So-Called “Puppy Mills” Are Not All As Bad As We Think, Pioneering Research Suggests
Candace Croney joined the faculty at Purdue University in 2011, thinking her job would focus on the welfare of livestock and poultry in Indiana. With bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in animal sciences, her work until then had centered on sheep, cattle, and pigs. She'd even had the esteemed animal behaviorist Temple Grandin help shape her master's research project.
Croney's research has become the first of its kind in the world—and it's challenging our understanding of how dog breeding is being done.
Then came an email from a new colleague asking Croney to discuss animal welfare with some of Indiana's commercial dog breeders, the kind who produce large quantities of puppies for sale in pet stores.
"I didn't even know the term commercial breeders," Croney says. "I'd heard the term 'puppy millers.' That's pretty much what I knew."
She went to the first few kennels and braced herself for an upsetting experience. She's a dog lover who has fostered shelter mutts and owned one, and she'd seen the stories: large-scale breeders being called cruel and evil, lawmakers trying to ban the sale of commercially bred puppies, and constant encouragement to rescue a dog instead of paying into a greedy, heartless "puppy mill" industry.
But when she got to the kennels, she was surprised. While she encountered a number of things she didn't like about the infrastructure at the older facilities—a lack of ventilation, a lot of noise, bad smells—most of the dogs themselves were clean. The majority didn't have physical problems. No open sores. No battered bodies. Nothing like what she'd seen online.
But still, the way the dogs acted gave her pause.
"Things were, in many regards, better than I thought they would be," Croney says. "Google told me the dogs would be physically a mess, and they weren't, but behaviorally, things were jumping out at me."
While she did note that some of the breeders had play yards for their pups, a number of the dogs feared new people and things like leashes because they hadn't been exposed to enough of them. Some of the dogs also seemed to lack adequate toys, activities, and games to keep them mentally and physically stimulated.
But she was there strictly as a representative of the university to ask questions and offer feedback, no more or less. A few times, she says, she felt like the breeders wanted her to endorse what they were doing, "and I immediately got my back up about that. I did not want my name used to validate things that I could tell I didn't agree with. It was uncomfortable from that perspective."
After sharing the animal-welfare information her colleague had requested, Croney figured that was that. She never expected to be in a commercial kennel again. But six months later, her phone rang. Some of the people she'd met were involved in legislative lobbying, and they were trying to write welfare standards for Indiana's commercial breeders to follow.
In the continuing battle over what is, and is not, a "puppy mill," they wanted somebody with a strong research background to set a baseline standard, somebody who would actually bring objectivity to the breeder-activist conflict without being on one side or the other.
In other words, they wanted Croney's help to figure out not only appropriate enclosure sizes, but also requirements for socialization and enrichment activities—stimulation she knew the dogs desperately needed.
"I thought, crap, how am I not going to help?" she recalls. "And they said, 'Well how long will that take? A couple of weeks? A month?'"
Dr. Croney with Theo, whom she calls "a beloved family member of our research team."
(Photo credit: Purdue University/Vincent Walter)
Six years later, Croney's research remains ongoing. It has become the first of its kind in the world—and it's challenging our understanding of how dog breeding is being done, and how it could and should be done for years to come.
How We Got Here
Americans have been breeding pet dogs in large-scale kennels since World War II. The federal standard that regulates those kennels is the Animal Welfare Act, which President Johnson signed into law in 1966. Back then, people thought it was OK to treat dogs a lot differently than they do today. The law has been updated, but it still allows a dog the size of a Beagle to be kept in a cage the size of a dishwasher all day, every day because for some dogs, when the law was written, having a cage that size meant an improvement in living conditions.
Countless commercial breeders, who are regularly inspected under the Animal Welfare Act, have long believed that as long as they followed the law, they were doing things right. And they've seen sales for their puppies go up and up over the years. About 38 percent of U.S. households now own one or more dogs, the highest rate since the American Veterinary Medical Association began measuring the statistic in 1982.
