USDA Preempts Congress, Enacts Online Pet-Dealing Rules

The number of pet dealers affected by the Animal Welfare Act is expected to surge.

This photo shows a malnourished Chihuahua during an inspection of a USDA-licensed commercial dog breeder in Olsburg, Kan., Sept. 24, 2012.
By + More

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday it will expand its enforcement of the 1966 Animal Welfare Act to include breeders that sell pets online. Internet dealers until now avoided the licensing and inspection requirements that affect breeders selling to pet stores.

By adopting the measure itself, USDA headed off a bipartisan bill – the Puppy Uniform Protection and Safety Act or "PUPS Act" – that sought to modernize enforcement of the landmark animal welfare law.

The new regulations, first proposed by the USDA in May 2012, will take effect in 60 days. Dog, cat and rabbit breeders with more than four breeding females who currently sell animals online, by phone or by mail will need to apply for a USDA permit, pay an annual licensing fee and consent to random inspections.

"We are enthused about it," Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, told U.S. News. "It's been a gaping hole in the Animal Welfare Act regulations."

[READ: Why Dogs, Unlike Wolves, Can Be Tamed]

The policy shift is "a major gain for the animal welfare movement," Pacelle said, "but we hope that USDA has the bandwidth to inspect [all of the facilities] and that they enforce the law in a rigorous way."

The action adopts the "core element" of the PUPS Act, he confirmed.

According to the new rule summary posted online by USDA, an estimated 8,400 to 15,000 dog breeders market puppies online. But because the rule only affects breeders with five or more breeding females – and has exceptions for hunting, security and breeding animals – USDA anticipates around 2,600 and 4,640 dog breeder will be affected. Likewise, around 75 rabbitries and 325 cat dealers will need to consent to regulation, USDA predicted.

Breeder licensing fees are determined a sliding scale, based on 50 percent of gross annual sales. For dealers who take in less than $2,000, the annual license cost will be $70.

Compliance costs – and the opportunity cost of 10 hours of annual paperwork – "could range between $853,000 and $2.8 million annually," for the affected breeders, according to USDA information posted online Tuesday.

[RELATED: Is Your New Dog a Money Pit?]

Violators of the Animal Welfare Act face, in theory, tough penalties.

The 2009 edition of the act allows the USDA to suspend a licensee's right to conduct business for 21 days if there is reason to suspect a violation. If a violation has been determined, the license can be suspended for an additional length of time or revoked.

A violation of the act brings a civil penalty of up to $10,000 per infraction. "Each violation and each day during which a violation continues shall be a separate offense," the law specifies.

The current Animal Welfare Act delegates most rule-making to the USDA. A 2012 USDA fact sheet specifies rules governing lighting, feeding, record keeping, sanitation, pest control, and other issues.

In addition to civil penalties, criminal sanctions for breeders violating the law can bring one year in jail and/or a fine of up to $2,500.

According to a fact sheet available online, USDA says "inspectors always have the option of inspecting [facilities] as often as they feel necessary and as resources allow; they also follow up on legitimate complaints from concerned citizens and organizations."

Pacelle told U.S. News his organization hopes for tough enforcement against puppy mills. Although it's a step forward "that these facilities are inspected at all," he said, "USDA must also exhibit resolve in shutting down or heavily penalizing puppy mills."

More News: