How does a dog become a pet? The ways in which an owner may meet their new best friend are as varied as dog breeds, ranging from a meticulous, months-long quest to claim a corgi from a rescue organization states away, to a neighbor casually asking if you want to pick a pup from their mutt’s latest litter.
But debates around dog ownership typically boil down to one central choice: adopt or shop. Rescue a dog from a shelter, or buy one from a store or breeder.
The “adopt” side claims the moral high ground, with good reason. Almost every community in the U.S. has a population of dogs in desperate need of homes, both for the health of the dogs and the sustainability of the shelters and rescues. Adopters fill an essential need.
But breeders and pet store owners argue they fill a need as well. Shelters in the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids area wouldn’t be able to keep up with the demand for dogs, particularly puppies and purebreds, without supplementing, they argue — especially since management of the unwanted dog population in the last two decades via adoption and spay-and-neuter campaigns has been so effective.
“I think people are still operating on the old story that there is a [dog] overpopulation,” said Ron Solsrud, owner of Petland, Iowa City’s only dog retailer and one of the largest-scale pet stores in Iowa. “Right now, you have access to checking out pets and checking out puppies. That’s a freedom of choice, bottom-line America.”
Though Solsrud resents the notion that his puppies are “commodities,” Petland’s most valuable products are not its guinea pigs, lizards or pet food, but its dogs. Sourced from dozens of breeders certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) across at least four states, these puppies may be sold for upwards of $4,000, depending on the breed, care package and warranty selected by the customer. Iowa City officials allow up to 75 puppies to be kept at the store on Lower Muscatine Road, and Solsrud said they sell an average of two to three weeks after they arrive at Petland.
Among the more positive reviews of the business online are others critiquing everything from Petland’s customer service (employees on the sales floor are paid “based on performance,” Solsrud says, though some customers have apparently found them pushy) to the size of the puppy enclosures (Solsrud defends the cages as more than sufficient for a temporary home, and says having several puppies to a cage allows them to socialize with one another).
But the prevailing criticism of Petland and pet stores in general, locally and nationally, are that they prop up puppy mills — a claim Petland’s owner strongly denies. Still, these accusations have fueled a campaign to end the for-profit sale of dogs in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.
The Puppy Mill Problem
Definitions of “puppy mill” vary, but a widely accepted one comes from a federal ruling in the case of Avenson v. Zegart (1984): “A dog breeding operation in which the health of the dogs is disregarded in order to maintain a low overhead and maximize profits.”
Such breeders cut corners in order to cut costs, filling their facilities with hundreds of dogs; feeding cheap and innutritious food; keeping dogs in small cages stacked on top of each other in crowded rooms with poor ventilation or left outside in the cold or heat; skimping on grooming and medical attention; or overbreeding and inbreeding dogs.
“They’re worse than they look in the pictures,” said Jennifer Doll, a veterinarian who assisted in the raiding of Iowa puppy mills while working for the Muscatine Humane Society. “I’ve seen dogs in labor for days with half a puppy sticking out of them, and it’s rotting inside of them. Their faces are matted because they’re not getting the grooming, the exercise. I actually adopted a Maltese who spent 11 years in a rabbit cage.”
Between the low standards required by state and federal laws and the sheer dearth of officials enforcing them (inspections of 10,342 licensed animal facilities were completed by just 116 USDA employees in fiscal year 2018, according to the department; the USDA’s animal welfare enforcement budget was also cut by a quarter million dollars between 2018 and 2019), breeders with cruel to minimally acceptable standards may still hold licenses.
White Fire Kennel in Manly, Iowa, was raided by the Worth County Sheriff’s Office and ASPCA in November 2018, where the agencies found 154 malnourished Samoyeds in overcrowded kennels covered with feces and urine, with little or no access to water. White Fire had been licensed by the USDA and Iowa Department of Agriculture.
Even as awareness of puppy mills has grown, many continue to thrive in Iowa. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) identified 13 Iowa breeding facilities in their 2019 Horrible Hundred report of notorious puppy mills, second only to Missouri’s 22.
Large-scale breeders with USDA licenses, both reputable and puppy mill, stay in business by selling their dogs to dealers or distributors (characterized by Doll and HSUS as “puppy brokers”) and/or pet stores, putting literal and figurative distance between these unconscionable conditions and doting dog buyers.
