Inside an Iowa puppy mill: Dogs caught disease that can pass to humans. Was it preventable?

Over 200 dogs were sold from a puppy mill on May 4. Three months later, a dozen puppies have a zoonotic disease, and the investigation continues.

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KNOXVILLE, Ia. — The small, huddled dogs looked like breeds that ended with -doodle or -poo. In a different life, I imagined them carried in a purse by an owner who made brunch conversation of their hypoallergenic skin and certified pedigree.

But in this life, the dogs shifted weight uneasily as they tried to find their footing on the awkward weaves of their sometimes-rusted wire cages. A jerry-built plastic shelf caught and funneled their waste to a central hole, a crude, Rube Goldbergesque contraption that meant more than 300 dogs didn't have to be taken out to do their business.

I assume this system worked once, but now their petrified feces sat glued below their cages. 

Under that flimsy plastic sheeting was another row of wire kennels and another plastic shelf. The setup was mirrored on the other side of the patched-together semitractor-trailer. Matted and dirty, most dogs sat and stared, some shook, and a few turned in circles.

What I didn’t know as I walked through the kennels was that sitting among these dogs was Patient Zero in one of the largest outbreaks of canine brucellosis in the state’s history. Or that as the dogs traveled to their new homes, they would carry with them a bacterial infection that could spread to humans and cause, in the worst cases,organ damage and bone infections. 

Or that not only has canine brucellosis been here before — it's reemerging. New research from the University of Iowa points to lack of oversight for large breeding facilities and few restrictions on canine movement for the disease’s uptick. The American Kennel Club blames a lack of screening.

Or that without intervention, an outbreak like this is bound to happen again. And with a patchwork of state-by-state rules on mandatory testing, even the most discerning consumers run the risk of bringing this disease into their homes. 

Know the Signs: Worried about whether your dog came from a puppy mill?

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"Keep your eye on the prize", said rescuer Amy Heinz on Thursday—the prize being her dogs' freedom from a preventative, 12-week quarantine against canine brucellosis. Olivia Sun, Des Moines Register

But what was clear to me was the stale stench of overcrowded, unwashed dogs and the workers’ failed attempt to cover the smell, even with enough cleaning chemicals to sting the inside of my nose. I feigned coughs and yawns, doing anything to keep my hand blocking my nose.

Outside, a white tent housed metal bleachers and a makeshift stage where dogs were auctioned off about five at a time. Some people set up in camp chairs like they were watching a high school football game, while others bought snacks from the makeshift concession stand around the corner.

“We will represent (the dogs) to the best of our ability,” auctioneer Bob Hughes said. “If they've got an overbite, an underbite, a cesarean section, one testicle, blind spot in the eye, a hernia; if we can find it, we're going to call it out.”

And they did, letting us know about missing teeth or a tail lost to frostbite or whether the dog was “making a belly.” (They don’t guarantee pregnant dogs, Hughes said, but “whatever’s inside you get.”)

After the first lot of dogs, Tim Galeazzi, owner of Double G Kennels, which was closing up in this everything-must-go sale, assured the crowd that these were his good dogs. He said he had previously “released” 25 dogs because they weren’t “proven.”  

This was May 4. Later that day, the dogs would be shepherded by 44 buyers to new homes across 10 states.

By May 8, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship would know that a handful of the 265 dogs sold had canine brucellosis, an incurable disease that often induces abortions in dogs.

By May 10, the news that this disease could transfer to humans would go viral across the country, eventually even making its way to the Weekend Update desk on “Saturday Night Live.”

By early July, four additional dogs sold before the auction would test positive, too. Just a week ago, another positive dog was confirmed. 

“We're treating dogs like livestock, and dogs are getting livestock diseases, and now they're going into people's homes, and people are now contracting livestock diseases,” said Amy Heinz, owner of local rescue AHeinz57, which unknowingly purchased a possibly brucellosis-positive dog from the auction.

“If you’re a young woman and you miscarry your child, are you going to look at that puppy and go, ‘Maybe you caused that?’” Heinz said, pausing to collect herself. “But maybe that puppy did.”

