"This is neglect and abuse in the worst sense," said Sandy Norris, a volunteer with the Wilson Humane Society.
When Norris saw the dogs she called sheriff's deputies. Norris said most of the dogs were starving, with all their food and water bowls empty.
"You notice the hip bones protruding," said Norris. "That is a sign of severe malnutrition."
Deputies called in Wilson County Animal Control to investigate, whose opinion on the dog's care differs from Norris'.
"There is a health concern, but it does not borderline a cruelty charge," said Animal Control Director Carl Utley.
Utley said he identified four dogs that appeared to be in poor health and took those dogs to a local veterinarian.
"Most of the other dogs were fine, they were good and healthy," he said.
Investigators identified the owner as Michael Godwin. His son says he's been feeding the dogs every day because his father was ill, and he said he never noticed any problems.
Humane society officials said they believe the problem is much worse than four underfed dogs, and they want a vet to examine all the dogs.
"I think Animal Control has not responded to this appropriately," Norris said.
Norris said Animal Control officers knew about the situation several days ago. Utley admitted to WRAL that they got a complaint about the same dogs a month ago.
"We didn't see any signs of cruelty when we went out there last month," Utley said.
Both sides plan to follow the dogs closely. Animal Control officers say they have no plans to confiscate any of the dogs.
The owner's son said Godwin has bred and sold dogs for more than 20 years, but added that his father plans to get out of the business and sell all the dogs.