Solsrud acknowledges the issue of puppy mills, even if he puts little stock in reports from HSUS and the ASPCA, whom he regards as biased D.C. lobbies playing on emotion to elicit donations. Educating bad breeders was one of the main reasons he and his wife Wendy decided to purchase the Iowa City Petland in June 2006, he said.
A mechanical engineer, Solsrud had previously worked as an inspector of pressure vessels before deciding to become a business owner. He said he applied his inspector’s eye to breeding facilities.
“From the first week in this store, I was out in the field working with breeders,” he said. Neither Ron nor Wendy, who worked in human relations, had professional experience in animal husbandry.
“Nobody’s out there looking at what those breeders are to improve them,” Solrud said. “Everyone just wants to say bad things about them and say we don’t need them and we need to eliminate them and all that. I think that’s a horrible approach.”
The Solsruds have discontinued relationships with some of the breeders Petland’s previous owner worked with. They have new breeders sign the company’s pledge, asking them to keep dogs in cages three times the federal minimum size of six inches on either side of the dog, provide veterinarian examinations on at least an annual basis and use temperature-controlled transportation, among other guidelines that exceed USDA standards.
But neither Solsrud nor Petland corporate have a team of inspectors enforcing these standards. Solsrud said he’s able to keep tabs on his breeders himself, traveling hundreds of miles a week. He declined to say whether he visits, or has visited, all of his suppliers, which are mostly located in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Missouri.
Solsrud doesn’t share his list of breeders with the public. He’s been there, done that, he told Little Village. Radical anti-breeding folks get their hands on the list and harass his breeders, he said, even dolling out death threats. (This response is similar to the Trump administration’s justification for removing USDA animal inspection reports from the public database.)
The Cost of Cute
Dogs are pricey. Owners should be prepared to spend $1,100 and $3,500 a year on the essentials, according to the Iowa City Animal Center’s recommendations.
The costs can escalate if a dog suffers from a chronic medical condition. Even — and in some cases, especially — American Kennel Club-certified purebred dogs can develop such conditions, Doll explained. For example, the breed standard for German shepherds is a sloped back, which can lead to spinal problems later in life. Some Shar-Peis are predisposed to eye disorders and ear and skin conditions. English bulldogs and pugs are prone to a soft palate condition that can disrupt their airway. Paired with narrow nostrils, they are unable to properly self-regulate their body temperature, leading to overheating in even moderately warm environments.
“If you make six figures, go ahead and buy an English bulldog,” Doll said. “Get palate surgery on it so the poor thing can breathe. We don’t deserve the kindness those dogs give us; they’re so sweet.”
As a veterinarian with nonprofit organizations, Doll said she has extensive experience working with people unable to afford basic pet care, even after spending (or owing — Petland offers payment plans) hundreds or thousands of dollars on a purebred puppy.
She recently visited a trailer park in Riverside, Iowa with the Iowa Humane Alliance, offering discounted spaying and neutering services to its dog-owning residents. While there, Doll discovered the community was experiencing an outbreak of canine parvovirus, one of the leading killers of puppies, since most owners couldn’t afford to keep up with the necessary vaccinations.
“[Pet stores] really feed on the people who just don’t look beyond how incredibly cute these puppies are and the novelty of it all,” Doll said. “You feel special — you’re walking in the park and everyone just surrounds you when you’ve got this cute dog. They’re looking for that and they’re getting this happiness out of it, but [if] something goes wrong they can’t take care of the dog.”
There is no “rescuing” a dog from the puppy mill-pet store complex by purchasing it, animal welfare workers say. Only law enforcement can shut down unlawful mills and stores; well-meaning consumers trying to “save” puppies from a cage by helping the seller turn a profit are only supporting an industry they’ve judged harmful.
Instead, puppy mill opponents are encouraged to adopt dogs seized from puppy mills and hoarding situations, or make donations of money or supplies to shelters receiving influxes of rescued pets. In late July, for example, the Cedar Valley Humane Society (unaffiliated with HSUS) received two dogs that had been confined in a house filled with trash and bugs. They were abandoned, and covered with mange.