Three months since the auction, the Department of Agriculture's investigation into what happened and why is ongoing. And some breeders, rescue groups and families that bought puppies are still waiting to hear what will happen to their dogs — and when. 

Chasing dogs to find disease

The voicemail message light on Iowa state veterinarian Dr. Jeff Kaisand’s phone was blinking when he got into the office on May 8. A local veterinarian had taken blood samples at Double G's dispersal sale over the weekend, and of the 24 dogs he tested, four came back positive and one needed another test.

Since brucellosis is a zoonotic disease, transmissible from animals to humans, Kaisand immediately started what those in the disease control biz call an “epidemiological workup.” After finding the known positives, they started “working backward (to find) everybody else that could’ve gotten dogs.”

That “everybody else,” Kaisand came to understand, ranged from breeders, to individuals buying personal dogs, to shelters and rescue groups to at least one person who didn’t buy dogs but took ones that didn’t sell at auction.

Kaisand’s team, which at some points involved up to 16 people, took information however they could get it — spreadsheets from the auctioneer, notes from the owner — and started making phone calls and sending emails. No incident command center or fancy CSI lab for them; they worked mostly out of Kaisand’s office, which is so peppered with mounds of papers, photos and lab results that just the legs of his desk peek out. 

Their first goal, identification, was really so they could get to their second goal, quarantine. They needed to make sure that infected dogs “didn't move anywhere else and put any other dogs or any other people at risk.”

They quickly found that the investigation wasn’t going to be as simple as a dog moving from A to B. Instead, maybe that dog never left A or skipped B to go to a C and a D. A pattern emerged: The person who bought the dog in some cases did not have it any longer.

“You got animals that were exposed to exposed (dogs) or in a herd that they were next to a positive and then they get diluted out, so we quarantine in situations like that,” he said. “You got to cast a big net and get your arms around the disease before it gets away from you. Otherwise, you're chasing it all the time.”

Once they found the dogs, if buyers could prove they had kept the Double G pup in strict isolation, and if a follow-up visit confirmed it, they could consider the quarantined dog as separate from the rest of the population, Kaisand said.

Meaning if isolation procedures were in place, breeders could still sell dogs, and rescue groups could still adopt out.

Those that didn’t isolate had restrictions placed on movement and business practices. That’s normal procedure, Kaisand said, adding that Iowa Code gives them broad authority for quarantine procedure.

“We've actually encouraged, for sure, commercial dog breeders to have isolation facilities,” Kaisand said, “because this isn't the first time this has happened in commercial breeders.”

Kennel was troubled for years

As the rising sun warmed the early spring chill, breeders and others walked in between Double G's four kennel buildings, sizing up the dogs. On the most ramshackle of buildings, a sign with a Homeland Security emblem declared “Bio-Security Area” and “No Trespassing.” 

USDA inspection reports for this kennel and others on Galeazzi’s property show there had been issues long before auctioneers showed up. 

The first inspection there, in November 2017, revealed an “emaciated” shih-tzu named Mercury, whose hips, backbones, ribs and shoulder blades protruded due to “little to no body fat covering the animal.” Mercury was nursing six puppies at the time and had not been seen by a vet. 

Twenty-three puppies were in cages with openings in the wire flooring large enough for their legs to pass through, risking injury or entrapment. Still others had no protection from a heat lamp, a risk for burns.

At the next inspection, in March 2018, a female chihuahua had nails so “excessively long” that they were interfering with the dog’s ability to stand normally, and a handful of dogs in the nursing area did not have the required 6 inches of head space.

Because the USDA doesn’t mandate brucellosis testing, the disease isn’t mentioned in the reports. But within breeding circles, there was wide speculation Double G was closing due to a brucellosis outbreak, said Aimee Crow, a rescuer who has ingratiated herself with the commercial dog-breeding community.

Galeazzi denied knowingly selling infected dogs before telling me to leave his property during a recent visit. He did not respond to additional requests for comment. 

But Double G is hardly the only troubled property. Iowa has a long history of brucellosis invading kennels.

In 2012, a 3-year-old girl in New York City was hospitalized for two days for fever and shortness of breath. The culprit? Her new 8-week-old Yorkshire terrier puppy, which was brucellosis positive and traced back to an Iowa breeder.

