Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Breeders who mistreat and abuse their dogs but profit from selling prized puppies online to unsuspecting buyers have escaped federal oversight for years, but that's going to end soon.
A newly adopted federal rule closes a legal loophole under which breeders who sell directly to buyers -- mostly over the Internet -- weren't subject to the same inspection and licensing requirements as those who supplied animals to pet stores.
The rule, which takes effect in the next couple of months, essentially updates the 1966 Animal Welfare Act for the Internet age by extending regulatory and licensing requirements to online pet sellers, some of whom may be shady breeders.
Animal-rights advocates say the rule would make it easier to shut down unscrupulous commercial operations that confine breeding females at length, depriving them of food, water and veterinary care and leaving them outdoors to freeze in the winter and roast in the summer as they give birth to litter after litter of profitable pups.
Though the rule, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture adopted Tuesday after an extensive public comment period, applies to dogs, cats and a range of other warm-blooded species sold as pets, most online sales are of puppies from pure-bred and exotic lines, advocates say.
Rep. Sam Farr, a Carmel Democrat who championed legislation to close the loophole, and groups like the Humane Society of the United States praised the Obama administration for going after "puppy mills" without waiting for a divided Congress to act.
The so-called retail store rule applies to operators who have at least four breeding females, which means it's targeted at finding and shutting down unscrupulous breeders who mass produce puppies to sell to buyers around the world. Most mom-and-pop breeders who raise and sell puppies as a hobby have fewer than four fertile females and would be exempt from the rule, advocates say.
Tanya Espinosa, spokeswoman for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, said in an email about 2,600-4,600 breeders are likely to be covered by the rule.
"We believe the majority of these newly regulated breeders are already providing sufficient care to their animals," she wrote.
The government proposed the rule partially in response to a stinging 2010 report by the USDA inspector general's office. The report said the inspection process was "ineffective" against unscrupulous dealers and that violators were let off with minimal fines. Inspectors also have massive caseloads -- 159 inspections per official in 2008 -- and the new rule will add to that burden.
APHIS' 120 inspectors oversee 7,500 licensed breeders and other facilities like labs, Espinosa said, adding that the agency will determine later if it needs more inspectors to implement the rule.
Underscoring the passion surrounding the issue, the government received more than 210,000 public comments after publishing an early version of the rule in May 2012.
Farr said the rule would protect online buyers, who almost never see the puppy before they buy it and therefore can't tell if it's in good health until after they take the pet home. It would also protect responsible breeders who treat their animals humanely from unfair competition, and safeguard the pet itself, he said.
Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society, said breeders who "treat the females like breeding machines and puppies like a cash crop" are doing brisk business online, though it's unclear how many of the 2 million to 4 million animals puppy mills sell each year are sold via the Internet.
Pure-bred and exotic pets can fetch hundreds or thousands of dollars apiece online, giving unscrupulous breeders an incentive to shift all their sales to the Internet to avoid the hassle of an occasional USDA inspection, Pacelle said. Breeders who supply puppies to pet stores are regulated by the USDA.
"Responsible breeders have nothing to worry about if they are properly caring for the dogs," Pacelle said. "The only people who should be concerned about this rule are those people who are substandard breeders."
Breeders can easily meet federal animal-welfare standards by doing basic things like providing food and water and bringing animals indoors when it's too hot or cold, Pacelle said.
"Animal welfare standards aren't that rigorous to begin with but at least this is some oversight," he said. "USDA then needs to really crack down on these chronic violators so that the dogs are receiving some minimal protections."
Farr introduced legislation to close the online-seller loophole in 2008 and 2010 and co-sponsored a GOP version of the bill in this Congress. But none of those House bills or companion measures in the Senate have advanced despite receiving bipartisan support.
The latest House bill, sponsored by Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Jim Gerlach, has 132 co-sponsors, including Farr, Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Palm Desert, and 25 other Californians. The Senate bill, introduced by Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin, is co-sponsored by both California senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.
Congressional supporters unsuccessfully sought to give federal inspectors the legal tools to shut down unscrupulous breeders, said Farr, who wrote California's puppy mill law in the late 1980s while serving in the state legislature.
"The USDA has created the rule that gives them the authority to shut these places down," he said in a recent telephone interview. "There's a lot of arguments about animal husbandry in this country and the commercial use of animals. But one thing we agree on is that if you're going to do it for profit, you've got to live to a much higher standard than a pet owner."
Pacelle said Missouri has more puppy mills than any other state and these establishments are clustered in the Midwest, especially in Iowa and Kansas.
Critics of the rule argued that it would restrict the online market for puppy sales and hurt responsible breeders who love and respect their animals.
Take Pamela Mettrick of Riverside, who said in comments she submitted in August 2012 that she's grateful for the USDA's help in keeping her orange trees healthy but doesn't appreciate Uncle Sam meddling in her pet-rearing hobby.
"For the same length of time I have shipped the occasional puppy. Why now are pet breeders under attack by the very governmental agency here to protect and defend agriculture?" Mettrick wrote. "My purchasers come from around the globe. Please don't extinguish my breed or breeding program. Please do not pass this regulation. Do your job to protect agriculture not dispose of it."
Gannett Washington Bureau