Full Title Name:  Overview of Commercial Breeder Laws

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Robyn R. Katz Place of Publication:  Michigan State University College of Law Publish Year:  2008 Primary Citation:  Animal Legal & Historical Center

This overview discusses the only federal law that marginally addresses commercial breeders (the Animal Welfare Act). It then discusses various state laws that regulate commercial breeding, and how the lack of enforcement at the state level allows puppy mills to exist.

While responsible breeders try to place desired dogs with competent homes, the prevalence of irresponsible breeders has risen in recent years with the growing demand for purebred and designer dogs. This trend is further complicated by the fact that only twenty-six states have laws implementing regulations on commercial kennels. Those that have licensing requirements for kennels lack in substance and enforcement. The laws of each state differ drastically from one another, giving motivated breeders room to travel between states to find the location that has the least restrictive way to make money from breeding. Normally, these state laws instruct breeders on how to legally maintain a breeding operation, including but not limited to registration fees, limits on the number of dogs, whether or not they will be subject to inspections, and maintenance of facilities.

The absence of overarching federal law and lack of both state law and federal enforcement leads to the problem of puppy mills. This ultimately an issue of supply and demand, where the consumer’s roll in this tragedy is paramount to its change in direction.

The only uniform animal welfare law is the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA), which includes regulations for living conditions of certain animals and penalties for violations. The law provides criminal penalties, civil penalties, and revocation of permits for violations of the AWA. Congress passed the AWA as a means of regulating animals in science and research, not animal cruelty. However, on the surface, parts of the law are applicable to certain companion animal breeders. For example, dogs and cats are listed as animals covered by the Act. However, this law is much more limited than the general public realizes. The Act exempts all retail pet stores, and someone who does not profit more than $500 from the sale of a dog, cat, or any wild animal. Thus, savvy breeders can maneuver around the license requirement if the breeders sell directly to the public or do not gross more than $500 per year.

Despite the AWA’s limitations, commercial breeders often fall within the inspection requirements of the AWA. The AWA requires inspections through the Department of Agriculture’s Animal Care Program. However, since the federal law exempts those facilities that sell dogs directly to the public (backyard breeders and those not registered as licensed Class A dealers), a significant amount of breeding facilities go uninspected.

Since the purpose of the federal Act is not for the regulation of commercial breeders, loopholes within the Act allow unregulated breeders to exist. The primary authority to regulate the welfare of animals is through the states, which need to maintain laws that are enforceable and hold people accountable for violating the current laws.

Only twenty-six states currently have laws that govern breeders. States laws vary, but most states that do have laws address sanitation, housing, food and water requirements, the governing agency, and inspections; few address veterinary care and the humane treatment of dogs, ventilation, and exercise.  

Generally, those states that even define commercial breeder, commercial kennel, breeding facility, and retail pet store do so differently. The variations in the state laws may encourage commercial breeders to migrate in geographic regions, often times to states that have less restrictions. The discrepancy in laws between adjacent states may encourage illegitimate breeders to skirt the laws and move to where the standards are far more lenient.

Inspections of commercial breeding facilities are of great importance to animal welfare because it is the regulatory agency that has the power to shut down facilities that do not follow the laws. Those states that do not mandate inspections are setting up laws that are rarely enforceable. Although law enforcement is already spread thin within the states, and there is a lack of funding and personnel to carefully inspect each facility, the answer is not to leave out an enforcement strategy.

In 2008, Virginia took the lead on battling problems with illegitimate commercial breeders. Effective January 1, 2009, the Virginia law will be the only state that mandates that any commercial breeder must apply or and obtain a business license. Virginia is the first of its kind to require that a commercial breeder conform to business standards. Designating a breeding facility as a business forces breeders who could become illegitimate breeders through the sheer number of puppies they produce, to comply.

While the Virginia law illustrates major progress by limiting large-scale puppy mills, it still leaves loopholes for breeders who have less than thirty female dogs. If a breeder has twenty-nine dogs and each dog produces two litters a year, there is a potential for hundreds of puppies born without the facility being inspected since there was no license requirement.

However slightly broad and unpolished the Virginia law is, Virginia’s upcoming law is paramount, as other states will be able to use Virginia as a template for enacting new laws. Louisiana is strongly considering new legislation governing puppy mills. The Louisiana law would place more restrictions on breeders selling to pet stores and over the Internet.

Currently, no current state statute utilizes the phrase “puppy mill” in its text. The ASPCA defines responsible breeders as those who have focused their efforts on one or a select few breeds, and through breeding, historical research and ongoing study, mentoring relationships, club membership, showing, raising and training of these breeds have become experts in the breed’s health, heritable conditions, temperament, and behavior. The Humane Society of the United States defined puppy mills as dog-breeding operations that put profit above the welfare of dogs.

There are legitimate breeders operating in the world. However, p uppy mills are institutions where dogs are forced to breed their whole lives until they are physically incapable. A female dog is bred every time she goes into heat, so female dogs are pregnant or nursing all the time. At that time, the dogs are either sold to other breeders, left on the side of the road, neglected, or even killed. The puppies spend twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week in cages, with often little to no contact with people or the outside world.

As technology progresses, the Internet is a convenient way to purchase a dog from an unknown source. The danger in this is buying a sick puppy from an unlicensed breeder and supporting his or her efforts to curtail the law.   No current state law has any statute governing the sale of dogs through the Internet.

While the problem of unethical breeders has become a national problem, the solution must be addressed at the state level. Enforcement standards should be applied in each state that has laws governing commercial breeding operations. Loopholes can be closed by states enforcing the current laws that presently exist, and providing new laws that enable the public to be knowledgeable about legitimate breeders operating within the state. Without overstepping their boundaries, states can provide clear expectation and standards for facilities that operate as commercial kennels, and allow those legitimate breeders to prosper in the production of healthy puppies; at the same time, states can prevent puppy mills from arising by forcing operations to operate as businesses such as Virginia does, and dedicating more funding to the departments that perform inspections. 

While twenty-six states currently have commercial breeding laws, these laws are meaningless if they are not enforced. States need to work together, especially regionally, in order to ensure that illegitimate breeders do not slip through the cracks of the current laws. It is the discrepancies between states that encourage those who do not wish to comply with the law. The commercial breeding business and the general public both need to be held accountable for this rising problem of puppy mills in the United States.

For more on commercial breeders and puppy mills, please see the Detailed Discussion .


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