Federal Regulations of Puppy Mills

GW Animal Law student Julia Dreyer reviews puppy mills and the role of the Federal Government.

There is no uniformly agreed upon legal definition of a puppy mill.[1]  One court defined “puppy mill” as “a dog breeding operation in which the health of the dogs is disregarded in order to maintain a low overhead and maximize profits.”[2]  Though not exclusively designed as such, the federal Animal Welfare Act is the foundation in the government regulation of puppy mills.

I. The Animal Welfare Act

The Animal Welfare Act (AWA), 7 U.S.C. § 2131, is the primary federal law regulating the treatment of animals in commercial and research settings affecting interstate commerce.[3]  The AWA’s purpose, as it pertains to pets, is to: 1) insure that animals are provided humane care and treatment, 2) assure the humane treatment of animals during transportation in commerce, and 3) protect animal owners from theft of their animals for use in research.[4]

Congress intended for the AWA to regulate “the transportation, purchase, sale, housing, care, handling, and treatment of animals” by animal carriers and dealers.[5]  Under the AWA, a “dealer” is any person who, for compensation or profit, transports, buys, or sells any dog for use as a pet, hunting, security, or breeding purposes.”[6]  However, a person who sells animals directly to the public is not a “dealer” under the AWA[7] and thus is not subject to its provisions. Moreover, because the AWA is limited by the federal government’s commerce power, local breeders are not governed by the AWA.

II. The Role of the USDA

To achieve its regulatory goal, Congress created a licensing requirement which bestows the licensing responsibilities upon the United States Department of Agriculture’s (“USDA”) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (“APHIS”).[8]  The AWA authorizes APHIS agents to conduct inspections to determine whether someone is violating the AWA.[9]  Even though the USDA agents have considerable discretion,[10] there are difficulties enforcing laws against puppy mills[11] because puppy mills that sell directly to the public or not engaged in interstate commerce are not subject to these provisions.[12]  Moreover, the USDA is severely understaffed[13] and thus unable to adequately inspect puppy mills that are subject to the AWA.

III. State Regulation

Although there has been criticism of the AWA for establishing only the minimum standard of care for animals,[14] the AWA “expressly provides for additional state regulation in this area.”[15]  Thus, states have significant power to address the evils of puppy mills within their borders.  Some states have improved animal cruelty laws in their jurisdictions, yet many have not categorized puppy mill operations beyond the general definition of breeder.[16]

IV. Pending Legislation

The Puppy Uniform Protection and Safety Act (PUPS) is a federal bill, introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate, to amend the AWA to provide further protection for breeding dogs and puppies.[17]  The bill seeks to amend the AWA to include a definition for a “high volume retailer” that would no longer be exempt from regulation through the retail pet store exception.[18]  A “high volume retailer” is defined as an individual who owns one or more breeding female dogs and sells or offers for sale more than 50 offspring from such dogs in a one-year period.[19]  PUPS further provides for a daily exercise requirement for breeding female dogs, which would greatly improve the conditions in puppy mill situations where dogs are often kept in cages for years only to produce litters of puppies.[20]  Unfortunately, with the change in the new Congress, the Puppy Uniform Protection and Safety Act died for the second time before passing, despite the encouraging 216 cosponsors in the House and 33 in the Senate[21]  Fortunately, the bill was reintroduced to the 113th Congress on February 27, 2013 with 81 cosponsors in the House of Representatives and 11 cosponsors in the Senate.[22]

V. Summary

It is difficult to prosecute puppy mills under the AWA because many of them sell directly to the public and thus are not subject to the AWA.  State legislatures seem to be moving toward greater regulation of breeders by outlawing animal abuse in puppy mill settings. The existence of the Puppy Uniform Protection and Safety Act indicates that the federal law may be moving in the same direction.  To help the PUPS Act gain the necessary attention and support to succeed in finally closing the Puppy Mill loophole under the AWA, consider sending a message to your representative or signing a petition.[23]


[1] Sandra K. Jones, Dealing Dogs: Can We Strengthen Weak Laws in the Dog Industry, 7 Rutgers J.L. & Pub. Pol’y 442, 448 (2010).

[2] Avenson v. Zegart, 577 F. Supp. 958, 960 (D. Minn. 1984); see also American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Puppy Mills, http://www.aspca.org/fight-animal-cruelty/puppy-mills (last visited Nov. 14, 2012) (defining a “puppy mill” as “a large-scale commercial dog breeding operation where profit is given priority over the well-being of the dogs.”).

[3] 7 U.S.C. §§ 2131-59.

[4] Id. § 2131.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. § 2132(f).

[7] Id. § 2132(f)(i), (ii).

[8] See id. § 2153; see also Melissa Towsey, Something Stinks: The Need for Environmental Regulation of Puppy Mills, 21 Vill. Envtl. L.J. 159, 164 (2010).

[9] 7 U.S.C. § 2146.

[10] See Jurewicz v. U.S. Dept. of Agric., No. 10-1683 JEB, 2012 WL 4130515 (D.D.C. Sept. 20, 2012) at *11 (“[T]he purpose and plain language of the Act mandate a strong presumption in favor of disclosure” of a dog breeder’s operational information including the quantity of dogs sold and revenue gained, and thus breeder’s disclosure was not exempt under Freedom of Information Act).

[11] Towsey, supra note 8, at 167.

[12] Towsey, supra note 8, at 165.

[13] See Jones, supra note 1, at 445-46 (stating that although there are more than 4500 “dealers” of animals in the United States, there are only three APHIS Sector Offices with around 70 veterinary inspectors who are entrusted with inspecting these facilities)

[14] American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Puppy Mills, http://www.aspca.org/fight-animal-cruelty/puppy-mills (last visited Nov. 14, 2012) (“They are merely survival standards for dogs.”).

[15] Zimmerman v. Wolff, 622 F.Supp.2d 240, 245 (citing 7 U.S.C. § 2143(a)(8)); see also Towsey, supra note 8, at 172 (“The crime of animal cruelty… is regulated by each state.”) (citing as an example 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5511 (2008)); 2 M.L.E. Animals § 37 (explaining Maryland animal cruelty statute).

[16] Jones, supra note 1, at 467(“The ultimate result is that there is no oversight of these facilities.”).

[17] See Puppy Uniform Protection and Safety Act, H.R. 835, 112th Cong. (1st Sess. 2011); see also Puppy Uniform Protection and Safety Act, S. 707, 112th Cong. (1st Sess. 2011).

[18] S. 707.

[19] Id. (“The term ‘breeding female dog’ means an intact female dog aged 4 months or older.”).

[20] See id.; See also Humane Scorecard, The 112th Congress in Review, Humane Society Legislative Fund, http://www.hslf.org/pdfs/humane_scorecard_2012_final.pdf (last visited February 24, 2013).

[21] GovTrack.us, http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr835 (last visited Feb. 24, 2013); see Humane Society Scorecard, supra note 20, at 3, 9.

[22] GovTrack.us, http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/113/s395 (last visited Mar. 18, 2013); GovTrack.us, http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/113/hr847 (last visited Mar. 18, 2013).

[23] See You can help put an end to puppy mills in the U.S., Best Friends Animal Society, http://www.capwiz.com/bestfriends/issues/alert/?alertid=62479306&type=CO (last visited Mar. 18, 2013); See also Support the PUPS Act!, care2 petitionsite, http://www.thepetitionsite.com/393/059/483/support-the-pups-act/?z00m=20517311 (last visited Mar. 18, 2013).

Leave a Reply