Consumers now demand eight million dogs per year, which has reinforced breeders' beliefs that despite what activists shout at protests, the breeders are actually running businesses the public supports. As one Ohio commercial breeder—long decried by activists as a "puppy mill" owner—told The Washington Post in 2016, "This is a customer-driven industry. If we weren't satisfying the customer, we'd starve to death. I've never seen prices like the ones we're seeing now, in my whole career."
That breeder, though, is also among leading industry voices who say they understand that public perception of what's acceptable and what's not in a breeding kennel has changed. Regardless of what the laws are, they say, kennels must change along with the public's wishes if the commercial breeding industry is going to survive. The question is how, exactly, to move from the past to the future, at a time when demands for change have reached a fever pitch.
"The Animal Welfare Act, that was gospel. It meant you were taking care of dogs," says Bob Vetere, former head of the American Pet Products Association and now chairman of the Pet Leadership Council. "That was, what, 40 years ago? Things have evolved. People understand much more since then—and back then, there were maybe 20 million dogs in the country. Now, there's 90 million. It's that dramatic. People love their dogs, and everybody is going to get one."
Vetere became an early supporter of Croney's research, which, unbelievably, became the first ever to focus on what it actually means to run a good commercial breeding kennel. At the start of her research, Croney found that the scientific literature underpinning many existing laws and opinions was not just lacking, but outright nonexistent.
"We kept finding it over and over," she says of the literature gaps, citing common but uninformed beliefs about appropriate kennel size as just one example. "I can't find any research about how much space they're supposed to have. People said, 'Yeah, we had a meeting and a bunch of people made some recommendations.'"
She started filling in the research gaps with her team at Purdue, building relationships with dog breeders until she had more than 100 kennels letting her methodically figure out what was actually working for the dogs.
"The measurable successes in animal welfare over the past 50 years began from a foundation in science."
Creating Standards from Scratch
Other industry players soon took notice. One was Ed Sayres, who had served as CEO of the ASPCA for nearly a decade before turning his attention to lobbying efforts regarding the "puppy mill" issue. He recognized that what Croney was doing for commercial breeding mirrored the early work researchers started a half-century ago in the effort that led to better shelters all across America today.
"The measurable successes in animal welfare over the past 50 years began from a foundation in science," Sayres says. "Whether it was the transition to more humane euthanasia methods or how to manage dog and cat overpopulation, we found success from rigorous examination of facts and emerging science."
Sayres, Vetere, and others began pushing for the industry to support Croney's work, moving the goalposts beyond Indiana to the entire United States.
"If you don't have commercial breeding, you have people importing dogs from overseas with no restrictions, or farming in their backyards to make money," Vetere says. "You need commercial breeders with standards—and that's what Candace is trying to create, those standards."
Croney ended up with a $900,000 grant from three industry organizations: the World Pet Association, Pet Food Institute, and the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council. With their support, she created a nationwide program called Canine Care Certified, like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for a kennel. The program focuses on outcome-based standards, meaning she looks at what the dogs tell her about how well they are doing through their health and behavior. For the most part, beyond baseline requirements, the program lets a breeder achieve those goals in whatever ways work for the dogs.
The approach is different from many legislative efforts, with laws stating a cage must be made three feet larger to be considered humane. Instead, Croney walks through kennels with breeders and points out, for instance, which puppies in a litter seem to be shy or fearful, and then teaches the breeders how to give those puppies better socialization. She helps the breeders find ways to introduce dogs to strangers and objects like umbrellas that may not be part of regular kennel life, but will need to become familiar when the breeding dog retires and gets adopted into a home as a pet. She helps breeders understand that dogs need mental as well as physical stimulation, whether it comes from playing with balls and toys or running up and down slides.
The breeders can't learn fast enough, Croney says, and she remains stunned at how they constantly ask for more information—an attitude that made her stop using the term "puppy mill" to describe them at all.
