In my opinion, a recent announcement from the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) was good news, but some of you are sure to disagree when hearing that the Animal Welfare Act’s definition of a “retail pet store” has been revised.

The effect of the new wording is to include internet pet retailers under the umbrella of the Animal Welfare Act while still exempting brick and mortar pet stores from regulation. The reasoning behind this may not be immediately apparent, but it goes something like this: Consumers who purchase pets from a brick and mortar store are in a position to judge for themselves if the retailer is offering healthy animals for sale, taking care of them properly, and whether or not they want to support the business. In effect, consumers can police this side of the industry by only purchasing animals from well-run establishments.

On the other hand, internet businesses typically sell their pets sight unseen. Consumers cannot make an informed choice in these cases, so government regulation becomes necessary. In truth, I’d like to see all pet retailers held to the minimal standards of the Animal Welfare Act, but since the expense of this is prohibitive, this change is the best that can be reasonably expected. According to the USDA’s press release:

Today’s announcement fulfills a commitment APHIS made in response to an Office of Inspector General (OIG) audit on dog breeders. The 2010 audit found that more than 80 percent of sampled breeders were not being monitored or inspected to ensure their animals’ overall health and humane treatment resulting in some buyers receiving unhealthy pets — especially dogs. Instead, these breeders were selling pets over the Internet and claiming “retail pet store” status, exempting themselves from oversight by both consumers and APHIS.

Many animal rescue groups, pounds, shelters and humane societies will continue to be exempt from APHIS regulations. Also exempt are the following: people who breed and sell working dogs; people selling rabbits for food, fiber (including fur), or for the preservation of bloodlines; children who raise rabbits as part of a 4-H project; operations that raise, buy and sell farm animals for food or fiber (including fur); and businesses that deal only with fish, reptiles, and other cold-blooded animals.

The change in regulations will also increase from three to four the number of breeding females (dogs, cats or small exotic/wild pocket pets) that people may maintain before they would be required to be licensed under the Animal Welfare Act. This will allow APHIS to better concentrate its resources on ensuring the welfare of animals at larger breeding operations. Breeders who maintain four or fewer breeding females are considered hobby breeders who already provide sufficient care to their animals without APHIS’ oversight — provided they only sell the offspring of animals born and raised on their premises for pets or exhibition.

What do you think? Is the AWA’s new definition of “retail pet store” a move in the right direction?

Dr. Jennifer Coates

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