For the first time in more than a decade, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has released an internal audit of its Animal Care program that licenses and inspects puppy mills that sell to pet stores and online. And the most significant finding is a disturbing one: the auditors found that the program “did not consistently address or adequately document 145 of the 322 complaints we reviewed,” indicating that almost half of the complaints about dog breeders were handled inappropriately, if at all.
Unfortunately, the overall report is extremely limited due to the pandemic. Auditors said they had originally planned to visit 120 dog breeding sites in 15 states, but due to the pandemic, only six breeder facilities were visited, leaving out critical information about whether licensed facilities are taking proper care of dogs, how inspectors are carrying out inspections and whether inspectors are accurately documenting violations. The report notes that because of these limitations, inspectors were unable to ensure breeder compliance with the Animal Welfare Act. At least 2,422 dog breeders are currently licensed by USDA, and insufficient oversight could leave hundreds of thousands of dogs to suffer. (USDA breeder numbers reported by the Humane Society of the United States are often higher, because their estimates include licensed dog brokers who also breed.)
The USDA is responsible for ensuring the health and welfare of dogs raised for commercial sale “sight unseen,” which means the agency licenses and inspects commercial dog breeders who sell puppies through pet stores, brokers, by mail and online. But the lack of meaningful USDA enforcement at puppy mills has led to complaints of sick puppies and cruel conditions, and, as the HSUS has documented every year in their Horrible Hundred reports, the USDA often fails to take strong action against breeders who keep dogs in unacceptable conditions, or who fail to obtain a license at all.
Findings of the internal audit report included:
- USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service “did not consistently address complaints it received or adequately document the results of its follow-up.” This means that some complaints about puppy mills were not being properly investigated, if they were investigated at all. As a result, the agency showed an inability to “ensure the overall health and humane treatment of animals at these facilities.”
- “Data reliability issues” have impeded the APHIS’s ability to properly monitor the agency’s own dog breeder inspection program, to identify how many inspections have been completed or to measure patterns and trends in the violations documented.
- Some dog breeders are selling puppies without a license and without inspections, and the agency is not assertively going after these unlicensed dealers. This leaves thousands of dogs unprotected and no government oversight to ensure their health and humane treatment.
After its prior audit in 2010, the USDA’s internal Office of Inspector General made numerous recommendations, suggesting that the USDA require pet breeders who sell puppies, kittens, and certain other mammals as pets online to obtain the same kind of USDA oversight and licensing as those who sell to pet stores. In 2013, that rule, known as the Retail Pet Stores Rule, was finalized. Congress expressed a desire for USDA to take this rule seriously, including language in the FY21 Appropriations bill encouraging the USDA to conduct robust enforcement to ensure that online dealers selling dogs have the necessary license under the Animal Welfare Act. But this year’s report indicates complete failure in this regard.
APHIS replied to the 2021 audit’s findings by accepting its recommendations. We urge anyone with knowledge of an unlicensed breeder who falls under the requirements for licensure to report any concerns to USDA using their online form.
Even if USDA acts on the audit’s findings in a meaningful way, we still have a long way to go when it comes to regulating puppy mills. Under current USDA regulations, puppy mills can keep hundreds of dogs in small, stacked wire cages for their entire lives, with very little in the way of comfort or quality care. That's why we’re supporting the changes included in the Puppy Protection Act (H.R. 2840/ S.1385), which was introduced in the House by Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa, and Charlie Crist, D-Fla., and in the Senate by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. This bill would require prompt, professional veterinary care for any dog’s illness or injury, ban stacked cages and wire flooring at puppy mills, and would require other improvements to the outdated regulations.
We often claim dogs as our best friends, but you wouldn’t know that by the way we are allowing puppy mills to neglect their animals. These dogs deserve so much better. Please take a moment to urge your lawmakers to cosponsor the Puppy Protection Act to help improve the lives of the dogs at these federally-licensed facilities.