The U.S. Department of Agriculture has narrowed the definition of a retail pet store in a move that brings more Internet animal sellers under federal oversight. The government on Tuesday issued a final rule that is expected to affect up to 4,640 dog breeders, 325 cat breeders and 75 rabbit breeders nationwide.
The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) proposed the rule in May 2012 in an effort to address what the agency calls “sight unseen” transactions in which a buyer never sees the animal or its living conditions before purchase. The rule forces many of those breeders to comply with Animal Welfare Act guidelines.
“We know that if the federal standards are being met, the animals are getting humane care and treatment,” says Ed Avalos, undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs. “By revising the definition of retail pet store to better suit today’s marketplace, we will now improve the welfare of more pet animals sold sight unseen.”
The rule exempts a number of operations and people, including traditional pet stores, sellers of working dogs, most animal rescues and shelters, breeders of rabbits for food or fur, and dealers in fish, reptiles and other cold-blooded animals.
The key threshold is the number of breeding females. Operations with five or more breeding females may be required to be licensed under the Animal Welfare Act.
“This will allow APHIS to better concentrate its resources on ensuring the welfare of animals at larger breeding operations,” the agency reports.
APHIS already regulates the sale of wholesale pets to ensure that animals bred at commercial facilities receive adequate care.
“Internet-based businesses and other businesses that sell animals sight unseen must now be licensed and inspected by APHIS to ensure the pets they sell to the public receive minimum standards of care,” APHIS reports.
The American Kennel Club called the new rule “overly broad.”
“[It] will do more damage than good,” AKC spokesperson Lisa Peterson says. “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.”
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals supports the change.
“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,” says Nancy Perry, senior vice president of 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 cost of complying with the new rule will be negligible, APHIS stated. A business housing six breeding females and 74 dogs can expect to pay from $284 to $550 a year for licensing, identification tags and recordkeeping–or less than the typical price of many purebred dogs.
The rule is expected to go into effect in November after being published in the Federal Register.