A close call for puppy mill dogs


It might surprise some pet lovers to learn that most commercial dog breeders (aka puppy mills) are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the same agency that regulates farming, forestry and food. That’s because breeding dogs and puppies in such facilities are considered “livestock.” Established by President Lincoln in 1862, the USDA was called the “people’s department” by the president.

And the people have spoken.

The agency had put a plan in motion to outsource inspections of the commercial dog breeding operations licensed by the USDA. Thanks, in part, to an overwhelming public outcry, the USDA has decided not to pursue that dangerous plan.

Under the proposal, the USDA would have allowed third parties to determine which facilities should be inspected, and how often. These third parties would likely have included the very groups that profit from the commercial puppy trade. In effect, the proposed change could have amounted to puppy mills having the power to police themselves, with little accountability or oversight.

As it stands, puppy mills operate under extremely weak regulations. The Animal Welfare Act (AWA), a federal law enacted in 1966, requires commercial breeders to comply with shockingly minimal animal-care standards that, in reality, are little more than standards of survival. Under the AWA, a commercial breeder is allowed to keep an unlimited number of dogs, to breed their female dogs every cycle, to offer the dogs in their facility water only twice a day, and to keep a dog in a wire cage only six inches larger than the dog for his or her entire life.

Sadly, even those marginal standards are not stringently enforced, and far too few citations are given, even for serious violations. The USDA acknowledged as much in its own audit in 2010. But at least there is the assurance of some federal oversight, insufficient as it may be.

The public relies on the USDA to uphold the Animal Welfare Act by conducting routine inspections to protect animals in licensed facilities. If third parties had been handed this authority, it would have led to dangerous conflicts of interest and would have effectively amounted to puppy mills regulating themselves. This would have been a serious step in the wrong direction and would have reversed much of the progress that has been made toward putting an end to puppy mills.

This is not the USDA’s first misstep. In February 2017, the agency purged online access to the breeder inspection reports that, until then, had provided some transparency about how animals are being treated at licensed facilities. This decision all but eliminated the public’s ability to learn about the true origins of the puppies for sale in their local pet stores. It also made it virtually impossible to enforce certain laws that prohibit pet retailers from selling puppies from breeders with animal cruelty violations. Although some of the information has since been restored online, nothing short of full transparency should be acceptable from the “people’s department.”

As a federal agency, the USDA is subsidized by American tax dollars. As such, the agency is accountable to taxpayers and it should be doing more to protect the pets that Americans care so much about. When the third-party inspections proposal was announced, animal lovers across the country spoke up and conveyed their concerns to the USDA, and the USDA heard them loud and clear. The right decision was made in this case, but there is far more that the USDA can and should be doing to ensure the welfare of the animals under its oversight.

It's up to the people to keep the pressure on. After all, it’s our department.

You can speak up for animals by signing up to receive Best Friends advocacy alerts.