LINCOLN — Clem Disterhaupt has been breeding dogs for half a century at his small creekside ranch near Stuart, Nebraska.
These days, he keeps around 70 adult dogs — dachshunds, Havanese and soft-coated Wheaten terriers — and sells their puppies as family pets. He's also been a dog show judge and a voice for Nebraska's commercial dog breeders.
But Disterhaupt is part of a dwindling number.
Nebraska Department of Agriculture records show that half of the state's commercial dog and cat breeders have left the business over the past seven years.
The decline was particularly sharp between June 30, 2018, when there were 216 state-licensed breeders, and the same date this year, when the number was down to 138. The state does not keep track of dog and cat operations separately, but almost all licensed breeders raise dogs.
"People are retiring and getting out, and nobody is getting in," Disterhaupt said.
State agriculture officials said they don't track why breeders quit the business. But they said one factor may be increased oversight by state inspectors.
In an email statement, they said the agency has seen breeders close up shop after being found in repeated violation of Nebraska animal health and welfare standards. By going out of business, the breeders avoid having to appear at administrative hearings and pay potential fines.
Those who closed include 18 of the 35 Nebraska dog breeders listed in the Humane Society of the United States "Horrible Hundred" reports back through 2013. More than half of the remaining breeders listed in the reports still struggle to meet state standards.
The group's reports detail conditions found during inspections of problematic "puppy mills" across the country. The reports define puppy mills as dog-breeding operations in which the physical, psychological or behavioral needs of the dogs are not fulfilled. This can be because of inadequate shelter, staffing, nutrition, veterinary care or other reasons.
Nebraska lawmakers tightened the state's inspection and enforcement laws in 2015, in the face of criticisms that state agriculture officials had allowed for the "cruel neglect" of animals at dog breeding operations.
Critics cited cases such as Julia Hudson's breeding operation near Malcolm. She failed four state inspections in a row but continued to operate until the county attorney filed criminal charges against her. In late 2013, a judge ordered her shut down for two years and called conditions at the operation "an animal Auschwitz."
The 2015 law provided better funding for the commercial dog and cat operator inspection program by increasing fees. It made the program director a deputized law enforcement official, who can work directly with local authorities on cases of animal cruelty and neglect.
The law provided for fines if breeders do not answer the door, are not available or otherwise try to avoid inspections. It also created a reinspection fee, charged if violations are found during an inspection and a follow-up trip is required.
Those penalties led to sharp drops in the number of attempted inspections and reinspections.
There were 134 attempted inspections in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2015, but only six in the fiscal year that just ended. Reinspection numbers dropped from 119 to 19 over the same period, which officials said was a reflection of better compliance with state standards.
Disterhaupt and Peg Shaw, who breeds miniature pinschers and Chinese cresteds near Wilber, Nebraska, say tighter state regulations are a factor in pushing people out of the business.
Disterhaupt said inspection laws and policies have gotten too strenuous. He particularly objected to the fees charged if breeders are not at home when inspectors arrive.
The two also blame rising overhead costs, laws limiting pet store sales and competition from animal rescue organizations. The cost of veterinary care, food and vaccines have quadrupled or more in recent years, Disterhaupt said.
Meanwhile, he said, Midwest breeders were hurt by a California law that banned pet stores from selling commercially bred puppies, kittens and rabbits. The law, which took effect in January, is similar to ordinances passed in close to 300 towns and cities at the urging of animal welfare groups. State Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln introduced a pet store bill in the 2018 Legislature, but it was unsuccessful.
Disterhaupt and Shaw argued that such laws have led to unethical practices as rescues try to meet public demand. They claimed that dogs are being produced to be sold as rescue animals and are being brought in from other countries, although neither said they know of such practices in Nebraska.
Shaw said responsible dog breeders get no support from the public or the state for their efforts to preserve dog breeds and their unique traits.
"It's such a thankless passion to have," she said. "Instead, it's, 'Oh, let's rescue because it feels all warm and fuzzy.' Why are we promoting mutts?"
John Goodwin, senior director of the Humane Society's Stop Puppy Mills Campaign, disputed the claims about importing dogs or passing off commercially bred dogs as rescue animals. He said there has been no evidence of any increase in imported dogs and that the few instances of puppy "laundering" have been tied to pet stores and puppy brokers.
Wishart said she would consider introducing a bill in the upcoming Legislature that, instead of banning sales of animals from breeders, would require pet stores to disclose the breeder's name, address and contact information to potential buyers.
She said she believes the situation has been improved in recent years by public awareness campaigns promoting the adoption of rescue dogs and informing people what to look for when buying puppies from breeders.
"We make it really hard to be a bad, irresponsible breeder in this state," she said.