Once alerted, the agriculture department ran tests on the puppy’s parents, finding both to be brucellosis positive. Of 70 dogs on the property tested, 13 were positive. A month later, 56 dogs were tested, and five were positive. The positive dogs were euthanized, and the tests continued through the fall until all dogs on the property were negative.

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That kennel’s quarantine was lifted seven months after it was issued, but loose ends remained, according to a CDC report. The epidemiologists weren’t given information on prior litters from the puppy’s parents or on the other positive dogs’ offspring.

“If the case had not been identified, additional B. canis-infected dogs from the Iowa kennel would have been sold, resulting in additional opportunities for zoonotic transmission,” the CDC concluded.

About a year later, the Iowa agriculture department encountered the disease again after dogs at the auction of Deborah Pratt's commercial dog breeding facility in New Sharon came back positive for brucellosis. Before her auction, Pratt had been included on the Humane Society's Horrible Hundred List of problem dog breeders, and USDA inspectors reported an English bulldog with “a marble-sized mass” in the corner of his eye and a poodle with lesions the width of a quarter on his feet, according to prior reporting.

Heinz bought three dogs at the Pratt auction. She found out later they were brucellosis positive, but her facility was never quarantined.

“None of this took place then,” she said, her eyes welling with tears. “They just simply killed the dogs.”

Breeders beware, but what about you?

Around dinnertime on May 8, Kaisand called Dr. Ann Garvey, a veterinarian at the Iowa Department of Public Health, to let her know a zoonotic disease had been confirmed in Iowa. The alert was routine, Garvey said, and throughout the next month, she remained in “constant contact” with the department. (She’d talked to them twice the day I called.) 

After calling the few people who had positive dogs, she put together a fact sheet on canine brucellosis and answered questions from county health representatives.

Brucellosis, which can be passed to humans by a variety of livestock, is one of the top eight diseases that people get from animals, according to the CDC.

It's far less common for dogs to pass the disease to humans than other animals — fewer than 100 people in the United States have come down with the canine version of the disease since it was discovered in the '60s — but experts say the reemerging disease hasn’t been studied enough to dismiss its possible outcomes.

“The true burden of the disease is unknown,” according to the CDC, which calls the human infection of B. canis, “under-recognized and reported.” 

For other strains of the Brucella bacteria, an easy serological test can determine exposure in humans. Nothing that simple exists for the canine type. 

“We can just draw blood and try and see if we can identify organisms that way,” Garvey said, “but the blood would have to be drawn at the right time to identify it.”

And, not only can symptoms of canine brucellosis take a while to present, the disease doesn’t necessarily announce itself with bells and whistles. Its symptoms are nonspecific, like high fever, chills, headaches and body pains, Garvey said.

For patients in the highest risk pool — the young, the old, the pregnant and the immunocompromised — infection could lead to tissue and organ damage, joint and bone infections, and miscarriage or infertility.  

Although the No. 1 way canine brucellosis spreads to humans is when someone with a cut or scratch comes into contact with birthing materials — meaning breeders are at highest risk for the disease — it also can be transferred through feces or urine, said Christine Petersen, the epidemiologist and professor at the University of Iowa whose recent research shows the reemergence of brucellosis.

“You could have this puppy who's very cute and not showing any signs of disease just dumping out bacteria in their pee,” she said. “And if you've got other small people around who really like their puppy — and puppies are not always very well house-broken — you can come in contact with that pee on a daily basis.”

What beef can teach us

As much as the human health aspect of this outbreak made headlines, Petersen says the focus needs to be on prevention, not response. For the most part, that means figuring out how to regulate and increase testing in large breeding kennels, where for every known case of brucellosis, there are probably another 10 asymptomatic dogs, she said.

“Because there are not regulations about testing for this disease, you don't really notice until they're aborting that you even necessarily have it in your dogs,” she said. “That means that you have millions of bacteria now in that little area where you'd like your dogs to give birth and that becomes the vicious cycle because then you really have it in your environment and you're exposing all of your breeding dogs to it and you are in deep trouble.”

