establishments (CBEs) are caged for most of if not their whole lives, get little interaction with humans, receive minimal if any veterinary care, legally may be subjected to extremes of heat and cold, and exist solely for the purpose of reproducing—sometimes multiple litters per year—so that their owners may profit from selling the offspring.

It’s one thing to make the assumption that such a life could make a dog crazy. It’s quite another for a group of scientists to get together and provide some proof.

Dr. Franklin McMillan of along with Deborah Duffy, PhD, and James Serpell, PhD, both of the , say they’ve done just that.

The researchers conducted a two-year study titled in which they used detailed questionnaires and personal interviews to survey adopters of 1,169 former puppy mill breeding dogs, published late last year in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

The result, they claim, is “the first quantitative evidence that the conditions prevailing in CBEs are injurious to the mental health and welfare of dogs.”

Animal Issues Reporter asks USDA to review the study

When Animal Issues Reporter sent a link for the published study to the , which regulates CBEs, a spokesman said the agency had not yet reviewed the information.

“At this point, even though the study has been published, it has not been sufficiently evaluated here within USDA’s Animal Care program,” said Dave Sacks of the in reply to AIR’s emailed questions. “Nor have we discussed its possible implications for our program. Evaluating this study will take some time, and because of that, we are not at this time able to adequately respond to your questions.

“I thank you for directing us to this study, and for confirming that it has been published. We will take a look at it, and then determine the appropriate course of action thereafter.”

AIR will post the USDA’s full response when it is received.

Meanwhile, here’s an email interview that this reporter conducted with Sacks in May 2011, some months prior to the study’s publication.

Interview with David Sacks, USDA (May 2011)

Please note:  At the time of this interview Sacks emphasized, “Let me please say… that the questions are based on assumptions about the results of research that has not yet been published/verified/accepted. So that limits, to some degree, the official answers that can be provided.”

Animal Issues Reporter (AIR):  I’m working on an article about a new study from Best Friends Animal Society in collaborations with University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine about the psychological effects on dogs of living in commercial breeding establishments (CBEs) or ‘puppy mills.’

The study, not yet published, suggests that the lifelong confinement and isolation, lack of positive socialization, lack of play time, exercise, etc. causes many of the dogs used for breeding in such facilities sustain severe and long-term psychological/emotional damage including extreme fearfulness, compulsive repetitive behaviors, autism-like symptoms, and more.

Although that particular study is not available for direct review since it has not yet been published, after speaking with one of the researchers, Dr. Franklin McMillan of Best Friends, I have a few questions for the USDA about this topic in general.

If reputable scientific inquiry were to establish or at least credibly suggest, as this study appears to do, that dogs used in CBEs sustain severe and long-term psychological/emotional damage, what steps, if any, would the USDA take in its regulatory efforts and policies regarding CBEs?

David Sacks: This would require some study. For instance, what is meant by severe and long-term psychological/emotional damage when applied to dogs?  We wouldn’t be able to initiate rules if we don’t know what they’re supposed to address.

AIR: Is the USDA required to consider animals’ psychological/emotional health in its regulatory activities and law enforcement?

Sacks: No. However, if we notice a dog that is ill, we can require it receive veterinary care, such as an evaluation and treatment if appropriate.

AIR: Dogs, bred for millennia as companion animals, are known to be highly social and keenly interested in associating with humans, exchanging displays of affection with humans, etc. It’s common knowledge that dogs seek human company and appear to thrive on it. From there it seems there’s a short jump to saying that dogs “need” close interaction with humans on a regular basis.

Sacks: Dogs only seek human companionship if they’ve been properly socialized as pups to humans. We have no requirement for licensees to socialize their dogs.

AIR: Again anecdotally, many observers would agree that dogs thrive on daily opportunities to romp and play freely in a relatively open space. Are CBEs required to provide that type of play time? If not, why not?

Sacks: The regulations require that dogs be provided with exercise. See Section 3.8 Exercise for Dogs.  Here is a link to the Animal Welfare Act:

AIR: Most veterinarians recommend a program of regular exercise for dogs as being essential to both physiological and psychological health. Are CBEs required to provide regular exercise for dogs?  If not, why not?

Sacks:  Please see answer above.

Please return to AIR for updates on the USDA’s review of the CBE study.

Also on this topic:

Puppy mills make dogs ‘autistic,’ say researchers

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Katerina Lorenzatos Makris is a career journalist, author, and editor. Credits include hundreds of articles for regional wire services and for  outlets such as National Geographic Traveler, The San Francisco Chronicle, Travelers’ Tales, NBC’s , and (), a teleplay for CBS-TV, a short story for magazine, and 17 novels for Avon, E.P. Dutton, Simon and Schuster, and other major publishers.

Together with coauthor Shelley Frost, Katerina wrote a step-by-step guide for hands-on, in-the-trenches dog rescue, (The Lyons Press).

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4 Comments on “Reporter asks USDA to review study on damaged mental health of puppy mill dogs”

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