USDA rule expands regulation of breeders who sell online

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A Department of Agriculture Animal Care inspector observes puppies during a routine inspection of a USDA-licensed dog-breeding facility.

The Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service issued a final rule that revises the definition of “retail pet store” under the Animal Welfare Act, closing an inspection loophole for Internet-based dog breeders.

“Requiring these breeders to adhere to the Animal Welfare Act standards is important because we know that if the federal standards are being met, the animals are getting humane care and treatment” said Ed Avalos, USDA undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, in a Sept. 10 department press release. “By revising the definition of retail pet store to better suit today’s marketplace, we will now improve the welfare of more pet animals sold sight-unseen.”

The announcement fulfills a commitment APHIS made in response to the USDA Office of Inspector General audit on dog breeders that was released in May 2010 (see JAVMA, July 1, 2012). The OIG report found that more than 80 percent of breeders investigated were not being monitored or inspected to ensure their animals’ overall health and humane treatment, resulting in some buyers receiving unhealthy pets—especially dogs.

Instead, these breeders were selling pets over the Internet and claiming “retail pet store” status, exempting themselves from oversight by APHIS. In addition to finding unsanitary conditions at many breeding facilities, inspectors cited numerous reports of buyers who received animals that were sick or dying.

The definition of retail pet store now states that it must be “a place of business or residence at which the seller, buyer, and the animal available for sale are physically present” so that the buyer may personally observe the animal and help ensure its health prior to purchasing or taking custody of it, according to the USDA release.

Traditional “brick and mortar” pet stores will continue to be exempt from federal licensing and inspection requirements under the AWA. However, Internet-based businesses and other businesses that sell animals sight unseen must now be licensed and inspected by APHIS to ensure the pets receive minimum standards of care.

Animal rescue groups, pounds, shelters, and humane societies will continue to be exempt from APHIS regulations.

Also exempt are the following: people who breed and sell working dogs; people selling rabbits for food, fiber, or for the preservation of bloodlines; children who raise rabbits as part of a 4-H project; operations that raise, buy, and sell farm animals for food or fiber; and businesses that deal only with fish, reptiles, and other cold-blooded animals.