Hugh McQuaid Photo

Representatives of the pet store industry sought Wednesday to discourage lawmakers from banning the sale of puppies from commercial breeders.

A legislative task force heard hours of public testimony on puppy mills — a term for commercial breeders where dogs are produced in high numbers and inhumane conditions. Advocates contend that many of the animals sold in pet shops were born at these commercial breeders.

Lawmakers on the task force are weighing proposals, including whether the state should prohibit the sale of cats and dogs at pet shops to prevent animals raised in those conditions from being sold in the state.

During the several-hour hearing, the panel heard from people on both sides of the issue, but representatives of the pet industry told the group they believe the problem is largely the result of a number of bad actors who are not regulated by the federal government.

Michael Stolkey, director of corporate sales for the Hunte Corporation, said his Missouri-based company has been the victim of “outright smear campaigns.” Hunte buys puppies from breeders and distributes them to pet stores around the country.

Stolkey said his company is a leader in pet care education and only works with breeders who have been licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“I think every puppy that’s sold, from any place, including shelters, should be coming from a U.S.D.A.-licensed professional breeder. The holes in the system right now are because that is not necessarily the case,” he said.

Stolkey said licensed breeders are open to inspection “and they welcome that inspection because they are professional and they want to do the right thing for the dogs.”

However, others at the hearing questioned whether a license from the U.S.D.A. actually indicates a high-quality environment for puppies.

“I read all the time that we don’t have enough inspectors for nuclear plants. How many inspectors do you think are out there in the field finding these violations?” asked Kenneth Bernhard, a lawyer and former state representative.

Bernhard said many dogs are raised in “horrific conditions” and most breeding facilities are either not inspected or are inspected so rarely by the federal government “that it doesn’t matter.”

“There’s no sanctuary in the definition of a U.S.D.A. sanctioned facility because the standards are so minimal it doesn’t give me any comfort,” he said.

Hugh McQuaid Photo

The panel is expected to make recommendations to the General Assembly to inform legislation to be drafted next year on the sale of dogs and cats. The task force was a compromise for several lawmakers who sought legislation this year to prohibit selling pets in the state unless the pets came from family-owned breeders, animal rescue operations, or shelters.

Rep. Brenda Kupchick, a Fairfield Republican who co-chairs the group, said she believed pet stores mobilized their staffs to testify against the ban at the hearing. Kupchick favors limiting pet stores so they can only sell “humanly-sourced” dogs. She said she has emails from residents around Connecticut who overwhelmingly favor the ban.

Dogs from puppy mills are “treated worse than livestock and these are dogs. Dogs require human attention, they thrive on being around humans,” she said. “To lock them in a cage all day long, no human interaction day after day . . . it’s abuse.”

According to the Legislative Research Office, the U.S. Department of Agriculture received 129 complaints about Connecticut pet shops between January 2010 and July 2013. Thirty-seven of the complaints were pertaining to sick or defective animals, the report found.

Nationwide, at least 28 municipalities have enacted prohibitions on pet sales, according to the legislative research. In July, advocates in the town of Branford tried unsuccessfully to pass such a ban.

Although Kupchik and other supporters want to limit where pet stores can buy their puppies, some lawmakers have opposed the ban. On Wednesday, Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, told the panel he thought the pet industry had been demonized on the issue and, as a result, some business owners in the state are concerned.

“In my district we just experienced Black Friday and these pet stores are being picketed constantly and I think that some of the information that’s out there is just not accurate,” he said. “They’re good neighbors. I think we can all work in unison and come up with an appropriate solution for the state of Connecticut.”