Simply put, just one positive dog becomes like a "canine Typhoid Mary," she said. 

When faced with the task of completely revamping their facilities, most breeders shut down, Petersen said.

After the demands of consumers and noting the public health risks, American beef farmers went through a huge effort to vaccinate their cows against brucellosis starting in the 1950s. Today, America’s beef producers have mostly eradicated brucellosis from their herds, allowing the industry to promote their meat as better, safer, healthier and brucellosis-free.

If there was a similar drive of people saying, “I don't want a puppy with Brucella canus,” then maybe breeders would listen, Petersen said. But, without a market, work on the vaccine has been minimal.

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“There’s got to be a consumer to use the vaccine in order for it to be produced,” she said. “So right now it's just, ‘Hey, cool science.’”

The department is still investigating this outbreak — another five cases from outside the auction have been confirmed — but Kaisand says policies will be reviewed. Still, he cautions that his role is only the science part, not the rule-making part.

Iowa doesn’t require mandatory testing for brucellosis in dogs, and while that seems like at least a start to controlling this disease, Kaisand wasn’t willing to say that should be an outcome.

“All dogs are susceptible to brucellosis, so when you start talking about changing any testing like that, I mean it has to be, as best we can, equally applied to all situations,” he said. “So that's a lot of evaluating there to do on a lot of stakeholders involved.”

Price tags on internet of $1,000

After two months of quarantine, local rescuer Heinz hoped she would receive the all-clear in July and be able to start moving the 31 dogs she purchased from Double G to foster homes.

But, Zane, a Maltese, came back positive.

Now, as the testing begins anew, Heinz is anxiously waiting to hear if Zane’s test result was a fluke or if he’s positive. And if he’s positive, she’s worried about what that means for his fellow Double G rescues.

“I want everybody to know these dogs and know their little faces and love them like we do,” she said. “Because if they have to die because some jack--- in Knoxville is treating dogs like livestock, I want the whole world to know.”

From the agriculture department’s perspective, quarantines will be released when the threat of the positive dog is removed, which means either euthanization or, if it is a personal pet, keeping a quarantine in place for the dog’s life. If there are other dogs in the facility, more testing would be required to release the quarantine. 

Back at the auction, dogs were paraded in big groups and placed on the austere plastic table, held up by their front legs so their bellies showed.

“If it starts to scratch, pick it up,” a member of the auction crew says. “It’s just scared.”

Next up for sale was Carol, a pregnant bichon frise, due in just a few days. We're told Carol is a “great mom.” Before bidding begins, we’re reminded that bichon puppies sell on the internet for anywhere from $200 to more than $1,000 each.

Carol went for $1,425.

It was about noon, and there were 200 dogs still waiting to be sold. 


Over the next few months, Iowa Columnist Courtney Crowder will be looking into cases of animal cruelty and issues surrounding commercial dog breeding in Iowa. If you have a story or a tip, please send her an email at ccrowder@dmreg.com, call her at 515-284-8360, or message her on Twitter @courtneycare.


Worried about whether your dog came from a 'puppy mill'?

Bailing Out Benji, an Iowa-based nonprofit that researches and tracks the commercial dog breeding industry, put together the below list of warning signs for those wondering if their little Fido came from a disreputable breeder.

Your dog may have come from a puppy mill…

  1. If you bought it at a pet store. Responsible breeders don't sell to pet stores, and most national breed clubs prohibit members from doing so. 
  2. If you had a dog shipped to you and your breeder required little or no information from you before shipping you a puppy or meeting you offsite. 
  3. If you bought from a third-party website — think Amazon for puppies — and weren't told the name of the breeder who owns the parent dogs or weren't told before late in the purchasing process.
  4. If a breeder has several different breeds available on their website and looks to have always has puppies for sale; both are signs they have lots of breeding dogs on their property.  
  5. If the breeder cannot prove they have genetically tested their parent dogs to ensure healthy puppies, or has a short-term "health guarantee," or requires you to send the puppy back for reimbursement or trade. 

To learn more about puppy mills, visit bailingoutbenji.com.  

Bailing Out Benji

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