updated 6/4/2007 12:05:03 PM ET 2007-06-04T16:05:03

Type “Yorkies for sale” into an Internet search engine, and hundreds of Web sites come up.

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Animal welfare advocates say the Internet has become the latest vehicle for large-scale dog breeding operations — or “puppy mills” — to sell their wares.

The concern is that people who sell dogs over the Internet are able to skirt federal licensing and inspections because they are not considered wholesalers. And because most states don’t have puppy lemon laws, an Internet buyer often has no recourse if his or her new dog has health problems.

“People are getting suckered,” said veterinarian Helen Hamilton of Fremont, Calif.

Hamilton said some of her clients have been victimized by Internet dog sales. Many of the puppies are diseased because of dismal kennel conditions, or have genetic defects because of inbreeding and other poor breeding practices, she said.

Hamilton led an effort in April to rescue suspected puppy mill dogs at an auction in Arkansas. She and her group raised $12,000 to buy 71 dogs, mostly older females that were used for breeding. The dogs were placed in shelters in California, Georgia and Florida.

Clem Disterhaupt, president of the Nebraska Dog Breeders Association, said he sells some of his soft-coated Wheaten terrier puppies over the Internet, but provides every buyer a written guarantee that allows the dog to be returned if defects are found.

There is no puppy lemon law in Nebraska, but Disterhaupt, of Stuart, Neb., said he is helping craft legislation that could be introduced in the Legislature next year.

Disterhaupt acknowledged that some Internet sellers are not reputable, but said if a buyer does his or her homework, the Internet can be a good way to find a pet.

Don't trust the pictures
Disterhaupt said he provides prospective buyers with pictures of his dogs and the names of people who have bought puppies from him. He said that in many cases, a potential buyer lives within driving distance of one of his references.

“They can go see the dogs, and then they know they’re buying from someone reputable,” he said.

Stephanie Shain, outreach director for the Humane Society of the United States, said buyers should do more than view photos provided by the breeder.

“You have to absolutely go and see the operation,” she said. “It’s sad but true. You can’t trust the pictures they send you in an e-mail. You need to see the conditions the puppies are born into.”

Animal welfare advocates encourage buyers to meet the parents of their prospective puppy. That not only allows the buyer to see the breeders’ kennel conditions, but it also gives an indication of the puppy’s temperament.

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