USDA cracks down on Internet pet sales
Posted September 10, 2013
WASHINGTON — The Agriculture Department is cracking down on dog breeders who sell puppies over the Internet with new regulations that will force them to apply for federal licenses.
The rules announced Tuesday would subject dog owners who breed more than four females and sell the puppies online, by mail or over the phone to the same oversight faced by wholesale animal breeders.
Many breeders who run their businesses online have skirted federal oversight by classifying themselves as retail pet stores, which are exempt from licensing requirements. Commercial pet stores aren't required to have licenses because buyers can see the animals before they buy them and decide whether they appear healthy and cared for. But that's not the case when buying over the Internet.
Kim Alboum, North Carolina director for the Humane Society of the U.S., said puppy mills have been taking advantage of the so-called Internet loophole for years.
"There was no oversight at all whatsoever. Puppies were shipped. You never saw where they came from," Alboum said. "People were looking online and seeing these rolling hills and beautiful barns and healthy puppies, and that's not where these dogs are coming from."
The idea behind the new rules, says USDA's Kevin Shea, is that either government inspectors or buyers will now see the animals with their own eyes before they are sold.
Shea, administrator of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, says the agency is responding to a 2010 USDA inspector general's report that uncovered grisly conditions at so-called "puppy mills" around the country. The report recommended that the department tighten the animal welfare laws – written more than four decades ago, long before the advent of the Internet – to cut down on unscrupulous breeders.
In addition to finding dirty, bug-infested conditions at many breeding facilities, inspectors cited numerous reports of buyers who received animals who were sick or dying.
The new rules, first proposed last year, would ensure that most people who sell pets over the Internet, by phone or mail order can no longer do so sight-unseen. Sellers either must open their doors to the public so buyers can see the animals before they purchase them, or obtain a license and be subject to inspections by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Alboum said the rules still have a loophole because they won't apply to breeders who meet buyers face to face, even if it's just to hand off the puppy in a parking lot.
"If you deliver the dog directly to the person or the person comes to pick up the dog hand to hand, you don't have to comply with these rules," she said.
Animal advocates in North Carolina have tried for years to convince state lawmakers to pass legislation against puppy mills, but no bills have made it through the General Assembly. The House passed a bill in May that would have required commercial dog breeders with 10 or more breeding females to provide basic care for their dogs, but the bill died in the Senate.
"Most of our breeders do sell hand-to-hand through newspaper ads or over the Internet. However, people come to pick the animals up, and there's thousands of dogs in those facilities," Alboum said. "We still need these regulations in North Carolina."
More than a dozen puppy mills have been closed in North Carolina in the last year.
The rules are targeted to dog breeders but could affect breeders of other animals too. The Agriculture Department estimates that up to 4,640 dog breeders could be affected by the rule, along with about 325 cat breeders and up to 75 rabbit breeders.
Small-size breeders have lobbied against the changes, saying the rules could regulate them out of business. USDA's Shea says the department set the minimum of four breeding females to ensure that those smaller sellers would be able to continue offering puppies.
"People who have generally been thought of as 'hobby breeders' continue to be exempt," Shea said.
The American Kennel Club is "dismayed" by the rule change, calling it "overly broad" and saying that, despite Shea's assurance, the license fee and requirements will hurt hobby breeders.
"The federal government has missed an opportunity to introduce a smarter, more effective rule to deter unscrupulous breeders and sellers by imposing a regulation based on the number of dogs sold, not the number of dogs a person owns," AKC spokeswoman Lisa Peterson said in a statement.
Shea said the licenses will cost $750 or less and complying with the USDA regulations should only be expensive for breeders who aren't already ensuring their animals have adequate housing and medical care.