Animal Care faulted for lax oversight of problem dog breeders
New legislation aims to strengthen regulations, close Internet loophole
R. Scott Nolen
June 18, 2010
This article is more than 3 years old
An internal review of the federal program responsible for regulating large-scale dog breeders found major deficiencies in the program's efforts to bring problem dealers into compliance with animal welfare regulations.
The Agriculture Department's Office of the Inspector General issued a report May 25 in which several problems with the Animal Care program administered by the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service were cited.
The OIG's review of Animal Care program inspections of dog breeders with a history of Animal Welfare Act violations in the past three years faulted the program in several areas. For instance, the process of enforcing compliance by problematic dealers was described as ineffective. Inspectors failed to cite or document violations properly to support enforcement actions. Moreover, minimal penalties were assessed, and APHIS was found to have misused guidelines to achieve lower fines.
Additionally, some large-scale dog breeders were found to be exploiting a loophole in the Animal Welfare Act that makes them exempt from the Animal Care program's inspection and licensing requirements. As a consequence, a growing number of these unlicensed breeders were not being monitored to ensure the animals are being treated humanely.
"(T)he issues raised about the regulation of problematic dog breeders are very troubling," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement, "and under my watch, USDA will reinforce its efforts under its animal welfare responsibilities, including tougher penalties for repeat offenders and greater consistent action to strongly enforce the law."
The same day the report was made public, senators Dick Durbin and David Vitter introduced bipartisan legislation to strengthen regulations for high-volume dog breeders. The AVMA, American Kennel Club, Humane Society of the United States, and APHIS Animal Care had each provided background and comment on the issues addressed by the legislation, several months prior to the release of the OIG report.
"This report raises serious concerns about APHIS' ability to enforce the law, ensure the welfare of animals, and crack down on the most negligent and irresponsible dog breeders," Durbin said. The agency has already begun making changes, but more needs to be done, he added.
Wholesale breeders—those who sell to pet stores—are covered by the Animal Welfare Act and thus are regulated, licensed, and inspected by the USDA. Retail pet stores are usually supplied by these regulated breeders but are themselves exempt from the act. Large-scale breeders who sell animals over the Internet meet the definition of a retail pet store under the provisions of the AWA and, therefore, are not obligated to comply with federal animal welfare standards.
The Puppy Uniform Protection and Safety Act (S. 3424) attempts to close this loophole by requiring licensing and inspection of dog breeders who sell directly to the public and sell more than 50 dogs annually. S. 3424 would also mandate appropriate space and opportunity for daily exercise for dogs at facilities owned or operated by a dealer.
The PUPS Act incorporates some language from the AVMA's model bill and regulations intended to promote the welfare of dogs bred and sold as pets (see JAVMA, June 1, 2010,). Congressman Sam Farr introduced the House version of the PUPS Act—H.R. 5433—May 27.
As of press time, the Association had not yet adopted an official position on the legislation.
In recent years, a growing number of animal abuse cases at large-scale dog breeding facilities have underscored calls for better regulation of the industry. As recently as late May, the Marshall County, Miss., Prosecutor's Office filed 96 charges of misdemeanor animal cruelty against the owners of an alleged substandard facility where more than 100 dogs were seized.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which assisted in the Mississippi investigation, said it was not surprised by the OIG's findings regarding the effectiveness of the government's Animal Care program.
"The ASPCA has been painfully aware of the cruel conditions to which dogs are regularly subjected at the hands of puppy mill operators who put profit above providing the most fundamental standards of care," the organization said in a statement.
While at least six states and the District of Columbia have taken steps to tighten regulation of commercial dog breeders, state legislatures are seeing a flurry of bills aimed at these breeders.
This report raises serious concerns about APHIS' ability to enforce the law, ensure the welfare of animals, and crack down on the most negligent and irresponsible dog breeders.
—SENATOR DICK DURBIN OF ILLINOIS
A total of 3,035 dog breeders are currently licensed by the USDA, according to department spokesman David Sacks. Approximately 100 federal inspectors visit regulated kennels annually, and they have the authority to re-inspect a facility if they feel there's a need to do so, he added.
The OIG criticized APHIS' efforts to achieve breeder compliance through education and cooperation. Of the 4,250 violators reinspected from 2006-2008, 2,416 were found to have repeatedly violated the AWA, including some that ignored minimum care standards.
"Therefore, relying heavily on education for serious or repeat violators—without an appropriate level of enforcement—weakened the agency's ability to protect the animals," the OIG report stated.
Many inspectors were highly committed, conducting timely and thorough inspections while making notable efforts to improve the treatment of dogs, the report said. However, six of 19 inspectors failed to correctly report all repeat or "direct" violations—meaning more serious violations that affect the animals' health. As a consequence, some problematic dealers were inspected less frequently than the situation warranted, according to the report.
Some inspectors did not always adequately describe violations in their inspection reports or support violations with photographs, the report continued. From 2000-2009, this lack of documentary evidence weakened Animal Care's case in seven of the 16 administrative hearings involving dealers. Regional managers explained that some inspectors appeared to need additional training in identifying violations and collecting evidence, the report stated.
The OIG recommended 14, mostly administrative, changes to the Animal Care program. APHIS has responded with an Enhanced Animal Welfare Act Enforcement Plan, which includes shifting from education to enforcement, improving inspector performance, and seeking a legislative remedy to the Internet loophole. Several of the steps have already been completed or are in the process of being finalized, according to the agency.
The OIG report is available online here. The link to APHIS' enforcement plan is here.