Many large-scale commercial breeders of dogs that sell to pet stores have been criticized by animal welfare advocates and public officials as puppy mills, where female dogs are overbred in inhumane conditions. Nonetheless, large breeders of animals for the pet trade must be licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and meet very minimal standards of care set by the Animal Welfare Act. That, at least, gives the department the power to inspect facilities and penalize or close down bad operators.
But large-scale breeders increasingly conduct their business over the Internet, selling directly to customers rather than pet stores, and the Animal Welfare Act doesn’t subject online sellers to licensing and regulation. Last year, the USDA proposed a change in the rules that would eliminate that loophole. Now it’s time to put such a rule officially in place.
The Animal Welfare Act — passed in 1966, long before the Internet — exempted from licensing very small-scale breeding operations (three or fewer female animals) and retail pet stores. The rationale was that the stores were selling to local customers, who could see the animals in person before purchasing them as well as observe the conditions of the store.
Breeders selling online have been classified as retail pet stores because they sell directly to the public. But most of that is interstate commerce, and buyers almost never see the animal in person before ordering it or the conditions under which it was kept.
Allowing commercial breeders to sell over the Internet without federal licensing leaves hundreds of animals at the mercy of unregulated breeders. The government should issue a final rule that makes it clear that breeders selling online are not retail pet stores and should be regulated by the USDA like any other large-scale commercial breeder.