Last year, Missouri had almost twice as many puppy mills as any other state in the country.

The Humane Society’s annual study had our state at the top of the list for the sixth year in a row.

The report, dubbed the Horrible Hundred, is compiled by researchers who spent hundreds of hours going through federal and state inspection records.

Included in those reports were the hallmarks of unsafe breeding operations. Dogs were underweight, had patches of hair loss, were injured, had lice and lived in filthy conditions without water.

In one case, a mother dog with “prominent ribs” was found nursing puppies.

This all comes almost a decade after Missouri passed a law designed to crack down on puppy mills. The Canine Cruelty Prevention Act passed in 2010 initially saw an increase in prosecutions, but it’s clear that we’re still fighting a losing battle.

Missouri already has systems in place to enforce laws against puppy mills. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Missouri is among 15 states that require licensing, inspections and “at least some standards of care,” making it among the most safeguarded against mills.

So what’s the problem in Missouri?

Most likely, regulators just can’t keep up. A nearly decade-old report from the Better Business Bureau of Missouri found that an alarming one-third of puppies across the country come from Missouri. As you can imagine, Missouri does not employ one-third of all puppy mill investigators in the country.

Legislators need to investigate ways to give more teeth to departments that monitor dog breeders and enforce laws. That will be difficult with our always-strapped budget.

If Missouri lawmakers can’t find a way to cut down on our statewide puppy mill problem, it may require us to take a more drastic step.

While only two states currently ban retail pet stores from selling puppies and kittens — California and Maryland — several states are considering it.

One of those states, Ohio, should be meaningful to Missourians. It ranked second on the most recent puppy mill list despite having the enforcement measures recommended by ASPCA.

The idea is that mass breeders can no longer sell to pet stores, cutting off the economic lifeline that keeps these dangerous operations running. That’s a drastic step given that there are some responsible breeders in Missouri who rely on the business.

There are half-measures that are also possible. Pet stores could possibly still sell dogs, but those dogs could only come from shelters and rescue organizations. Missouri could also further restrict the allowable size of breeding operations, but it seems we’re already struggling to keep up with enforcement.

Moves like that would be palatable, but anyone who’s taken a walk through a local shelter knows there are already plenty of dogs and cats that need homes.

If Missouri can’t find a better way to protect puppies, we may have to look to more drastic measures.

Copyright Springfield News-Leader. Reprinted with permission.

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