Earlier this year, the United States Department of Agriculture finally announced that it would be implementing a critical new rule to crack down on online puppy mills. Now, breeders are filing suit, attempting to stop the rule from going into effect, and their case shows a disregard not just for animal welfare, but for their own industry. The unfolding legal drama illustrates the deep problems within the commercial animal breeding industry, and it shows what happens when a few large companies can influence the actions of an entire industry.
The USDA implemented the rule in the first place because of a strange and frustrating loophole that denied the agency any authority over online puppy mills. Since breeders were selling directly to consumers over the internet, they weren’t regulated, unlike those who sell to pet stores and similar facilities. Thus, puppies weren’t being provided with even the most basic standards of care by online breeders, who crammed them into cages, didn’t offer them basic veterinary care and were in a prime position to mislead consumers.
That’s bad news for dogs, obviously, who don’t deserve such terrible conditions, but there’s more to it than that. Unscrupulous breeders do the entire industry, including reputable breeders who take care when handling their dogs and making breeding decisions, a great harm. Their puppies are often unhealthy, and they can carry dangerous genes that could spread into the rest of the breed, perpetuating ill health and chronic genetic abnormalities. Furthermore, their misrepresentation to consumers could lead to people receiving dogs that don’t meet breed standards or aren’t what they expected at all, while breeders who face regulation aren’t allowed to engage in these practices and have an active incentive to be responsible about their business practices.
Responsible breeding requires taking impeccable care of both breeding stock and puppies, and carefully evaluating perspective owners to determine if they’re good fits for given puppies. Furthermore, good breeders always offer to take dogs back if they don’t work well in the household, and they maintain a relationship with their clients over the years, rather than abandoning dogs once they’ve been sold.
While breeding remains controversial, there is still a substantial difference between an ethical breeder and a puppy mill. Online breeders, on the other hand, don’t hold themselves to the same standard, and thanks to the lack of regulation, they didn’t need to: even if consumers were receiving very sick dogs, puppies who clearly weren’t of the breed advertised, and animals who had been subject to abuse, they had limited recourse.
Thus, the USDA law was a sound regulation for animal welfare, one reason so many animal welfare organizations advocated for it, but it was also a smart business move for breeders, by requiring all of them to adhere to the same standard. Otherwise, online breeders effectively had an unfair business “advantage” because they could abuse dogs without penalties, unlike their counterparts. The suit from breeders, however, insists that online breeders shouldn’t be subject to the Animal Welfare Act, denying basic welfare and rights to puppies raised in such conditions.
It’s chilling to know that breeders are so concerned about anything that might affect their bottom line that they went to bat against an animal welfare rule intended to benefit the very creatures they claim to care about, with some participants in the suit no doubt pushed to join with claims that allowing the regulation to go into place would result in a loss of business. Large corporations often use an appeal to business interests as a tactic to get smaller companies involved in such suits, making it seem like an industry is deeply invested in a given cause when some smaller businesses may not realize what they’re advocating for.
Enhanced USDA scrutiny of breeding facilities would be better for dogs, better for breeders, and better for consumers, but apparently, many breeders don’t view it that way.
Photo credit: Todd Dailey.