Lawmakers are trying to close a loophole that exempts some large-scale dog breeders from federal scrutiny when the breeders sell directly to the public.
"Even though they're these massive operations, they are not under the jurisdiction of the Animal Welfare Act because they're selling directly to consumers," said Tom Mentzer, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Sam Farr. "And so you have these puppy mills that should be regulated because they are huge commercial operations, but they're not."
Representative Farr, of California, introduced the Puppy Uniform Protection and Safety Act in the House of Representatives Sept. 18, and he is among more than 20 representatives and senators sponsoring or co-sponsoring the bill in their respective houses. U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois introduced it in the Senate.
It did not appear likely at press time that H.R. 6949 would pass this year, and Mentzer said Farr will likely reintroduce it in January or February.
"I think we're trying to build momentum so we can introduce it early on in the 111th Congress," Mentzer said in early October.
The AVMA has monitored but not yet taken a position on the bill.
The Department of Agriculture, through the Animal Welfare Act, inspects and licenses breeders that sell dogs through wholesale channels for use as pets and for hunting, security, or breeding. The USDA also inspects and licenses breeders that sell dogs for research, teaching, and exhibition.
The act currently exempts most retailers, keeping breeders out of USDA jurisdiction if the retailers sell directly to consumers.
If the new bill were to pass into law, the welfare act would apply to all breeders that sell or raise more than 50 dogs yearly. Mentzer said the bill would not increase scrutiny of "mom-and-pop-type shops."
Federal regulations currently set requirements for housing, sanitation, food, water, exercise, veterinary care, transportation, and protection against harmful weather and temperatures, according to the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
If passed, the bill would amend specific exercise requirements for all dogs in commercial breeding facilities regulated by the Animal Welfare Act.
Current USDA regulations require exercise plans approved by attending veterinarians for dogs that are more than 12 weeks old, but the law does not include specific time requirements. Dogs can be exempted from exercise when attending veterinarians believe it is inappropriate on the basis of health or conditions, or when a principal investigator at a research facility determines it is inappropriate for scientific reasons.
Owners can also meet exercise requirements by providing twice the required space for individually housed dogs or 100 percent of the space required for group-housed dogs.
The current regulations are more comprehensive than the bill regarding interaction among dogs, and between dogs and humans. They also require breeders to keep exercise records and develop exercise programs, with consideration given to specific breed exercise requirements.
The new law would require at least two exercise periods daily, with a combined total of no less than one hour of exercise, for each dog more than 12 weeks old and fit for exercise.
"Even though they're these massive operations, they are not under the jurisdiction of the Animal Welfare Act because they're selling directly to consumers. And so you have these puppy mills that should be regulated because they are huge commercial operations, but they're not."
"Dealers, exhibitors, and research facilities must develop, document, and follow an appropriate plan to provide dogs with the opportunity for exercise," the act states, in part. "In addition, the plan must be approved by the attending veterinarian. The plan must include written standard procedures to be followed in providing the opportunity to exercise. The plan must be made available to APHIS upon request, and, in the case of research facilities, to officials of any pertinent funding federal agency."
Members of the Humane Society of the United States support the legislation. Kathleen Summers, deputy director of the Humane Society's Stop Puppy Mills campaign, said the legislation would hold breeders to some minimal standards.
"It will also require that all facilities covered under the Animal Welfare Act let the dogs out of their cages daily for exercise, and that's very important because continual confinement is just one of the cruelest aspects of puppy mills," Summers said.
If the bill passes, dogs would have to be removed from their primary enclosures and allowed to walk throughout exercise periods. The legislation would ban use of exercise machines such as treadmills, unless prescribed by a veterinarian, but those are already outlawed by current regulations.
The American Kennel Club's interpretation of the bill indicates the law would end an exercise exemption for dogs kept in runs that allow them to exercise continuously, according to an article on the AKC Web site. The article also states that breeders should not be judged by the number of dogs they have or sell.
The article also states that the AKC looks forward to working with legislators "to contribute language which ensures the health and welfare of our canine companions without infringing upon the rights of responsible dog breeders and responsible dog owners." An AKC spokeswoman noted the bill had little chance of passing and it could be amended when it is reintroduced, and she declined comment beyond the publication on the AKC Web site.
Stephanie Shain, director of the Stop Puppy Mills Campaign, said the Humane Society provided input when the bill was drafted. She agreed with the AKC assessment that dogs in runs would be given time outside their enclosures if the legislation passed.
Shain said one hour was chosen as a minimal exercise time period to give dogs time to stretch and burn energy outside their enclosures without adding burdensome requirements for breeders.
Mentzer said the bill has had bipartisan support, but it hasn't been able to move through Congress.
"I can't imagine someone who would not want to support this bill," Mentzer said.
More than 4,000 people and facilities are listed as licensed breeders by the USDA-APHIS. An agency spokeswoman said there is no indication how many unlicensed breeders are operating in the U.S.