Opinion

Overseas puppy mills: A good new rule to stem a cruel business

A new USDA rule could take a bite out of the overseas puppy mill businesses

A tough new federal rule should help stem the import into the U.S. of dogs from overseas puppy mills. The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued the rule, which prohibits dogs being imported into the U.S. from foreign countries for resale unless they are in good health, have had vaccinations and are at least 6 months old.

That age cutoff is the big news for animal welfare advocates who have been battling against puppy mills, which are the factory farms of dog breeding — overcrowded, filthy and full of dogs being overbred.

“What will really take a bite out of the international trade is that people can’t import puppies younger than 6 months,” says Deborah Press, senior manager of regulatory affairs for the  American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

To supply the demand for very young puppies, millers will wean them too soon from their mothers and send them off on long journeys to the United States.

“Each year, thousands of puppies — all just a few weeks old and barely weaned — endure appalling abuse as they are transported to the United States,” writes Wayne Pacelle, chief executive of the Humane Society of the U.S., on his blog. “They are packed into crowded, filthy plastic tubs with little or no food or water, and often exposed to extreme temperatures during transcontinental plane journeys that would be taxing for even an adult, healthy dog. A large number of the puppies get sick and then perish.”

It’s difficult to know how many domestic puppy mill dogs are being sold in this country, let alone how many dogs are coming in from foreign breeding operations. (Most are in Russia and China, says Press.) But the USDA notes in its report that the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 8,634 dogs were imported annually between 2009 and 2013. Of course, it’s not clear if all those dogs were puppies, but it’s a good bet that most were “since puppy sales fuel the pet trade,” says Press.

“Brokers who have been dealing exclusively or in large part in puppies under the age of 6 months will be affected by the rule and may have to change their business model,” says the USDA in the summary announcing the final rule.

And that’s a good thing.

Puppy mill breeders have almost nothing in common with responsible breeders, who do not overbreed and generally invite prospective buyers to see the breeders’ housing for their dogs and puppies.

Because puppy mills are not outlawed per se and are subject only to general animal welfare laws so minimal that even the USDA encourages breeders to exceed them, they can be clamped down on only by tightening rules. The new rule on importation was, literally, years in coming. Congress added an amendment to the 2008 farm bill authorizing the USDA to enact this new regulation, but it took until now to finalize the rule, which takes effect in 90 days. Last fall, the USDA also passed a long-awaited rule requiring breeders selling kittens and puppies sight-unseen over the Internet to be federally licensed and inspected.

The other way to stem the puppy mill trade is to make sure you never participate in it. Animal welfare advocates urge pet buyers to never buy a pet — or even accessories — from a traditional retail pet store because such stores usually get their dogs from puppy mills. New model “humane” pet stores are fine — they get their animals from rescues and shelters.

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