USDA targets Internet breeders with proposed definition change

New definition of "retail pet store" designed to ensure health and welfare of pets sold sight-unseen to buyers.
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May 24, 2012
By dvm360.com staff

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is proposing a revision to its definition of “retail pet store” to close a loophole that many dog and cat breeders have slipped through for years—a loophole watchdogs say has endangered the health and welfare of pets sold over the Internet and via phone- and mail-based businesses for too long.

The current law, which was developed more than 40 years ago before the Internet became mainstream, exempts retail pet stores from the requirements of the Animal Welfare Act, which APHIS enforces. The idea behind the exemption was that people who walk into a pet store can see for themselves whether an animal is healthy and being cared for properly before deciding to make a purchase. Breeders who do not operate as retail pet stores are subject to licensing and inspection by APHIS officials.

However, many breeders who do business over the Internet, by phone or via mail call themselves retail pet stores. And because they sell animals sight-unseen to buyers, they’re not subject to inspection by the federal government or potential pet owners. The result, USDA officials say, is that buyers have received animals with contagious disease, genetic deformities and other medical and social issues. Some of these buyers also received animals that were too young to be weaned.

The new proposal restores the designation of “retail pet store” to businesses or residences that buyers physically enter to observe the animal before purchasing and where certain animals, such dogs and cats, are sold solely for use as pets. This means that Internet-, phone- and mail-based retailers would be required either to allow interested buyers to enter their premises and observe the animals before purchase or obtain a license and allow APHIS to conduct inspections.

Another stipulation in the proposed rule is that small hobby breeders would continue to be exempt from licensing requirements as long as they keep three or fewer breeding females on their premises. Dog owners who breed four or more females would be subject to licensing and inspection, a change that affords APHIS the opportunity to focus their efforts on large-scale commercial dog breeders, often known as puppy mills, which present the greatest risk for noncompliance.

“This proposed change is aimed at modernizing our regulations to require individuals who sell animals directly to the public to meet basic care and feeding as required by the Animal Welfare Act,” says Rebecca Blue, USDA deputy under secretary for marketing and regulatory programs. “By revising the definition of retail pet store to be better-suited to today’s marketplace, we will improve the welfare of pets sold to consumers via online, phone- and mail-based businesses.”

Some animal welfare groups, such as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), also view the new proposal as a welcome chance to reform the currently outdated law. “While USDA oversight is not without its deficiencies, this is an important step in dragging thousands of unlicensed, uninspected puppy mills out of hiding once and for all,” says Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of HSUS, on the organization’s website. “Some of these facilities have been churning out hundreds of puppies a year, often in deplorable conditions, without ever undergoing a single inspection for even the most basic standards of care.”

APHIS is currently accepting public comments on the proposed rule to determine how best to target enforcement and whether exemptions should be maintained or expanded for smaller breeders. More information can be found at www.aphis.usda.gov.