USDA strengthening federal authority over online pet sales

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is taking new measures to ensure the health and welfare of pets sold over the Internet.

The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) announced that it has revised the definition of "retail pet store" within the Animal Welfare Act to prevent many breeders selling pets online from sidestepping APHIS licensing requirements and inspections.

According to the USDA, the new definition of a retail pet store is "a place of business or residence at which the seller, buyer, and the animal available for sale are physically present so that the buyer may personally observe the animal and help ensure its health prior to purchasing or taking custody of it."

Because of the definition change, breeders and other businesses who sell animals sight unseen over the Internet, by phone, or through the mail will need to obtain a license as well as submit to inspections. Many of these sellers and groups had previously avoided federal oversight by classifying themselves as retail pet stores, which are exempt from the rules, APHIS reported.

The need for an updated definition of "retail pet store" was made apparent when a 2010 audit by the Office of Inspector General found that more than 80 percent of sampled breeders were conducting their operations with no oversight by authorities, leading to an abundance of unhealthy pets being sold to consumers who were buying animals without first observing them in person.

Who is exempt from the licensing and inspection requirements?

The rule change specifies that people who maintain four or fewer breeding females will not be subject to federal regulation. Those with more than four breeding females - dogs, cats, or small exotic/wild pocket pets - will need to be licensed and inspected by APHIS, the USDA said. 

According to the Associated Press, the USDA estimates that the rule will affect up to 4,640 dog breeders, 325 cat breeders, and 75 rabbit breeders.

Many entities will still be exempt from APHIS regulations, including:

  • Brick and mortar pet stores
  • Many animal rescue groups, pounds, shelters, and humane societies
  • People who breed and sell working dogs
  • People who sell rabbits for food, fiber (including fur) or for the preservation of bloodlines
  • Children who raise rabbits for 4-H projects
  • Groups that raise, buy, and sell farm animals for food or fiber (fur included)
  • Businesses that only handle fish, reptiles, and other cold-blooded animals

Ensuring humane treatment and better health for animals

Wayne Pacelle, president of The Humane Society of the United States, told the Associated Press he believes the new rules will mean a higher level of care for thousands of pets across the country.

"There are hundreds of thousands of dogs languishing in small wire cages, denied pet care, and exposed to the elements that literally had no protection under federal law. This turns that around," Pacelle said.

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