Animal welfare advocates say the government and the public in Quebec should do more to protect animals bred as pets in inhumane conditions.

An undercover investigation by Radio-Canada current affairs program Enquête  into two puppy mills in Quebec found dogs kept in squalid conditions and breeders with little regard for animal health.

The province has a reputation as the puppy mill capital of North America, with even the premier saying he is concerned about the issue.

Although Quebec tightened its regulations in 2005, Premier Jean Charest said more action might be needed to crack down on puppy mill operators acting with impunity.

"We are going to continue to monitor this very closely, and if we have to change the legislation again, we'll do it again," Charest said in an interview.

More than 150 dogs were rescued from a puppy mill in St-Lin, north of Montreal, last month. That raid came less than a week after 118 animals, including cats, dogs and rabbits, were recovered from a site in Rawdon, also north of Montreal.

"If you want to envision what hell would look like, you know, certainly for the small dogs, dogs stacked on top of dogs, very little access to food or water, excrement and feces everywhere," said Alanna Devine, acting director at Montreal's SPCA, of the St-Lin mill.

"It's so disheartening to see what we are capable of doing in the name of profit."

The owner of the St-Lin operation was fined $3,300 and sentenced to 180 hours of community service. In the Rawdon case, the operator has pleaded not guilty to the charges filed against him.

Animal welfare advocates say it's relatively easy for unscrupulous breeders to fly under the radar — partly because provincial animal welfare laws aren't always enforced. That's all the more reason why authorities must come down harder on suspected animal abusers, they say.

"We're better than that in this province," Devine said.

"We do care about our animals. We do care about our pets, and it's really time. The public is starting to react and say, 'We won't tolerate this anymore'."

Consumers also have a role to play in protecting prospective pets from ill treatment, according to the head of Quebec's animal welfare agency.

"You have to ask the owner of the pet shop where he is … [getting] his animals," said Véronique Langlois, executive director of ANIMA-Québec, the government-funded group responsible for enforcing animal-rights laws.

Earlier this year, a Quebec Superior Court judge granted an Ontario shelter owner permission to sue the province's attorney general, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and ANIMA-Québec on accusations the province is ignoring hundreds of puppy mill operations.

Nicole Joncas, who runs Teja's Animal Refuge in Ontario, estimated Quebec has some 2,000 abusive underground breeding operations.

With files from the Canadian Press