By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block
By selling puppy mill dogs, some pet stores are spreading severe diseases that are dangerous to the public. We’ve been saying this for years. And now a new scientific investigation published this month by the Journal of the American Medical Association Network reinforces this fact. The pet industry is actively avoiding taking responsibility for this threat.
The authors surveyed “168 cases from public health reports” from 2011 to 2020 of patients suffering from Campylobacter infections and found that 97% of patients reported contact with a dog; of those, 88% had had contact with a pet store puppy specifically.
Called “extensively drug-resistant,” this strain of Campylobacter jejuni “cannot be treated with any commonly recommended antibiotics.” This poses “an increasing public health threat,” according to the report. About one-fourth of the victims studied were so sick they had to be hospitalized.
The report found that the “extensively drug-resistant strains have been associated only with dogs.” Further, only dogs from the commercial pet breeding industry, not shelter dogs, were implicated in the outbreak. The report concluded that the commercial dog industry “needs to take action to help prevent the spread of extensively drug-resistant C jejuni from pet store puppies to people.” Given the link to pet store puppies, in February 2021 we petitioned the Consumer Product Safety Commission to require warnings about the risks from handling pet store puppies.
Petland, the only national puppy-selling pet store chain in the U.S., is alluded to in the report as “a national pet store chain based in Ohio.” The HSUS’s hidden-camera investigations of Petland stores have revealed that Petland has been aware for years that its puppies are linked to the dangerous disease, but it is not doing enough to keep puppies and the public safe. Petland has continued to spread misinformation about the specific strain of C jejuni linked to some of its puppies, implying that the treatment-resistant, dog-linked strain is the same as the more treatable form of Campylobacter that can come from undercooked food, and even seeming to blame the outbreak on the victims’ hygiene. Even after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged the company and its puppy suppliers to take action, Petland has done little to address the problem.
Our investigations into Petland have also shown that Petland stores’ owners and managers failed to test symptomatic puppies, delayed taking visibly ill puppies to a veterinarian, deceived customers and even did little to protect their own workers from becoming ill. At least one teenager who worked at a Georgia Petland store was hospitalized for four days with a fever of almost 105 degrees F and suffered lasting effects. Our undercover investigators spoke with other Petland staff members who also admitted to contracting Campylobacter, and two of our HSUS staff who investigated the stores also became infected.
During one of our investigations, a Kentucky Petland manager told our secret shopper, who was buying a puppy, “this puppy has had diarrhea [but] that’s not Campylobacter,” falsely claimed the puppy was “perfectly healthy” and had been tested for the disease. But investigation footage showed that the same puppy had been sick inside the Petland store for weeks, often refusing to eat and suffering from frequent diarrhea. This puppy had not been adequately treated or tested for his illness. Our secret shopper took the puppy to a veterinarian immediately after purchase, where he tested positive for Campylobacter.
Our undercover investigator also found the same Petland manager telling a different undercover employee days later that they do not test most of the puppies in the store for the disease because most of them would test positive. Our investigations of eight different Petland stores showed similar attitudes, with none of the stores we visited appearing to have a regular testing protocol to screen puppies for the disease, even if they had warning signs such as diarrhea and lack of appetite.
Petland’s typical response to any criticism of their puppies’ care is to change the subject, pointing a finger at animal shelters and implying that purchased puppies are superior to those from a shelter. But the new JAMA report tells another story: “To our knowledge, the extensively drug-resistant strains were only found in the commercial dog industry and have not been associated with exposure to dogs from animal shelters, indicating these strains might have a niche in commercial breeding and distribution of pet store puppies.”
Pet stores are not the only sources for potential threats to public health. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible for inspecting and regulating puppy mills and brokers who sell to pet stores, but during the last administration, the enforcement actions to shut down bad breeders were significantly reduced. Additionally, we’ve seen cases where federal inspectors did not require a puppy mill owner to have a sick or emaciated dog examined or tested by a veterinarian. Instead, they sometimes allowed the licensees to call a veterinarian for advice during the inspection instead of requiring that that animal be seen by a veterinarian. We are hopeful that under this new administration the USDA will prioritize Animal Welfare Act enforcement and will penalize bad breeders for violations of the act. We are also encouraging the agency to update their policies to ensure that there is a requirement sick dogs are promptly treated by a licensed veterinarian.
Public health is one urgent reason among many to change the puppy mill industry—and you can help take a stand against the industry for the sake of human and animal health. We have been working state by state to change the practice of selling puppy mill puppies in pet stores; and we rejoiced last week when a federal judge upheld Maryland’s law. You can ask your lawmakers to support the Puppy Protection Act, now in Congress, which would require the USDA to change its rules by insisting the dog breeders provide dogs “prompt treatment of any disease, illness or injury by a licensed veterinarian,” among many other improvements in animal care.
Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.