The federal government is looking to crack down on unlicensed dealers selling dogs, cats and other pets over the Internet or phone.
And while some animal welfare advocates say the proposed changes would protect animals, some worry they could affect reputable breeders in New Hampshire, as well.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is accepting comments until July 16, on its proposed changes to the Animal Welfare Act.
Under current federal law, “retail pet stores” are exempt from having to obtain federal licenses or comply with AWA standards governing the humane handling, care and transportation of animals. So are breeders who have three or fewer breeding females and who sell the offspring of those animals.
The rationale for the exemptions was that animals sold by “hobby” breeders and pet stores could be “monitored by the buyers for their health and humane treatment,” according to the executive summary published in the Federal Register on May 16.
But with Internet sales, “today’s customers are often unable to enter the retailer’s place of business to observe the animals before taking them home,” the agency explained. And that means there is no public monitoring of the animals’ health and welfare.
The agency noted it has received complaints from consumers who purchased dogs over the Internet and found that the animals had health problems.
So APHIS wants to revise the definition of retail pet stores to mean “a place of business or residence that each buyer physically enters in order to personally observe the animals available for sale prior to purchase and/or to take custody of the animals after purchase.”
The proposed changes prompted Dog Owners of the Granite State to issue a “federal legislative alert” last month, asking members to weigh in before the comment period closes next week. The advocacy group, which represents pet owners, breeders, trainers, kennel clubs and others, is concerned that the licensing regulation would apply to all but the smallest breeders, or to any breeder who ships a dog sight-unseen to someone in another state.
However, Joanne Bourbeau, northeast regional director for the Humane Society of the United States, said the change “closes that loophole that currently allows those large-scale commercial breeders to sell puppies over the Internet or by mail without any USDA oversight.”
“If you are operating a breeding operation out of your home and people are coming to see the animals, you would not be affected,” Bourbeau said.
She noted when the Animal Welfare Act was passed in 1966, “the Internet didn’t even exist.”
“So we need to step up with these regulations to be in line with the current day,” she said.
APHIS also proposes increasing the number of breeding females allowed, from three to four, before a federal license is required. That way, “some dealers with small facilities who would not otherwise qualify as retail pet stores under the revised definition ... would continue to be exempt,” it stated in the Federal Register.
Dr. Stephen Crawford, state veterinarian, said his office has seen an increase in complaints about the condition of dogs shipped into the state since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. “It makes sense that they would try to address Internet-based pet sales, because we have wrestled with that challenge for several years and not found a real good solution to it yet,” he said.
Meanwhile, Crawford noted, a new state law that takes effect Aug. 4 requires any dog, cat or ferret transferred into New Hampshire to be held in quarantine at a state-licensed facility for at least 48 hours. The animal “has to be held here at one of those facilities and then can be transferred to the public after that,” he said.
The state Department of Agriculture licenses about 200 pet shops and animal shelters as well as a half-dozen large commercial breeders here; inspectors must visit the premises at least twice a year, he said.
Mike Korek has owned a Manchester pet store for 22 years; he recently changed the store’s name to Bill’s Pet and Aquarium as he prepares to retire and turn the shop over to a longtime employee.
Korek is in favor of the proposed narrowing of the definition of a retail pet store. “There are a lot of people out there that are trying to sell things over the Internet that they shouldn’t, and unfortunately, animals are one of them,” he said.
In addition to any regulations, Bourbeau said, consumers need to be smart about how and where they purchase animals. Her organization gets complaints from all over the country from people who have purchased dogs online and later discovered they had congenital defects.
“Hundreds and thousands of dollars in veterinary bills later, their lives are shattered, and sometimes the dogs don’t make it,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
Her advice: “Don’t assume just because somebody has a pretty website that that’s the situation the dog is coming from. Anybody can slap a cute picture of whatever type of dog on a website.”
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Shawne Wickham may be reached at email@example.com.