A month later, the dogs’ fur was still in the process of growing back, but Sammy and Abby were new dogs, sprinting and playing on the shelter’s lawn with the gusto of puppies.
Jennifer Lane, Cedar Valley’s marketing and development director, disputed the notion that there are not enough homeless dogs to meet the demand. “We see dogs surrendered to us all the time. We see animals found on the side of the road. It’s hard for us as an organization when we’re full-up with dogs and cats to see that sometimes we’re overlooked.”
Even though local shelters are eager to home dogs, with fees typically under $200 (comprising all vet care administered until that point, including vaccinations and spaying/neutering procedures), they employ a relatively rigorous application process, asking a laundry list of questions.
Lane quoted just a few: “‘What are you looking for [in a dog]? What’s your environment? Do you have children? Do you have other animals? What’s your time commitment? What does your job schedule look like? Are you able to be there for your animal?’ We ask them upfront.”
Iowa City also requires an aspiring adopter to call the shelter the morning after applying in order to demonstrate their resolve, according to Chris Whitmore, coordinator of the Iowa City Animal Care and Adoption Center and formerly the city’s animal control officer. Once the dog goes home, the shelters follow up with the adopter in the weeks and months after.
The goal, Whitmore and Lane said, is to find a good match, educate the adopter, avoid impulse purchases and nurture the relationship.
Petland shoppers can meet a puppy, flip through the information binder with an employee, pay and take the dog home in relatively quick succession. Solsrud said he has a return and exchange rate at Petland of about 2-4 percent, which he considers a marker of successful human-dog pairings (Whitmore said the Iowa City shelter rate is comparable).
Though Petland sells five-day, 14-day and three-year warranties, customers who don’t opt into these plans or have expired warranties may not see the benefit of returning an unwanted or sick dog to the store. Guilt can also be a motivator. Doll said it’s common for low-income dog owners to rehome pets themselves or keep a pet in less than ideal conditions. It’s misleading, she and Whitmore agree, to imply that a dog that is never heard or seen from again has been matched with a happy, healthy home.
Petland offers a free vet check-up with every puppy purchase in the hope that owners will establish good care habits (including spaying or neutering their dog later on), but the store does not have a system for following up with every buyer.
The city inspects Petland’s facilities on an annual basis, and Whitmore said the Solsruds consistently pass, and are open to suggestions. Dogs originally sold by Petland are occasionally surrendered to the Iowa City shelter, but Whitmore said they tend to be healthy and get adopted quickly.
But if someone is committed to buying a purebred or designer-breed puppy from a breeder, she and Doll both recommend they visit the breeding facility themselves and meet the puppy’s parents before committing financially. If the sire and dam are friendly, you’re likely to get a friendly dog. Ask to see the parents’ medical history; if Mom and Dad have been treated for breed-specific health issues, these were also likely to be passed on to your pricey new pup.
“I wouldn’t let someone pick anything out for me, let alone a dog that I’m going to keep for 15 years,” Whitmore said. “You just have to be willing to sacrifice some time and some gas to go get the dog that you want.”
A good place to start a dog search, Whitmore said, is Petfinder.com. The site allows users to browse thousands of adoptable canines at shelters and rescues across the country by breed, age, location, compatibility with other animals or children, and other criteria.
Supply, Demand and a Ban
The Iowa City and Cedar Rapids city councils have both considered bans on the retail sale of pets sourced from large-scale commercial breeders — ordinances that exist in more than 300 U.S. localities including the states of California and Maryland.
Workers with Last Hope Animal Rescue in Cedar Rapids and Cedar Rapids City Councilmember Ashley Vanorny have been advocating for the ban since March, arguing that rescue organizations are shouldering the costs of treating animals abused by the industry. HSUS specifically called out Pet’s Playhouse in Cedar Rapids, a store that buys from Maple Tree Kennels in Alta Vista, identified as a USDA-licensed puppy mill.
“Unfortunately, every inch of this industry is shrouded in secrecy, which is why it is so important for cities and states to enact legislation that would protect the consumer before they unknowingly support one of these large-scale puppy mills,” Mindi Callison, founder of the Davenport-based nonprofit puppy mill watchdog Bailing Out Benji, told the Gazette. (Bailing Out Benji demonstrated outside of the Davenport pet store Pet Mart this summer in response to allegations the store was keeping animals in unacceptable conditions. They’ve also repeatedly spoken out against the Iowa City Petland.)
