A loophole in the Animal Welfare Act had allowed certain commercial dog breeders to avoid the law’s minimum care requirements.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the agency had closed a loophole in the federal Animal Welfare Act that exempted Internet dog breeders from being licensed and inspected.
Under the new rules, sellers will either have to let buyers see the animals in person before they purchase them or obtain a license and be subjected to inspections by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services division of the USDA.
The Animal Welfare Act was signed into law in 1966 — long before the widespread emergence of the Internet — and outlined minimum care standards for animals bred for commercial sale or transport, research purposes or exhibition to the public. While the legislation required pet stores and other commercial sellers to be licensed and inspected, breeders who exclusively sold animals online, in the classified sections of newspapers, over phone or by mail, were all exempt from USDA oversight.
As a result of lack of regulation, many puppies sold online come from “puppy mills,” which are large-scale commercial dog breeding operations lacking adequate care for the animals. Overcrowded and unsanitary, animals raised in puppy mills often lack access to sufficient veterinary care, food and water, and are not groomed, allowed to exercise nor given treats. Females are often forced to breed at every opportunity without any recovery time between litters and are often killed when they no can longer reproduce.
Failure to adequately care for puppies is likely why so many puppies that come from puppy mills arrive at their new homes suffering from a range of illnesses such as epilepsy, respiratory disorders, heart disease and blood disorders.
Tanya Espinosa is a spokeswoman for APHIS. In an email to a Gannett reporter, she wrote that between 2,600 to 4,600 breeders are likely to be covered by the new rule, adding, “We believe the majority of these newly regulated breeders are already providing sufficient care to their animals.”
While the rule change is largely targeted at dog breeders, the increased regulation could affect other animals such as cats and rabbits.
Nancy Perry is the senior vice president of the Government Relations division of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, one of the national animal-rights groups that created petitions urging the USDA to provide more regulation of unlicensed breeding operations. She said, “The ASPCA has witnessed the abhorrent cruelty that often exists behind the pictures of happy puppies posted on a breeder’s website, and this rule will crack down on the worst Internet breeders.”
Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) who has twice introduced legislation to close the loophole — once in 2008 and once in 2010 — applauded the Obama administration’s efforts to go after puppy mills without waiting for Congress to act on it. He said the new rule would protect online buyers, who almost never see the puppy before they buy it and therefore can’t tell if it’s in good health until after they take the pet home, adding that the new rules would also protect responsible breeders who treat their animals humanely from unfair competition as well as safeguard the pet itself.
Wayne Pacelle is the president and CEO of the Humane Society. He, too, applauded the rule-change, saying, “There are hundreds of thousands of dogs languishing in small wire cages, denied vet care and exposed to the elements that literally had no protection under federal law. This turns that around.”
“Responsible breeders have nothing to worry about if they are properly caring for the dogs,” he added. “The only people who should be concerned about this rule are those people who are substandard breeders.
While animal welfare advocates have largely applauded the decision to increase regulation on animal breeders, small-scale breeders have shared concerns about the rule-changes and have lobbied against the increased regulation, arguing that the new rules could put them out of business.
The American Kennel Club, for example, said it was not in favor of the new rules, with spokeswoman Lisa Petersen saying the changes are “overly broad and will do more damage than good.”
However, Kevin Shea, administrator of APHIS, claimed that the rules will not extend to “hobby breeders” or those with four or fewer breeding females.
A license will cost $750 or less, and according to the USDA, should only be expensive for breeders who are not currently ensuring their animals have adequate housing and medical care.