Many large-scale commercial breeders of dogs that sell to pet stores have been criticized by animal welfare advocates and public officials as puppy mills, where female dogs are often over bred in inhumane conditions. Nonetheless, large breeders of animals for the pet trade are required to be licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and to meet very minimal standards of care set by the Animal Welfare Act. That, at least, gives the department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service the power to inspect facilities and penalize or close down bad operators.
But large-scale breeders increasingly conduct their business over the Internet, selling directly to customers rather than pet stores, and the Animal Welfare Act doesn’t subject online sellers to licensing and regulation. Even USDA officials say breeders selling online — or by mail or phone — are taking advantage of a loophole that improperly exempts them from licensing. Last year, the USDA proposed a change in the rules that would eliminate that loophole. Now it’s time to put such a rule officially in place.
The Animal Welfare Act, which was passed in 1966, long before the Internet, exempted from licensing very small-scale breeding operations (three or fewer female animals) and retail pet stores. The rationale was that the stores were selling to local customers, who could see the animals in person before purchasing them as well as observe the conditions of the store.
Breeders selling online have been classified as retail pet stores because they sell directly to the public. But most of that is interstate commerce, and buyers almost never see the animal in person before ordering it or the conditions under which it was kept. And the breeders aren’t regulated by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. “Without consumer oversight or APHIS inspections, there is no assurance that the animals are monitored for their overall health and humane treatment,” USDA officials wrote in a 2010 audit of the inspection program. The audit pointed out that some Internet breeders were very large, noting that one had 140 breeding dogs.
Allowing commercial breeders to sell over the Internet without federal licensing subverts the intent of the Animal Welfare Act and leaves hundreds of animals at the mercy of unregulated breeders. USDA officials, animal welfare advocates and members of Congress have all said as much.
The government should issue a final rule that makes it clear that breeders selling online are not retail pet stores and should be regulated by the USDA like any other large-scale commercial breeder.