"Now, full disclosure: Given that all of these kennels had volunteered, the odds were that we were seeing a skewed population, and that it skewed positive," she says. "But if you read what was in the media at the time, we shouldn't have been able to find any. We're told that all these kennels are terrible. Clearly, it was possible to get a positive outcome."
To Buy or Not to Buy?
Today, she says, she's shocked at how quickly some of the kennels have improved. Facilities that appalled her at first sight now have dogs greeting people with wagging tails.
"Not only would I get a dog from them, but would I put my dog there in that kennel temporarily? Yeah, I would."
"The most horrifying thing I learned was that some of these people weren't doing what I'd like to see, not because they didn't care or only wanted money, but because nobody had ever told them," she says. "As it turned out, they didn't know any different, and no one would help them."
For Americans who want to know whether it's OK to get a commercially bred puppy, Croney says she thinks about her own dogs. When she started working with the breeders, there were plenty of kennels that, she says, she would not have wanted to patronize. But now she's changing her mind about more and more of them.
"I'm just speaking as somebody who loves dogs and wants to make sure I'm not subsidizing anything inhumane or cruel," she says. "Not only would I get a dog from them, but would I put my dog there in that kennel temporarily? Yeah, I would."
She says the most important thing is for consumers to find out how a pup was raised, and how the pup's parents were raised. As with most industries, commercial breeders run the gamut, from barely legal to above and beyond.
Not everyone agrees with Croney's take on the situation, or with her approach to improving commercial breeding kennels. In its publication "Puppy Mills and the Animal Welfare Act," the Humane Society of the United States writes that while Croney's Canine Care Certified program supports "common areas of agreement" with animal-welfare lobbyists, her work has been funded by the pet industry—suggesting that it's impure—and a voluntary program is not enough to incentivize breeders to improve.
New laws, the Humane Society states, must be enacted to impose change: "Many commercial dog breeding operators will not raise their standards voluntarily, and even if they were to agree to do so it is not clear whether there would be any independent mechanism for enforcement or transparency for the public's sake. ... The logical conclusion is that improved standards must be codified."
Croney says that type of attitude has long created resentment between breeders and animal-welfare activists, as opposed to actual kennel improvements. Both sides have a point; for years, there have been examples of bottom-of-the-barrel kennels that changed their ways or shut down only after regulators smacked them with violations, or after lawmakers raised operating standards in ways that required improvements for the kennels to remain legally in business.
At the same time, though, powerful organizations including the Humane Society—which had revenue of more than $165 million in 2018 alone—have routinely pushed for bans on stores that sell commercially bred puppies, and have decried "puppy mills" in marketing and fund-raising literature, without offering financial grants or educational programs to kennels that are willing to improve.
Croney believes that the reflexive demonization of all commercial breeders is a mistake. Change is more effective, she says, when breeders "want to do better, want to learn, want to grow, and you treat them as advocates and allies in doing something good for animal welfare, as opposed to treating them like they're your enemies."
"If you're watching undercover videos about people treating animals in bad ways, I'm telling you, change is happening."
She adds that anyone who says all commercial breeders are "puppy mills" needs to take a look at the kennels she's seen and the changes her work has brought—and is continuing to bring.
"The ones we work with are working really, really hard to improve and open their doors so that if somebody wants to get a dog from them, they can be assured that those dogs were treated with a level of care and compassion that wasn't there five or 10 years ago, but that is there now and will be better in a year and will be much better in five years," she says. "If you're watching undercover videos about people treating animals in bad ways, I'm telling you, change is happening. It is so much better than people realize, and it continues to get even better yet."
Scientists redesign bacteria to tackle the antibiotic resistance crisis
In 1945, almost two decades after Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, he warned that as antibiotics use grows, they may lose their efficiency. He was prescient—the first case of penicillin resistance was reported two years later. Back then, not many people paid attention to Fleming’s warning. After all, the “golden era” of the antibiotics age had just began. By the 1950s, three new antibiotics derived from soil bacteria — streptomycin, chloramphenicol, and tetracycline — could cure infectious diseases like tuberculosis, cholera, meningitis and typhoid fever, among others.
