Imported Pets a Growing Business in U.S.

Americans were outraged earlier this year when imported pet food made hundreds of pets sick. But what if you found out that thousands of puppies are imported from Eastern Europe, South America and Mexico, and they're already sick when they get here?

Man's best friend is also big business. Cameras caught a dognapper in Southern California stealing 22 puppies from a pet store. He did it because the dogs were worth about $30,000.

The Humane Society of the United States helped rescue close to 900 dogs from a Virginia puppy mill. The breeder was unlicensed and agreed to surrender them, losing about half a million dollars in revenue.

Some people look into a puppy's big brown eyes and see green, and now some in foreign countries want a piece of the action.

"We're seeing tens of thousands of these animals coming in, produced on puppy mills in foreign countries, sold in the United States often through Internet sites … and we're seeing them treated like things and commodities," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.

When alerted of a shipment, the Department of Agriculture inspects the conditions of puppies arriving at U.S. ports. The department took pictures of inhumane conditions, including a carrier meant for one dog with a makeshift shelf to hold multiple puppies and plastic bags around dog crates that ended up suffocating the animals.

Be Careful of Internet Sales

Chad Mullins bought a bulldog pup named Otis as a surprise engagement gift for his girlfriend, Lisa Lekowski.

But the surprise turned to shock when Otis started developing health problems — he had worms and trouble breathing. As time wore on, Otis developed pneumonia and heart problems.

Mullins and Lekowski now believe Otis was imported.

"We had an appointment with the cardiologist, which he never made it to, because he passed away," Lekowski said.

Otis lived for eight months after the engagement surprise and died on Mullins' birthday.

"I feel awful about what he went through," Mullins said. "You don't know how much you love something till it's gone and that's how I felt when Otis passed away."

The Internet is full of sites that claim to be selling lovingly raised local puppies, but actually deal in imports from Eastern Europe, Russia, Asia and Central America.

Mattie Rodriguez bought Lola online. She says her puppy was sick the moment she brought her home. She says she later found out Lola was a Russian import.

"She has a million problems, and my vet says, 'You got a lemon,' but you know what, I really love my lemon," Rodriguez said.

But she now warns other dog lovers about buying puppies online.

"Be very, very careful and do a lot of homework," Rodriguez said. "Don't be in a rush, don't fall in love with the puppy because they're really cute and all cuddly. If you want to get a good, healthy full-bred puppy, you should wait and really do your homework on that breeder."

Dog Auctions

More than the dog's health is at risk, in some cases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say some importers are selling puppies before they're old enough for a rabies vaccination. In March, a dog from India flew through Seattle on its way to Alaska before it was diagnosed with rabies.

"So if you're bringing in unvaccinated puppies, there's a chance that a puppy is going to come through that is incubating rabies, which is lethal for people," said Nina Marano, an animal importation expert with the CDC.

The CDC is currently proposing stricter regulations for dog imports.

"We want the puppies to have been vaccinated before they come to the United States," Marano said.

Older, female breeding dogs can be imported as well, and may end up at animal auctions.

Exclusive video from the Humane Society of the United States' undercover investigation shows auctions where breeding dogs are bought and sold.

The auctions are perfectly legal, but the Humane Society went undercover to document the conditions of some of the dogs face — cramped cages, cold temperatures, no food or water for hours on end.

"It's not about providing companionship and canine companions to American kids and adults, it's about making a profit and doing it on the backs of these poor creatures," Pacelle said.

What can you do?

The Humane Society of the United States says consider buying a puppy from an animal shelter, where one of four dogs are purebreds or a purebred rescue group.

If you still want to buy from a breeder, make sure you meet the breeder and inspect the puppies' home. If that is just not possible, request references and talk to others who have purchased dogs from that breeder.