When a similar proposal was introduced in Iowa City by the Iowa chapter of HSUS, the Solsruds saw it as a personal attack.
If Petland should close, the community would lose a resource, Solsrud said: a space for people with special needs to see and interact with animals; coveted jobs for high school and college students; two “advocates for pets” in he and Wendy, including someone to stand up for breeders against “a false narrative perpetuated from organizations outside of our community.”
In April, the Solsruds submitted a letter and appeared in front of the Iowa City Council, defending their practices. In a response, HSUS called the Solsruds’ claims to putting dogs’ health first “laughable” and “hard to stomach.”
“What they presented was what HSUS and ASPCA pump out all day long,” Ron Solsrud said. “This is their job, this is what they do, and people just suck it up and think this is real. They feel that burden on their heart when they go to bed at night. And I feel bad they feel that way.”
“I think our society gets into this picketing and protesting and while, heck, that’s in my Christian background, protesting, I think it’s the wrong approach to most situations,” he added.
While Whitmore, at the Iowa City Animal Care and Adoption Center, encourages people to donate to local shelters and organizations over national groups, she sees HSUS as an important resource, recently helping pass a trap-neuter-return ordinance in Iowa City that will help control cat overpopulation.
“Are they [HSUS] a lobby? Yeah! But you don’t think puppy mills have lobbies? Look at the [Iowa] Farm Bureau,” Whitmore said. “[They’re] a huge lobby against anything we try to pass, because they think — and it’s wrong, I think — that it’s a slippery slope: Once we start inspecting these puppy mills better, our livestock is next.”
HF738, a bill that would increase regulations and penalties for puppy mills, was introduced in the Iowa House on March 13 and is currently stalled. And while activists secured a victory in January when Iowa’s so-called “ag gag” law, which essentially criminalized undercover investigations of industrial livestock and breeding facilities, was struck down by a federal court, another version of the law was passed just two months later.
Many animal rights proponents see dog retail bans as the best hope for fighting puppy mills locally. However, one of the few studies into the ethics of commercial dog breeding demonstrates that, at least in the current climate of minimal and minimally enforced animal welfare standards, such bans may not be the answer.
Candace C. Croney of the Center for Animal Welfare Science at Purdue University visited a few select Petland breeders with Solsrud in the course of her research. (Croney said she was “very impressed” with the conditions she witnessed, though she couldn’t speak to how representative they were of Petland’s standards or Iowa’s breeding industry at large.)
In her study, published earlier this year in the Journal of Applied Animal Ethics Research, Croney concludes that commercial dog breeding and the pet stores it supplies are only ethically defensible because the alternative — a ban on commercial breeding, giving rise to a black market of unchecked breeders — is so much worse.
As long as there is a demand for dogs, there will be breeders seeking to exploit them — and dog lovers willing to look the other way.
“It is ironic,” Croney writes, “that the human-dog bond is so highly valued in western developed nations that people will (knowingly and unknowingly) tolerate various types and degrees of harm to dogs in order to perpetuate their existence.”
In May, the Iowa City Council asked its staff to study whether the city should develop regulations on how pet stores source the dogs they sell. The following month, City Manager Geoff Fruin responded with a memo recommending against it. Instead, he suggested the city advocate for pet adoption over purchase and resolve to continue inspections of local pet stores — but leave the impetus on the state to pass stricter laws to prevent cruel breeding practices.
Vanorny said in March she expects the Cedar Rapids City Council to vote on the proposed ban this summer. As of publication, a vote has not been held.
Staff at the Iowa City Animal Care and Adoption Center and Cedar Valley Humane Society encourage the public to apply as volunteers — a free and altruistic way to get a dog fix. Meanwhile, the Solsruds are preparing for a half-a-million-dollar renovation of their store, to begin this fall.
Emma McClatchey would like to give a shout-out to her family’s dog Ruby, Little Village’s office dog Chile and senior dogs everywhere. A shorter version of this article was originally published in Little Village issue 270.