Legislation targets inhumane 'puppy mills'

Commercial dog breeders may soon have to be federally licensed, as Congress considers a new law that would impose oversight on "puppy mills," known for breeding dogs in overcrowded, dirty and inhumane conditions to be sold in pet stores.

The bill would close a loophole in the Animal Welfare Act that allows some large breeders to avoid regulation. It contains provisions to protect the health of animals, and protect consumers from buying diseased or inbred pets. Animal advocates say regulation is necessary to curb abuses at factory-style kennels, many of which keep dogs crammed in filthy cages with no veterinary care. The bill would focus on breeders that sell more than 50 puppies a year.

Abuses have been ignored for decades, say animal welfare advocates. One reason is that under current law, breeders who sell through pet stores or online are exempt from regulation. As a result, a nationwide supply chain has evolved between dog breeders and pet stores. Since no one sees the breeding grounds where dogs are raised, abuse goes unchecked.The challenge for buyers, who in most cases are unaware of where their new puppy comes from, is that many of the animals have serious diseases.

"A puppy coming from a mill can get very expensive very quickly," said Stephanie Shain, a spokeswoman for the Humane Society of the United States. "Consumers may spend anywhere from $500 to $5,000 to buy a puppy, and often they find out very soon - sometimes literally that night - that they have to pay veterinary bills."

Common health problems with dogs sold by puppy mills include malnourishment, skin and eye infections, genetic disorders caused by inbreeding, and behavioral issues traced to abuse and neglect. However, once the puppy has been sold, it is hard for consumers to return it and get money back, or get compensation for medical expenses.

"You won't find many people who are willing to bring back a sick puppy. So it leaves buyers in a very bad situation where they're immediately bonded to the animal, then faced with having to make a difficult decision," said Shain. "It puts the family through the wringer when they thought they were doing the right thing."

A government report last month faulted the federal agency in charge of animal welfare laws for lax oversight. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of the Inspector General cited the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's animal care unit for inadequate documentation of violations, waiving or reducing penalties, and over-reliance on educating, instead of penalizing, repeat offenders.

The audit, conducted between 2006 and 2008, found that more than half of breeders cited for violations flouted the law again. In one case, the auditors found an Oklahoma puppy farm had been cited for 29 violations, including nine repeat offenses, during a three-year period. An inspector checking the facility at the end of that period found some starving dogs had resorted to cannibalism.

"Some of the things that came out in that audit are a step back for us that will result in some giant steps forward," said David Sacks, a spokesman for the USDA. "There will be more stringent enforcement and stiffer penalties for problem dealers."

Sacks noted the report focused not on the vast majority of commercial dog breeders that abide by the law, but on the small fraction of problem breeders. Still, he said, "One problem breeder is one too many, so we will strengthen our efforts to enforce the Animal Welfare Act to its fullest extent."

Some states have already approved local bills to regulate commercial kennels. Washington passed a law last year that prohibits possession by one person of more than 50 non-neutered dogs older than six months at one time. North Carolina is considering legislation requiring dealers with at least 15 breeding dogs to register with the state. In Michigan, more than 100 pet stores have signed a pledge committing not to sell puppies in favor of supporting local animal adoption programs.

The federal legislation will seek to set standards for kennel size, rate of exercise, sanitary conditions, and basic care. It will also limit possession of breeding dogs, in an effort to curb overpopulation and prevent reckless and inhumane mass production. Overbreeding results in millions of dogs being euthanized each year and can be a financial burden on local governments and taxpayers.

According to the Humane Society, as many as 4 million puppies from commercial kennels are sold each year in the U.S. The USDA puts the number of licensed dog breeders at 3,035, and there's no telling how many illegal, unregulated puppy mills there are. Approximately one third of the nation's 9,000 pet stores sell puppies.

Consumers wanting to buy a humanely bred puppy are encouraged to consider adopting one from a shelter or rescue group. For those who prefer a pet from a home or that has a pedigree, many reputable breeders sell puppies from licensed and regulated kennels or from small-scale breeding facilities.

"The commercial dog breeding industry is a legal industry and, for the most part, license holders do take care of their animals," said Sacks.

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