LOS ANGELES -- The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is bolstering its campaign against puppy mills by showing photos of sick puppies and harsh kennel conditions taken by the federal agency that licenses commercial breeders.
The organization has added 10,000 photos to its "NoPetStorePuppies" website showing dogs at breeders across the U.S. with matted hair, bloody stool, long nails, injured eyes and dental disease.
The pictures were taken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture over the past few years and were obtained through a public-records request. The breeders were warned or given citations to correct the problems.
The ASPCA wants people to boycott puppy sales in pet stores and on the Internet, the places where most puppy mill animals are sold. It included the photos in a database that can be searched by breeder, license number or ZIP code.
"A lot of pet stores will say, `We don't get pets from puppy mills, but from USDA-licensed breeders," said Cori Menkin, senior director of the ASPCA puppy mills campaign.
Rod and Lindsey Rebhan bought a miniature Australian shepherd for $1,000 at a Novi, Mich., Petland store in 2011. The newlyweds considered Jack "our first baby, our little boy," Lindsey Rebhan said.
About a month later, the dog had its first seizure. After 25 seizures over the next four months, he had to be put down.
Because Jack's epilepsy was so severe, vets said it was probably hereditary. The store refunded the sale price, but didn't pay vet bills.
"I'm pretty sure it was hush money," Lindsay Rebhan said.
If the couple had seen the website, they would never have been in the pet store, Lindsey Rebhan said.
Jack came from Evergreen Designer LLC, owned by Daniel Schlabach in Fresno, Ohio, according to purchase papers and the ASPCA website. Phone messages left for Schlabach were not returned.
Photos of the kennel taken Nov. 2, 2011, show a dog with scabs and ulcerations on his muzzle; an underweight dog; four dogs with diarrhea; dirt and hair buildup in den boxes; two dogs with raw skin on their paws; one with a cloudy left eye; and one with a runny nose and a cough.
In a reply to an email query, Petland Novi said it didn't discuss customer claims because its customers are entitled to privacy.
The puppy mill fight started long ago. Agencies took up the cause as the number of pet owners telling heartbreaking stories of illness, death and costly vet care swelled. The sale of puppy mill dogs has been banned in some cities, including Los Angeles. Stores can sell shelter animals or hold adoption events on weekends.
The ASPCA and other animal welfare groups claim the way dogs are kept at some breeders -- where they are producing hundreds of puppies at a time -- cause chronic physical ailments, genetic defects or fear of humans.
Breeding females are overbred, kept in unsanitary, crowded cages without vet care, adequate food or water. When they can no longer breed, they usually are killed, experts say.
When the puppies are sold, they often are stuffed into crowded trucks and hauled thousands of miles, sometimes getting sick from the trip itself, arriving in bad shape and unable to bounce back from illness or parasites.
"Not all breeders run puppy mills," Menkin said. "Breeders without violations typically won't appear in the database, but if they're only meeting USDA standards, and not exceeding them, then we would consider their operation a puppy mill."
The database photos go back to 2010, and the number for each breeder varies.
"I have not studied it because it's a waste of time," said Karen Strange, a lobbyist for the Missouri Federation of Animal Owners. "Much of the information is old, and it's a publicity stunt for the ASPCA ... and other radical animal rights groups to garner money from the unknowing public."
USDA records show a third of the 2,205 licensed dog breeders in the country are in Missouri.
Republican state Sen. Mike Parsons of Bolivar, Mo., recently told the legislature there that commercial dog breeding in Missouri was a $1 billion industry that employs thousands and spends millions every year on dog food, veterinarian services and utilities.
Strange said some breeders contacted her when they heard about the photos, wondering how they should react. She said they were told to conduct business as usual and if they were in compliance with state and federal law, they had nothing to worry about.
Menkin disagrees, citing legal loopholes. For example, she said, federal law says a breeder must have an attending veterinarian, but it doesn't say dogs have to be handled by the vet.
Tanya Espinosa, a legislative and public affairs spokeswoman for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said the agency would not comment on the website.
The ASPCA obtained the photos through the Freedom of Information Act and plans to continue posting pictures, Menkin said.
Heather Nyein in Syosset, N.Y., bought a Shiba Inu at a pet store in January. She said Kiku, now 7 months old, came from an Iowa puppy mill.
It had kennel cough, and the store reimbursed Nyein $160 for two vet visits and medicine. Kiku survived.
"I completely lucked out with her," Nyein said after looking at some of the photos on the website.
If she had seen the pictures before getting Kiku, "I wouldn't have done it. I wouldn't do it again."
She's getting another dog, "but this time it will be from a Shiba rescue."