USDA to close inspection loophole

Greater oversight of Internet pet breeders sought
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A proposed rule issued May 16 in the Federal Register by the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service calls for greater federal oversight of some large-scale pet breeders currently exempt from the Animal Care program’s inspection and licensing requirements.

A Department of Agriculture Animal Care inspector inspects a USDA-licensed dog-breeding facility alongside the facility’s owner. (Courtesy of USDA APHIS)

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. Currently, large-scale breeders who sell animals over the Internet also 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 proposed rule substantially narrows the definition of retail pet store so that it “means a place of business or residence that each buyer physically enters in order to personally observe the animals available for sale prior to purchase and/or to take custody of the animals after purchase.”

Therefore, breeders who participate in Internet-only or other sales without allowing the buyer to personally observe the animal ahead of purchase would be subject to current USDA commercial breeder licensing and inspections. Federal oversight involves identification of animals and record-keeping requirements as well as compliance with standards related to facilities and operations, animal health and husbandry, and transportation.

In addition, the proposed rule increases from three to four the number of breeding females that small hobby breeders can own and still be exempt from licensing requirements. These breeders can sell only those offspring that were born and raised on-site and sell them only as pets or for exhibition.

On the basis of APHIS’ experience with regulating wholesale breeders, the most common areas of regulatory noncompliance at pre-licensing inspections are veterinary care, facility maintenance and construction, shelter construction, primary enclosure minimum space requirements, and cleaning and sanitation. Assuming patterns of noncompliance by retail breeders newly regulated as a result of the proposed changes would be similar to those observed in pre-licensing inspection of wholesale breeders, APHIS estimates the total cost attributable to the proposed rule may range from $2.2 million to $5.5 million.

The rule would help ensure that animals sold at retail, but lacking public oversight receive humane handling, care, and treatment in keeping with the requirements of the (Animal Welfare Act).

Background from the USDA APHIS proposed rule

APHIS expects that this rule would affect primarily dog breeders who maintain more than four breeding females at their facilities. About 1,500 dog breeders are not currently subject to the AWA regulations but would be required to be licensed as a result of this proposed rule, according to APHIS estimates.

“We believe that the benefits of this rule, primarily enhanced animal welfare, would justify the costs. The rule would help ensure that animals sold at retail, but lacking public oversight receive humane handling, care, and treatment in keeping with the requirements of the AWA,” according to background from the proposed rule. “It would also address the competitive disadvantage of retail breeders who adhere to the AWA regulations, when compared to those retailers who do not operate their facilities according to AWA standards and may therefore bear lower costs.”

Critics have argued that the proposed rule would put a hardship on home-based breeders of purebred dogs, especially breeders of rare or less-popular breeds who cater to a niche market. Hobby breeders of small pocket pets and large exotics such as ferrets and rabbits also say the new rule would be unduly burdensome for them. That said, of the 758 comments made as of the end of May, most were in favor of the proposed rule.

The USDA’s Office of the Inspector General issued a report May 25, 2010, that initially raised concerns about the loophole in the AWA exempting large-scale breeders who sell pets over the Internet (see JAVMA, July 1, 2010, page 9). The USDA OIG found that some consumers who purchased dogs over the Internet had encountered health problems with their dogs. In addition, APHIS has received complaints directly from members of the public concerning the welfare of dogs and other pet animals sold at retail.

Pending in both the House and Senate is the Puppy Uniform Protection and Safety Act, H.R. 835/S. 707, which would require licensing and inspection of dog breeders who sell directly to the public and sell more than 50 dogs annually. S. 707 would also mandate appropriate space and opportunity for daily exercise for dogs at facilities owned or operated by a dealer.

The PUPS Act incorporated some language from the AVMA’s model state bill and regulations intended to promote the welfare of dogs bred and sold as pets (see JAVMA, June 1, 2010, page 1143). Although the PUPS Act has many co-sponsors and support, at this point, no action has been taken on it. The AVMA Governmental Relations and Animal Welfare divisions have worked closely with Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin on this issue and are encouraged to see the proposed APHIS rule finally released, said Dr. Whitney L. Miller, an assistant director with the AVMA GRD.

How to take action

The public was given 60 days—until July 15—to comment on the proposed rule, and comments can be submitted in one of two ways. If submitting by mail, label the comment “Docket No. APHIS-2011-0003” and mail it to Regulatory Analysis and Development PPD APHIS, Station 3A-03.8, 4700 River Road, Unit 118, Riverdale, MD 20737-1238. Comments may also be submitted through the Federal eRulemaking portal at