Expert Voices

Internet Pet Dealers Finally Face Oversight (Op-Ed)

Two puppies lay down next to each other.
Puppies may be better at garnering empathy than people are, in some cases, a new study finds. (Image credit: Puppies photo via Shutterstock)

Wayne Pacelle is the president and chief executive officer of The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). This Op-Ed is adapted from a post on the blog A Humane Nation, where the content ran before appearing in LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Tens of thousands of dogs suffering in substandard, filthy and overcrowded cages for years on end finally will get the protection they deserve as a result of a rule the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) formally adopted earlier this month. That change, a long-held aspiration for The HSUS, the Humane Society Legislative Fund (HSLF), and the Doris Day Animal League (DDAL), has been decades in the making, and will extend federal oversight to thousands of puppy mills that do business online.

Of the dozens of puppy mills that The HSUS has helped close down during the past five years, the vast majority were selling puppies online, thus escaping federal oversight due to a loophole in federal Animal Welfare Act regulations that exempts Internet sellers.

Because large-scale dog breeders who sell animals to pet stores are regulated, but breeders who sell directly to the public are not, there has been a massive migration of breeders to the latter sales strategy within the last decade or so. If they could sell dogs and escape any federal oversight, why not get in on that act and continue to cut corners on animal care ?

The HSUS, HSLF and DDAL pointed out that it was fundamentally unfair that people involved in the same underlying business enterprise (breeding dogs to sell for profit) would face entirely different regulatory standards. It was a circumstance ripe for fraud and misrepresentation. Internet sellers of puppies often displayed images of puppies frolicking in open fields, while, in reality, the dogs were languishing, crammed inside feces-encrusted cages, receiving no protection from the elements and no veterinary care whatsoever. And until the legal standard was modified, the federal government couldn't take action because none of these mills required federal licensing and inspection.

Due to pressure from The HSUS and DDAL, the USDA's inspector general looked into enforcement of the rules governing dog breeding, and found appalling abuses of the dogs, deficient exercise of authority by USDA where it had authority, and identification of the glaring gap in the law that allowed Internet sellers to evade any federal oversight. It was the inspector general's report, combined with advocacy efforts by The HSUS and its allies in Congress and with the administration of President Barack Obama, that finally compelled federal action.

We thank the Obama administration and the USDA for bringing new standards of care to thousands of puppies, but also to kittens, rabbits and other warm-blooded animals who often are raised in inhumane facilities and sold as pets over the Internet, by mail or by phone, sight-unseen.

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The HSUS and HSLF called on supporters to act in 2011, and 32,000 people signed a petition urging the Obama administration to crack down on unregulated puppy mills. When the USDA proposed an actual change in its regulations in 2012, HSUS members and other animal advocates generated 350,000 public signatures and comments in support.

There has been strong bipartisan support in Congress for closing the "Internet loophole" in the Animal Welfare Act regulations. Federal legislation, S. 395 and H.R. 847 — known as the PUPS Act, or "Puppy Uniform Protection and Safety Act" — sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. and David Vitter, R-La. and Reps. Jim Gerlach, R-Pa., Sam Farr, D-Calif., Bill Young, R-Fla. and Lois Capps, D-Calif., galvanized members of Congress to support efforts to finalize and implement the rule.

Puppy mills will not go away overnight, and it's still important for any potential puppy buyer to meet the breeder in person at his or her facility to see how and where a puppy was born and raised.

But this rule has the potential to allow federal inspectors to peer behind the closed doors of puppy mills, and improve the lives of tens of thousands of animals. That is a change worth celebrating, and we thank our supporters, the USDA, and our allies in Congress for supporting this significant step.

Pacelle's most recent Op-Ed was "States Take Steps to Prevent Zombie Deer and Poisoned Condors" This article was adapted from "USDA Announces Landmark Rule to Crack Down on Online Puppy Mills," which first appeared on the HSUS blog A Humane Nation. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.