The United States Department of Agriculture has a division called the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, whose job includes oversight and protection of U.S. agricultural health, monitoring damage by wildlife on agriculture, and administration of the Animal Welfare Act. The AWA is a broad set of laws that allows the government to regulate many animal-related activities. It is the AWA that gives APHIS jurisdiction over some individuals who breed dogs.

The Animal Welfare Act was passed by Congress in 1966 “to protect certain animals from inhumane treatment and neglect.” Among other things, the Animal Welfare Act defines minimum standards of care for some animals bred for commercial sale. Under the law, people who breed some types of animals that will be sold to the public as pets – dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, ferrets and others – are required to provide adequate care and treatment in the areas of housing, handling, sanitation, nutrition, water, veterinary care and protection from extreme weather and temperatures.

The Animal Welfare Act requires facilities that breed animals for sale to retail pet stores, brokers or research facilities – facilities that are often labeled “commercial breeders” or even “puppy mills” – to be licensed. These facilities are subject to unannounced inspections to assure that they meet minimum standards of care. However, APHIS has a miniscule number of inspectors compared to the thousands of facilities that must be inspected (reported to be as low as 70 inspectors in 2008 for more than 10,000 facilities). APHIS is also charged with inspecting zoos, circuses and the research facilities that use animals.

“Retail pet stores” are not required to be licensed, or inspected, by the USDA. The AWA defines retail pet stores as anyone who sells a pet directly to the final customer where it will go to live, which allows hobby breeders (or any breeder who sells directly to their customers) to avoid federal licensing and regulation.

Portions of the Animal Welfare Act have been amended over the years, in 1970, 1976, 1985, 1990, 2002, 2007 and 2008. In mid-May 2012, the USDA released a new interpretation of portions of the AWA. Two of the proposed regulations could potentially impact hobby breeders.

As noted in a fact sheet prepared by the USDA regarding the proposed changes, the definition that APHIS currently uses for “retail pet store” was created in the 1970s, before the advent of the Internet. The idea behind the exemption was that customers would visit the shops (or the individual breeders) where they would purchase their puppy, and while on the premises the shop or breeder would provide a certain measure of oversight that would assure that the animals were properly cared for.

Today many animals are sold directly to the public over the Internet, sight unseen. Currently these sellers, under the broad definition of “retail pet store,” are not required to be regulated by the USDA, since they sell directly to the final home. However, the oversight provided by the pet-buying public is absent, since the buyer does not visit the home or shop of the seller to pick up the puppy. It has come to the attention of the USDA that buyers have received animals that have contagious diseases, genetic deformities and/or other illnesses, medical or social issues, and some buyers have received animals that are too young to even be weaned.

The goal of the USDA and APHIS in redefining the term “retail pet store” is to close the loophole that allows Internet sellers to go unregulated and to modernize its regulations to reflect current practices in the marketplace.

The proposed change would not affect any seller whose buyers physically enter their business or residence to buy a puppy. On the surface it may seem to hobby breeders and fanciers that this is a positive change, since most small-scale breeders are in favor of the regulation of larger scale commercial kennels. However, after analyzing the proposed change, the American Kennel Club has presented concerns about the changes.

In today’s market, buyers often purchase a purebred puppy from a hobby breeder that is geographically distant from where they live – sight unseen. This may be particularly true when a rarer breed is involved, or when a buyer is purchasing from a breeder for the second or third time, but no longer lives nearby, or when a breeder is referred to a buyer from someone else who has gotten a puppy from them. AKC notes that requiring those sellers to adhere to regulations designed for large commercial breeders may not be advisable.

The second regulation change that could affect the hobby breeder also appears, on the surface, to be a positive change. Currently breeders who keep three or fewer “breeding females” are not classified as commercial breeders and are exempt from licensing requirements and inspections. The proposed change is to increase that number from three to four breeding females on their premises, if the person only sells the offspring that are born and raised on the premises “for use as pets or exhibition (regardless of whether those animals are sold at retail or wholesale).”

AKC raises the concern that the term “breeding female” is not defined.

Fanciers and hobby breeders today are often presented with dog-related legislation that has the potential to impact their lives, their hobby and their liberties, and are asked to contact their state and local representatives in this regard. AKC wants fanciers in this case to understand that making changes to laws that already exist is much different from creating a new law. Direct input to the U.S. government from people who will be impacted by changes in existing laws is the primary recourse citizens have for or against these regulations. The government asks people who will be impacted to “provide specific expertise and comment” on the proposed changes.

As noted, on May 16 the USDA released the new interpretation of these regulations and is asking for input from the public. Comments, which will be accepted until July 16, 2012, may be made online here, or via U.S. Mail to:

Docket No. APHIS-2011-0003

Regulatory Analysis and Development

PPD, APHIS, Station 3A-03.8

4700 River Road, Unit 118

Riverdale, MD 20737-1238

The fact sheet regarding the proposed changes can be viewed here.

AKC would also like those concerned about the new interpretations to send their comments or questions to In addition to providing a formal response regarding its position on the new regulation, AKC will share the most common concerns it gets with APHIS.

If you need more information, contact the AKC Government Relations Department at 919-816-3720, or via email at