Today, these antibiotics and many of their successors developed through the 1980s are gradually losing their effectiveness. The extensive overuse and misuse of antibiotics led to the rise of drug resistance. The livestock sector buys around 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. every year. Farmers feed cows and chickens low doses of antibiotics to prevent infections and fatten up the animals, which eventually causes resistant bacterial strains to evolve. If manure from cattle is used on fields, the soil and vegetables can get contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Another major factor is doctors overprescribing antibiotics to humans, particularly in low-income countries. Between 2000 to 2018, the global rates of human antibiotic consumption shot up by 46 percent.
In recent years, researchers have been exploring a promising avenue: the use of synthetic biology to engineer new bacteria that may work better than antibiotics. The need continues to grow, as a Lancetstudy linked antibiotic resistance to over 1.27 million deaths worldwide in 2019, surpassing HIV/AIDS and malaria. The western sub-Saharan Africa region had the highest death rate (27.3 people per 100,000).
Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
To make it worse, our remedy pipelines are drying up. Out of the 18 biggest pharmaceutical companies, 15 abandoned antibiotic development by 2013. According to the AMR Action Fund, venture capital has remained indifferent towards biotech start-ups developing new antibiotics. In 2019, at least two antibiotic start-ups filed for bankruptcy. As of December 2020, there were 43 new antibiotics in clinical development. But because they are based on previously known molecules, scientists say they are inadequate for treating multidrug-resistant bacteria. Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
The rise of synthetic biology
To circumvent this dire future, scientists have been working on alternative solutions using synthetic biology tools, meaning genetically modifying good bacteria to fight the bad ones.
From the time life evolved on earth around 3.8 billion years ago, bacteria have engaged in biological warfare. They constantly strategize new methods to combat each other by synthesizing toxic proteins that kill competition.
For example, Escherichia coli produces bacteriocins or toxins to kill other strains of E.coli that attempt to colonize the same habitat. Microbes like E.coli (which are not all pathogenic) are also naturally present in the human microbiome. The human microbiome harbors up to 100 trillion symbiotic microbial cells. The majority of them are beneficial organisms residing in the gut at different compositions.
The chemicals that these “good bacteria” produce do not pose any health risks to us, but can be toxic to other bacteria, particularly to human pathogens. For the last three decades, scientists have been manipulating bacteria’s biological warfare tactics to our collective advantage.
In the late 1990s, researchers drew inspiration from electrical and computing engineering principles that involve constructing digital circuits to control devices. In certain ways, every cell in living organisms works like a tiny computer. The cell receives messages in the form of biochemical molecules that cling on to its surface. Those messages get processed within the cells through a series of complex molecular interactions.
Synthetic biologists can harness these living cells’ information processing skills and use them to construct genetic circuits that perform specific instructions—for example, secrete a toxin that kills pathogenic bacteria. “Any synthetic genetic circuit is merely a piece of information that hangs around in the bacteria’s cytoplasm,” explains José Rubén Morones-Ramírez, a professor at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, Mexico. Then the ribosome, which synthesizes proteins in the cell, processes that new information, making the compounds scientists want bacteria to make. “The genetic circuit remains separated from the living cell’s DNA,” Morones-Ramírez explains. When the engineered bacteria replicates, the genetic circuit doesn’t become part of its genome.
Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. cholerae strains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut.
In 2000, Boston-based researchers constructed an E.coli with a genetic switch that toggled between turning genes on and off two. Later, they built some safety checks into their bacteria. “To prevent unintentional or deleterious consequences, in 2009, we built a safety switch in the engineered bacteria’s genetic circuit that gets triggered after it gets exposed to a pathogen," says James Collins, a professor of biological engineering at MIT and faculty member at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute. “After getting rid of the pathogen, the engineered bacteria is designed to switch off and leave the patient's body.”
