APHIS, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the USDA, recently extended the comment period for their proposed rule that would revise the definition of "retail pet store" and related regulations with the aim of improving the well-being of pets sold online, through the mail, or over the phone. The new deadline for comment is August 15, 2012. All of the relevant documents, including the approximately 9,000 public comments that have already been submitted online, are available at regulations.gov.

The way the current law is written exempts retail pet stores from the Animal Welfare Act. The thought was that consumers could judge for themselves whether or not a pet store was offering healthy animals for sale and taking care of them properly. In effect, consumers would police the industry by only purchasing animals from well-run establishments.

This may have been the case over 40 years ago when the law was initially penned, but in the Internet age, many people are buying pets online without ever physically entering a place of business where they can evaluate the animals that are for sale.Prospective pet owners probably assume that these facilities receive some sort of governmental oversight, but that is not the case. According to the USDA, the current situation has resulted in consumers receiving animals that are too young to be weaned and/or are suffering from contagious diseases, genetic deformities, and other medical and behavioral problems.

The proposed rule makes clear that the Animal Welfare Act exemption for "retail pet stores" only includes businesses or residences that buyers physically enter and can observe animals before purchase as pets. The APHIS Factsheet on the proposed rule explains the effect of this potential new rule well.

"Pet animal retailers will have a choice. They can either sell their animals to buyers who physically enter a place of business or residence to observe the animals available for sale prior to purchase or to take custody of the animals after purchase, or they can obtain a license under the AWA and allow APHIS inspectors to inspect their facility."

APHIS is also proposing increasing the number of breeding females from three to four that breeders of dogs, cats, and small exotic or wild mammals can own and still be exempt from licensing requirements. To be eligible, these hobby breeders can only sell the offspring that were born and raised on the premises and only sell them for use as pets or as exhibition animals. APHIS says that this change will allow them to focus their limited resources on the larger breeders that are typically responsible for the most egregious violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

I think the proposed rule is a step in the right direction. What’s your opinion — take a look at the AHIS Factsheet for more details about what the regulations would and would not do. Then post your comments here and at regulations.gov. The federal rule-making process works best when all interested parties are involved.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Kokhanchikov / via Shutterstock