Americans own 77 million dogs, making canines our most popular pet. With high demand for pugs, Labradors, and Pomeranians, to name just a few breeds, everyone wants to make sure man’s best friend has a loving home. But ironically, laws intended to protect dogs may have ended up driving people to puppy mills in foreign countries.

This summer, the USDA estimated how many dogs are brought into the country every year: Slightly over 1 million.

How many of those are regulated? Almost none.

Unknown to many, the federal government has little real oversight over pet dogs brought into the United States from foreign countries. Generally, all one needs is for the animal to appear healthy and perhaps a piece of paper saying the animal has been vaccinated.

This has created serious problems for animal welfare.

Importation of dogs from foreign countries has spread disease. The CDC banned dogs from Egypt in May after one tested positive for rabies. The rabid dog was one of several brought in from Cairo to New York. They were transferred to foster homes before being adopted out to families in three states.

Investigators found a previous incident in 2015 in which a rabid dog was brought into the United States from Egypt with a fraudulent rabies vaccine certificate — underscoring how easy it is to game the system. The dog was also part of a shipment distributed to rescue groups.

Animal rescues are linked with introducing H3N2 Asian dog flu to the United States. The first outbreak, which occurred in Chicago in 2015, can be linked to rescuers who flew in animals from South Korea, according to a Cornell University virologist.

The flu has since spread nationwide, sickening thousands of dogs.

Why are a million dogs being imported a year under questionable circumstances? The answer is simple: Americans want them, but they can’t easily get them locally.

For years, animal rights groups have lobbied for laws banning the sale of dogs at pet stores, often with an exemption for pets that come from shelters or rescues.

The idea is that these laws will stop U.S. puppy mills. But they ban dogs from good breeders who have humane operations. Like other prohibitions, these bans have simply created a black market.

Imagine you want a Golden Retriever puppy. Your local pet store is banned from selling any dogs from U.S. breeders. Your local rescue is the only game in town. But where is the rescue going to get the puppy?

A 2018 Washington Post exposé found that some rescues go to dog auctions in the Midwest and buy from breeders themselves, spending almost $3 million on dog purchases since 2009. Sometimes they misleadingly raise donations for these purchases.

Importation is another easy — and less traceable — way. In 2017, authorities at JFK Airport seized dozens of puppies for being too young to import. “Many dogs are bred irresponsibly in large numbers in ‘puppy mills’ overseas,” the CDC noted, adding that flights like this are coming in daily. Importers “fly them as cargo in large batches, claiming them as ‘rescue’ dogs, valued at $0 on their paperwork, and allowing the importers to evade entry and broker fees,” the agency continued.

In essence, these supposedly nonprofit “rescues” are really for-profit business transactions.

It’s simple to set up an operation for dog smuggling from foreign puppy mills. First, you create a nonprofit organization to “rescue” animals. Then, you bring in animals — from, say, Mexico or China — and pay someone there to create phony health records.

Then, all you need is a compelling story: Fido was rescued from the streets of a Third World country.

How would an adopter be any the wiser?

Dogs should be treated humanely, wherever they come from. And many rescues are honest groups trying to do the right thing. However, a combination of bad laws and lack of regulation have created a black market for smuggling dogs.

States should repeal bans on selling pets, instead ensuring breeding operations are humane (in fact, most are already regulated and inspected by the USDA and states). The federal government should ensure that all imported dogs have traceability, keep thorough records, and consider holding rescues/shelters to the same kind of regulations to which for-profit businesses are subject.

If nothing changes, your next adoption might be funding foreign exploitation.