Overuse and misuse of antibiotics causes resistant strains to evolve
Seek and destroy
As the field of synthetic biology developed, scientists began using engineered bacteria to tackle superbugs. They first focused on Vibrio cholerae, whichin the 19th and 20th century caused cholera pandemics in India, China, the Middle East, Europe, and Americas. Like many other bacteria, V. cholerae communicate with each other via quorum sensing, a process in which the microorganisms release different signaling molecules, to convey messages to its brethren. Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. choleraestrains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut. When untreated, cholera has a mortality rate of 25 to 50 percent and outbreaks frequently occur in developing countries, especially during floods and droughts.
Sometimes, however, V. cholerae makes mistakes. In 2008, researchers at Cornell University observed that when quorum sensing V. cholerae accidentally released high concentrations of a signaling molecule called CAI-1, it had a counterproductive effect—the pathogen couldn’t colonize the gut.
So the group, led byJohn March, professor of biological and environmental engineering, developed a novel strategy to combat V. cholerae. They genetically engineered E.coli toeavesdrop on V. cholerae communication networks and equipped it with the ability to release the CAI-1 molecules. That interfered with V. cholerae progress.Two years later, the Cornell team showed that V. cholerae-infected mice treated with engineered E.coli had a 92 percent survival rate.
These findings inspired researchers to sic the good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi onto the drug-resistant ones.
Three years later in 2011, Singapore-based scientists engineered E.coli to detect and destroy Pseudomonas aeruginosa, an oftendrug-resistant pathogen that causes pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and sepsis. Once the genetically engineered E.coli found its target through its quorum sensing molecules, it then released a peptide, that could eradicate 99 percent of P. aeruginosa cells in a test-tube experiment. The team outlined their work in a Molecular Systems Biology study.
“At the time, we knew that we were entering new, uncharted territory,” says lead author Matthew Chang, an associate professor and synthetic biologist at the National University of Singapore and lead author of the study. “To date, we are still in the process of trying to understand how long these microbes stay in our bodies and how they might continue to evolve.”
More teams followed the same path. In a 2013 study, MIT researchers also genetically engineered E.coli to detect P. aeruginosa via the pathogen’s quorum-sensing molecules. It then destroyed the pathogen by secreting a lab-made toxin.
Probiotics that fight
A year later in 2014, a Nature study found that the abundance of Ruminococcus obeum, a probiotic bacteria naturally occurring in the human microbiome, interrupts and reduces V.cholerae’s colonization—by detecting the pathogen’s quorum sensing molecules. The natural accumulation of R. obeumin Bangladeshi adults helped them recover from cholera despite living in an area with frequent outbreaks.
Engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut. --José Rubén Morones-Ramírez.
These findings inspired researchers to sic the good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi onto the drug-resistant ones. So far, researchers have engineered various probiotic organisms to fight pathogenic bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus (leading cause of skin, tissue, bone, joint and blood infections) and Clostridium perfringens (which causes watery diarrhea) in test-tube and animal experiments. In 2020, Russian scientists engineered a probiotic called Pichia pastoris to produce an enzyme called lysostaphin that eradicated S. aureus in vitro. Another 2020 study from China used an engineered probiotic bacteria Lactobacilli casei as a vaccine to prevent C. perfringens infection in rabbits.
In a study last year, Ramírez’s group at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, engineered E. coli to detect quorum-sensing molecules from Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA, a notorious superbug. The E. coli then releases a bacteriocin that kills MRSA. “An antibiotic is just a molecule that is not intelligent,” says Ramírez. “On the other hand, engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut.”
Collins and Timothy Lu, an associate professor of biological engineering at MIT, found that engineered E. coli can help treat other conditions—such as phenylketonuria, a rare metabolic disorder, that causes the build-up of an amino acid phenylalanine. Their start-up Synlogic aims to commercialize the technology, and has completed a phase 2 clinical trial.
Circumventing the challenges
The bacteria-engineering technique is not without pitfalls. One major challenge is that beneficial gut bacteria produce their own quorum-sensing molecules that can be similar to those that pathogens secrete. If an engineered bacteria’s biosensor is not specific enough, it will be ineffective.
Another concern is whether engineered bacteria might mutate after entering the gut. “As with any technology, there are risks where bad actors could have the capability to engineer a microbe to act quite nastily,” says Collins of MIT. But Collins and Ramírez both insist that the chances of the engineered bacteria mutating on its own are virtually non-existent. “It is extremely unlikely for the engineered bacteria to mutate,” Ramírez says. “Coaxing a living cell to do anything on command is immensely challenging. Usually, the greater risk is that the engineered bacteria entirely lose its functionality.”
However, the biggest challenge is bringing the curative bacteria to consumers. Pharmaceutical companies aren’t interested in antibiotics or their alternatives because it’s less profitable than developing new medicines for non-infectious diseases. Unlike the more chronic conditions like diabetes or cancer that require long-term medications, infectious diseases are usually treated much quicker. Running clinical trials are expensive and antibiotic-alternatives aren’t lucrative enough.
“Unfortunately, new medications for antibiotic resistant infections have been pushed to the bottom of the field,” says Lu of MIT. “It's not because the technology does not work. This is more of a market issue. Because clinical trials cost hundreds of millions of dollars, the only solution is that governments will need to fund them.” Lu stresses that societies must lobby to change how the modern healthcare industry works. “The whole world needs better treatments for antibiotic resistance.”
Meet Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, the first Director of President Biden's new health agency, ARPA-H
In today’s podcast episode, I talk with Renee Wegrzyn, appointed by President Biden as the first director of a health agency created last year, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H. It’s inspired by DARPA, the agency that develops innovations for the Defense department and has been credited with hatching world-changing technologies such as ARPANET, which became the internet.
Time will tell if ARPA-H will lead to similar achievements in the realm of health. That’s what President Biden and Congress expect in return for funding ARPA-H at 2.5 billion dollars over three years.
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How will the agency figure out which projects to take on, especially with so many patient advocates for different diseases demanding moonshot funding for rapid progress?
I talked with Dr. Wegrzyn about the opportunities and challenges, what lessons ARPA-H is borrowing from Operation Warp Speed, how she decided on the first ARPA-H project that was announced recently, why a separate agency was needed instead of reforming HHS and the National Institutes of Health to be better at innovation, and how ARPA-H will make progress on disease prevention in addition to treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes, among many other health priorities.
Dr. Wegrzyn’s resume leaves no doubt of her suitability for this role. She was a program manager at DARPA where she focused on applying gene editing and synthetic biology to the goal of improving biosecurity. For her work there, she received the Superior Public Service Medal and, in case that wasn’t enough ARPA experience, she also worked at another ARPA that leads advanced projects in intelligence, called I-ARPA. Before that, she ran technical teams in the private sector working on gene therapies and disease diagnostics, among other areas. She has been a vice president of business development at Gingko Bioworks and headed innovation at Concentric by Gingko. Her training and education includes a PhD and undergraduate degree in applied biology from the Georgia Institute of Technology and she did her postdoc as an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow in Heidelberg, Germany.
Dr. Wegrzyn told me that she’s “in the hot seat.” The pressure is on for ARPA-H especially after the need and potential for health innovation was spot lit by the pandemic and the unprecedented speed of vaccine development. We'll soon find out if ARPA-H can produce gamechangers in health that are equivalent to DARPA’s creation of the internet.
ARPA-H - https://arpa-h.gov/
Dr. Wegrzyn profile - https://arpa-h.gov/people/renee-wegrzyn/
Dr. Wegrzyn Twitter - https://twitter.com/rwegrzyn?lang=en
President Biden Announces Dr. Wegrzyn's appointment - https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statement...
Leaps.org coverage of ARPA-H - https://leaps.org/arpa/
ARPA-H program for joints to heal themselves - https://arpa-h.gov/news/nitro/ -
ARPA-H virtual talent search - https://arpa-h.gov/news/aco-talent-search/
Dr. Renee Wegrzyn was appointed director of ARPA-H last October.
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.