A Scathing Assessment of Missouri’s Puppy Mill Inspection Program

In 2001 Missouri’s state auditor, Claire McCaskill, issued an audit of the state’s licensed commercial dog breeders or puppy mills. She found a number of disturbing problems.

Her report stated as a result of the Division of Animal Health’s poor regulation of licensed commercial dog breeders and canines were left at risk. McCaskill followed up in 2004 with another audit and found few improvements.

Now McCaskill is a U.S. Senator from Missouri. When she was a candidate in 2006 for the position of U.S. Senator, the commercial dog breeders announced in an industry magazine, We simply can’t let this woman get to Washington. Think seriously about this threat to your kennel operation. She will try to shut this industry down."

Missouri has the highest percentage of licensed commercial dog breeders in the nation. One third of all licensed dog breeders are located in the state of Missouri. McCaskill was blunt in charging the state program that regulates these breeders is ineffective.

The 2001 audit found deficiencies in four areas of the state’s inspection program: (1) spotty state inspections with few sanctions; (2) appearance of conflicts of interests of top management; (3) state inspections less thorough than federal inspections; and (4) lax program performance measures. McCaskill noted the state inspectors simply encouraged breeders to improve conditions rather than fine or otherwise sanction them. The state inspectors did not even bother to record violations. As McCaskill summarized in the 2001 report of the audit, such a practice leaves the program little paper trail to track violations and breeders little incentive to correct problems.

The federal APHIS inspectors follow a similar philosophy in enforcing the Animal Welfare Act requirements; they, too, prefer to encourage compliance through discussions with breeders rather than criminal citations. The federal inspections are hardly effective in ensuring compliance with the already weak AWA standards. Nonetheless, the federal inspectors fined Missouri commercial dog breeders more than $14,000 in the two years prior to the audit. The state inspectors fined none in that same time period.

McCaskill noted the state inspectors spent far less time inspecting a puppy mill than their federal counterparts. Indeed, state inspections were less than thirty minutes, less than one third as long as those by APHIS. Curiously, the state inspectors claimed their inspections took up to 4 hours. McCaskill found no support for such a claim. She pointed out in the audit report the records of how inspectors spent their time were poorly kept. The Missouri state inspectors failed to check for expired medications, reconcile the number of dogs in a facility to its inventory records, or review records of how dogs were received or distributed. As McCaskill’s report explained, All of these inspection tests concern a dog’s health under a breeder’s care.

The audit report also noted state inspectors did not coordinate inspections with federal authorities. Sometimes they both inspected the same facility on the same day. Yet, their reports would differ dramatically.

In one case, for example, state inspectors found nothing wrong yet APHIS noted seven violations, including six repeat violations. From the comparison of state inspection reports with those by APHIS, it was apparent in addition to failing to report obvious violations, state inspectors missed many unacceptable and illegal conditions of dog breeding facilities.

The audit report noted the lack of training and criteria for state inspections. In fact, the audit report noted inspectors use a blank form in conducting inspections. The form made no reference to what to inspect or guidance that would be helpful in deciding whether or not a violation had occurred.

One problem that accounted for the poor inspection program was the conflict of appearance or at least appearance of impropriety by the program coordinator and one inspector. They are former puppy millers and during their tenure, their spouses continued to run the businesses. Upon issuance of McCaskill’s audit report, both were reassigned to other duties and were said to have no more involvement in the dog breeder inspection program.

McCaskill’s recommendations included training for inspectors and implementation of a system similar to that used by federal inspectors to report violations. This system provides for tracking repeat violations and, if necessary, setting the stage for sanctions against the breeder.

For example, the first time a violation is reported, it is classified as a category III violation. If the state inspector finds the same condition on the next inspection, it would be reported as a category IV. If that violation has not been corrected by the next inspection, it would be reported as a category V violation. When a commercial breeder receives a category V, the breeder is subject to an administrative hearing. The administrative hearing provides the facility owner with an opportunity to refute the alleged violation. If the violation finding is upheld, program officials can levy up to $1,000 per violation or take other remedial action to correct violations. In addition, the facility owner is charged a fee of $100 for a follow-up inspection. Under this practice, a facility owner is given several chances to correct a violation before action is taken.

By December 2004 in a report of a follow up audit, McCaskill noted few improvements. The state inspection program was still plagued by many of the same problems. State inspectors still failed to record many violations. They missed or simply failed to report obvious violations such as poor sanitation. In one example, the inspector did not even cite the breeder for failure to have a license. Inspectors also failed to cite recurring violations. Instead, a violation found at the same facility again was often reported each time as a new violation. As the audit report pointed out, therefore, the original violation could not be upgraded to a category IV or V violation, be subject to the penalty phase, or be used to show a true history of non-compliance.

It was also apparent inspectors did not always conduct even annual inspections.

The inspections conducted were still sketchy and inadequate.

The training for inspectors was still non-existent or insufficient. Little had been done to convince inspectors they must conduct thorough inspections and record all violations. Most still followed the philosophy they should just talk with breeders about how to improve their facilities and not cite or otherwise penalize them for non-compliance.

In the four years since the first audit, inspectors had fined six facilities only $3,800 and obtained voluntary surrender of animals at four facilities through settlement agreements. The audit reported noted reluctance by inspectors to use administrative hearings to penalize breeders or confiscate dogs in trouble. Only two hearings had been conducted since the last audit during 2003 and 2004, resulting in two fines totaling $1,500. These fines had not yet been collected as of the date of the report.

The bottom line is that dogs are still suffering in deplorable, unsafe conditions in many Missouri commercial dog breeding facilities. 

It should be noted the Missouri inspectors are employed by the Division of Animal Health within the Department of Agriculture. The state Animal Care Facilities Act, RSMo §§273.325-357 and 2 CSR 30-9.010-030 provide similar regulations as the AWA for the licensing and operations of commercial dog breeders.