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Dr. Pawz: Closing loophole with online pet sales

Saturday - 9/14/2013, 7:46am  ET

dog kennel (AP Photo/Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services)
The Agriculture Department is cracking down on dog breeders who sell puppies over the Internet, issuing new regulations that will force them to apply for federal licenses. (AP Photo/Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services)

USDA preempts Congress by changing rules

Dr. Katy Nelson

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Katy Nelson, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - Animal rights advocates around the country are applauding the USDA's decision to expand its enforcement of the 1966 Animal Welfare Act to include breeders that sell pets online.

Until now, breeeders who sold directly to buyers over the Internet, newspaper classifieds or other outlets, have avoided the licensing and inspection requirements placed on large-scale breeders selling to pet stores because of a loophole in the law that was written prior to the advent of the Internet.

Animal rights organizations have pointed out for years that there is a fundamental problem that people engaging in the same business practices (breeding animals for profit) face very different regulatory standards.

Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, writes in his blog that it is "a circumstance ripe for fraud and misrepresentation. And until the legal standard was modified, the federal government couldn't take action because none of these [suspected puppy] mills required federal licensing and inspection."

After years of pressure from the public and animal-welfare groups, the USDA's inspector general looked into the laws regulating commercial dog breeding and agreed there was a gap. The ASPCA, the Humane Society of the United States and other national groups gathered about 350,000 letters and signatures from concerned citizens supporting the USDA's efforts to provide more regulation of unlicensed breeding operations.

Now, by adopting this measure itself, the USDA will head off a bi-partisan bill - the Puppy Uniform Protection and Safety Act or "PUPS Act" - that sought to modernize enforcement of the AWA.

"This rule represents a meaningful effort by the USDA to target problematic, large-scale breeding operations and will require them to meet minimum care standards for breeding dogs and the puppies they produce," said Nancy Perry, senior vice president of ASPCA Government Relations.

"The ASPCA has witnessed the abhorrent cruelty that often exists behind the pictures of happy puppies posted on a breeder's website, and this rule will crack down on the worst Internet breeders."

The new regulations, first proposed by the USDA in May 2012, will now take effect in 60 days.

According to the new rule summary posted online by the organization, 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 breeders will be affected.

Likewise, around 75 rabbitries and 325 cat dealers will need to consent to regulation, USDA predicted.

The USDA adds that "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."

But, as Wayne Pacelle writes, "Puppy mills aren't going away overnight, and it's still important for any potential puppy buyer to meet the breeder in person at his facility to see how and where a puppy was born and raised.

But this rule has the potential to allow federal inspectors to peer behind the closed doors of puppy mills and improve the lives of tens of thousands of animals."

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Dr. Katy Nelson is an emergency veterinarian in Alexandria, Va. Tune in to "The Pet Show" with Dr. Katy every Saturday at 11 a.m. on Washington D.C.'s News Channel 8, and listen on WTOP for her Dr. Pawz segments every two weeks. Have questions for Dr. Katy? You can follow her on Twitter @drkatynelson, on Facebook or email her at askdrkaty@wtop.com.

Follow @WTOP and @WTOPliving on Twitter.