Credit: iStock.com photo

Jenna Kern-Rugile lives in East Northport.

It's a song refrain learned by every child: "How much is that doggie in the window?" But a more important question is "How well-treated is that doggie?"

All too often, the adorable purebred pups sold at pet stores come from puppy mills: substandard commercial breeding facilities notorious for their horrific treatment of animals. According to the Humane Society of the United States, puppy-mill breeding dogs are crammed into unsanitary tiny wire cages with no companionship or comfort. They're often undernourished and lack basic veterinary care.

Once the breeding dogs are no longer fertile, the Humane Society reports that they're either killed, abandoned or auctioned off to another mill. And the mothers aren't the only victims: Inbreeding and poor conditions often lead to puppies with health and behavioral problems. Since puppies that aren't sold by the time they're about 3 months old become a cost burden, mill owners often kill them.

So in June, Suffolk County Legis. Jon Cooper (D-Lloyd Harbor) proposed a bill to ban the sale of puppies from these mills in retail stores across the county. Cooper acknowledges that humane breeders do exist -- so-called hobby breeders -- but since the vast majority of puppies sold at pet stores come from mills and not responsible breeders, the law would have effectively banned the sale of any puppies at stores (though they could be "adopted" through the shelters or rescue organizations that sometimes work with stores).

Although several U.S. counties and municipalities have enacted such a law, Cooper had to withdraw his bill -- not because of the intense pressure it faced from opponents like pet retailers and even the American Kennel Club, but because New York State law prohibits local municipalities from enacting any legislation regulating pet dealers.

Determined to find a way around this pre-emption, Cooper is planning to introduce alternative legislation next week, designed to empower consumers with the information they need to get their puppies from reputable sources and take a step toward putting inhumane mills out of business. He has proposed a rating system that would evaluate pet stores based both on the standards of care at the retail business and the breeders that supply them.

A volunteer committee made up of a veterinarian, animal-rights advocate, pet store owner, licensed dog breeder and Suffolk Consumer Affairs representative would visit puppy retailers to rate them. Breeders would also be rated on numerous factors involving the conditions at their facilities and the health and well-being of their dogs.

Cooper says that volunteer organizations throughout the country report on these facilities on a regular basis, and those reports would inform Suffolk's rating system. Pet stores wouldn't have to participate, but Cooper believes that any reputable store will welcome the ratings. "If they refuse, it's a huge red flag, and consumers should refuse to buy from those stores," he says.

Ideally, our legislators in Albany would ban puppy-store sales through state law. Barring that, any effort to increase standards of care for dogs used for breeding in commercial puppy mills is a positive thing. So Cooper's bill is a step in the right direction. What's left to be seen is if any of the Suffolk pet stores that sell puppies will earn a rating that indicates that their pups do, indeed, come from humane breeders. If the Humane Society is right, few (if any) will merit a positive review on that basis.

For true animal lovers, the best option is to adopt a dog from a shelter or rescue group (many have purebreds, although you may have to wait or be willing to take an older dog). But for those who are determined to buy a purebred puppy, the moral choice is to make sure your pup isn't a product of the horrendous, if legal, institutions known as puppy mills.