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USDA Proposal Could Regulate Internet Pet Sales

Sales of pets via the Internet could be affected by proposed USDA change to the Animal Welfare Act.

Posted: May 11, 2012, 9:30 p.m. EDT

chinchilla in toy
Marylou Zarbock
Retail pet stores have been exempt from the Animal Welfare Act under the premise that the public sees the animals prior to purchase and can determine if pets are being cared for in a humane and healthy way.

In an effort to protect animals sold over the Internet, on May 10, 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) proposed changing its definition of “retail pet store” to cover only those stores in which each and every pet sold was sold to someone who visited the business in person.

The existing definition allowed some Internet and mail-order sellers of pets, primarily an estimated 1,500 dog breeders, to avoid meeting Animal Welfare Act (AWA) requirements by operating as a retail business and selling direct to the public.

The proposed rule would remove the retail pet store exemption from any brick-and-mortar pet stores that sell any animals via the Internet, phone or mail because APHIS wants to ensure all animals sold retail are monitored by it or the public. A store could presumably keep its mail-order animals away from public scrutiny.

The AWA requirements include identification of animals, recordkeeping, facilities and operations standards (including space, structure, and construction; waste disposal; heating ventilation; lighting; and interior surface requirements); animal health and husbandry standards (veterinary care; sanitation; feeding, watering, and separation of animals); and transportation standards (enclosures, care of animals in transit, etc.).

Retail pet stores have been exempt from the AWA under the premise that the public visits the facilities and observes the animals prior to purchase to ensure the animals were cared for in a humane and healthy way, according to the USDA. However, the definition of retail pet store was written in 1971, prior to the advent of the Internet and online sales.

“This proposed change is aimed at modernizing our regulations to require individuals who sell animals directly to the public to meet basic care and feeding as required by the Animal Welfare Act,” said Rebecca Blue, deputy undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs for the USDA. “By revising the definition of retail pet store to be better suited to today’s marketplace, we will improve the welfare of pets sold to consumers via online, phone- and mail-based businesses.”

The USDA contends that there is no assurance that animals sold at retail for use as pets are monitored for health and humane treatment nationwide without public oversight or licensing and inspections by APHIS.

The USDA expects the proposed regulation to be published in the Federal Register within a week, at which time the public would have 60 days to comment on the proposal.

Specifically, the proposed definition reads, “Retail pet store means a place of business or residence that each buyer physically enters in order to personally observe the animals available for sale prior to purchase and/or to take custody of the animals after purchase, and where only the following animals are sold or offered for sale, at retail, for use as pets: Dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, rats, mice, gophers, chinchilla, domestic ferrets, domestic farm animals, birds, and coldblooded species…”

The USDA estimates about 1,500 dog breeders, and very few breeders of other animals, could be affected by the rule change. The cost of those facilities to come into compliance would be between $2.2 million and $5.5 million, according to government estimates. Individual facility costs would average about $1,500 to $3,700 per facility, including licensing fees, animal identification costs, and expenses to bring facilities into compliance (estimates based on non-compliance rates of breeders in pre-licensing inspections in 2010. For example, the USDA estimates 237 of the estimated 1,500 breeders would need to improve their veterinary care, which would cost between $531,000 and $1.16 million combined.

The proposal would also increase the number of breeding females, from three to four, a person could maintain before requiring a license. This would allow the USDA to devote its limited enforcement efforts at larger facilities, which it deems more likely to be in noncompliance with the AWA regulations. APHIS considers facilities with four or fewer breeding females to be “low-risk” facilities.

APHIS estimates this would reduce the number of regulated Class A licensees (breeders) by 31 percent, or 638 licensees from the current 2,064 licensees.

The agency also speculates that the proposal would address a competitive disadvantage that retail breeders that adhere to AWA regulations have compared to those retail breeders that lower their costs by not adhering to those standards.

The proposal also would exempt breeders of any animal other than wild or exotic animals, dogs, or cats, from the regulations if they earn gross income less than $500 from selling any covered animals. Currently the $500 limit applies only to animals sold to research facilities, exhibitors, dealers or pet stores.

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USDA Proposal Could Regulate Internet Pet Sales

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Reader Comments
I don't see a problem with this law as long as mail-order fish are still able to be purchased by aquarium enthusiasts.
Natalie, North Las Vegas, NV
Posted: 5/24/2012 5:37:30 PM
I think this could potentially be a very good thing for animals. There certainly isn't enough protection for animals being sold in shops, either (they're exempted from the Animal Welfare Act?! No wonder I've seen such horrors!), but at least this will help regulate the sale of animals online, provided is passes. Hopefully it will help curb the trade in illegal species and varieties sold across state lines, as well as enforce laws already in place, like the current problem of internet sales of tiny hatchling turtles despite being against federal law. You just have no idea what conditions animals are living in when you buy an animal online, and then there's the inherant dangers of shipping animals. They have to endure being treated like all the other mail, left in trucks or warehouses, airplane holds, no climate control. They can run out of water, be injured due to jostling or fighting due to intense fear, etc.

Animals need our protection. Without these inspections and regulations, it's a free-for-all. The animals' welfare is just too important to leave unenforced. Good care helps the public find more well-adjusted, healthy pets, too!

I've been working helping to foster and adopt out small animals/exotics for years and any help we can get to curb the cruelty in mills and sketchy sales in illegal species, etc. I, for one, hope this passes. Looking foreward to seeing how this progresses.
ratgirl, Raleigh, NC
Posted: 5/14/2012 1:59:17 AM
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