Feds go after online ‘puppy mills’

The Obama administration is extending federal oversight to online pet stores in an effort to crack down on abusive “puppy mills.”

A measure from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) puts new restrictions on breeders that sell pets on the Internet, closing what animal rights advocates call a loophole in the law.

“The puppy mills are kind of like factory farms for dogs where the mother dogs are treated like a breeding machine and the puppies are turned out like a commodity,” Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the U.S., said in an interview with The Hill.

“They don’t think of them of companions like pet owners do. It just becomes a money-making operation.” 

ADVERTISEMENT
Breeders and other animal businesses have to abide by licensing and regulations issued under the Animal Welfare Act of 1966. The measure sets minimum standards for some wholesale breeders of dogs, cats and other pets.
 
Retail outlets that sell animals are exempt from those rules, however. As a result, some negligent breeders have begun to sell their animals on the Internet to escape scrutiny, Pacelle said.
 
“You have thousands of puppy mill operators who have migrated to the Internet as their primary means of commerce, and the Animal Welfare Act regulations were adopted prior to the era of the Internet,” he said. “It didn’t anticipate that direct sales by that method would come to dominate the industry.”
 
The USDA’s regulation would change the definition of a “retail pet store” to exempt only brick-and-mortar facilities from the Animal Welfare Act.

The rule change would require online and telephone-based pet stores to be inspected and licensed by the USDA, and force them to comply with standards for veterinary care, sanitation, food, water and shelter.
 
“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, the senior vice president of ASPCA Government Relations, in a statement.

“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.”
 
Traditional pet shops, according to regulators, have oversight from the customers who walk in and out of their stores. That prevents them from the same sort of abuses they accuse online pet stores of being able to perpetrate.
 
“In the battle to crack down on inhumane puppy mill operations, this is the main component because it expands the playing field so dramatically,” Pacelle said. 
 
In an attempt to make sure that small breeders are not unduly affected, the regulation increases the number of female breeding dogs, cats and other animals that a breeder can own before being subject to the regulation. Current law sets the threshold at three animals, but the regulation bumps that up to four.
 
The pet industry has backed the rule.
 
Mike Canning, the president of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, told The Hill that the regulation should help counter negative impressions of the industry.
 
“All across the country all you hear is the derogatory term ‘puppy mill, puppy mill, puppy mill,’ ” he said. “So yeah, we thought there was some concern out there in the American public about commercially bred dogs. Hopefully the government oversight with this segment of dog breeders will hopefully assure Americans that the dogs they buy come from good places, and then hopefully people will buy more dogs because of it.”
 
Canning added that the industry was working on its own voluntary standard for animal breeders that it expected to finish in the next year.