April 16, 2014

Are pet retailers about to face expanded scrutiny from the federal government? A group of dog breeders, along with a handful of cat breeders, say that is exactly what’s happening as a result of an administrative change by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Retail pet stores may soon find themselves subject to inspections by the USDA, inspections from which they have previously been exempt, according to advocates for dog and cat breeders who are suing the USDA over new enforcement practices under the Animal Welfare Act of 1966.

A group of 40 dog clubs, along with two cat clubs, is taking the action because the USDA has imposed a new rule, known as “The Retail Pet Store Rule,” which took effect Nov. 18, 2013. The new rule has expanded a rule originally intended to impose licensing and inspection requirements on large breeders who sell dogs and cats over the Internet.

The new reading of the rule, the group says, will not only subject breeders to unannounced inspections of their residences, but will also take away a special exemption retail pet stores had since the original passage of the Animal Welfare Act.

“Although Congress has amended the AWA several times since its passage, Congress has not changed or narrowed the AWA’s exemption of retail pet stores,” the lawsuit says. “By promulgating a regulation instead of seeking a statutory solution in Congress, the USDA has circumvented congressional intent. Moreover, the rule’s redefinition of ‘retail pet store’ is inconsistent with the required record that was developed to justify the rule.”

The group’s concern is that the government could begin imposing costly new licensing requirements for breeders on tight budgets.

The plaintiffs and the USDA are in serious disagreement over the number of breeders who will be affected by the rule change, with the government placing the number at between 2,600 and 4,640. The plaintiffs insist tens of thousands will be affected, including virtually all of the 19,000 breeders who are members of the organizations joining in the lawsuit.

Congress has amended the Animal Welfare Act several times since the law’s original enactment. This change, however, was strictly administrative, another point that has raised the ire of the breeder groups, particularly because Congress never eliminated the retail store exemption in any of its amendments to the act.

However, not everyone is unhappy about the change.

The lawsuit by the breeder groups has come under fire from the Humane Society, which has indicated its intention to join the government in defending against the suit, indicating the rule change had “closed the regulatory loophole” that permitted puppy mills to abuse dogs and sell them online with no regulatory oversight.

On-site inspections by the USDA could result in establishments being ordered to make structural upgrades in order to qualify for licenses. While such requirements are less likely to affect established pet retail facilities, they could represent a significant burden on breeders who operate out of their homes and will now fall under a broadened definition of what constitutes a retail pet store.

– Dan Calabrese

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