Puppy mill bill: Intentions, good; implementation, another story

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At press time in January, the U.S. Senate was considering legislation pertaining to dogs bred in puppy mills. Animal activists have proclaimed their enthusiastic endorsement, but other groups concerned with animal welfare, including the AVMA, researchers, and the pet industry, have expressed concern over the bill's language.

Introduced as an amendment to the Farm Bill, S. 1731, the Puppy Protection Act, S. 1478, proposed by Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, is intended to improve conditions for dogs and puppies at puppy mills by addressing socialization and breeding issues, and creates a "three strikes and you're out" system for chronic violators of the Animal Welfare Act.

"The bill will require commercial breeders to provide socialization for dogs at their facilities," Sen. Santorum explained as he introduced the bill to the Senate, Oct. 1, 2001. "Interaction is vital for puppies during the first few weeks of life. If they are isolated from people and other dogs during those key weeks, they could face a lifetime of serious problems. It has been shown that the lack of early socialization seriously affects a dog's ability to function as part of a human family and contributes to behavior problems such as aggression."

In a letter to Sens. Santorum and Durbin, the AVMA commented that, while it ardently supports efforts to improve conditions for puppies produced by commercial breeders, it does not believe that the proposed legislation will effectively do so and that the legislation could have unintended consequences. One concern is that the proposed amendment does not include a definition of "puppy mill," and could be expected to apply to all dealers of dogs, including dogs bred for purposes other than companionship, such as research animals. A second concern is that the socialization provisions of the bill focus on a prescribed schedule of activities and other requirements to accomplish socialization (i.e., engineering standards), rather than a set of criteria that would evaluate the impact of such socialization activities (i.e., performance-based measures).

If passed, the bill would impose standards on breeding as well. It states that dogs must be at least one year old before they're bred, and that they can't have more than three litters during a 24-month period. The AVMA, animal researchers, and the pet industry have all expressed their grave concern about moving the decision of when to breed or not to breed from a partnership between an owner and that owner's veterinarian to a legislative mandate. According to opponents of this provision, the decision of when to breed or not breed an animal is an animal health issue best left to professional judgment. In addition, adopting such a provision could set a precedent with the potential to reach beyond dogs bred in puppy mills.

The "three strikes" portion of the bill establishes mandatory revocation of licenses for anyone who commits three violations of the Animal Welfare Act during an eight-year period. As written, the legislation would apply to all individual agencies licensed under the AWA, not only puppy mill dealers.

According to the AVMA's letter to the senators, "The severity of violations for which revocation would be authorized is not defined by the proposed legislation, and currently AWA and USDA regulations do not distinguish between violations that have serious adverse consequences for animals and minor failures to comply with regulations that have minimal to no direct effect on animals."

Because the severity of consequences for violations is so high, the AVMA, researchers, and the pet industry have all expressed reservations that such wording could discourage reporting and feedback by inspectors that could otherwise result in facility improvements.

"What they're doing is making it more difficult for the USDA to administer the law," said Marshall Meyers of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council. "We're trying to work with the sponsors of the Puppy Protection Act [on more appropriate language]. There are certain things that need to be done, but this isn't the way to do it."

At press time, the Farm Bill was awaiting return to the Senate. To monitor the status of S. 1731 or the Puppy Protection Act, S. 1478, visit http://thomas.loc.gov.