USDA’s Broken System Fails To Protect Animals Under The Animal Welfare Act

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Despite documenting over 1,000 violations of the Animal Welfare Act at more than 400 commercial dog dealers alone, the USDA only took action against four dog dealers

The ASPCA® (The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals®) has released a new report analyzing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) inspections of Animal Welfare Act licensed facilities, documented violations, and enforcement actions against violators for the 2023 fiscal year.

Based on the ASPCA’s analysis of USDA data, federal inspectors documented over 1,000 violations for commercial dog dealers at more than 400 facilities. However, the agency only took action against four dog dealers. Additionally, violation history had no impact on a facility’s ability to have their license renewed by the USDA, so all dog dealers who wanted to be relicensed were, even problematic dealers with consistent violations.

What is The Animal Welfare Act?

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Taken straight from the United States Agriculture Department’s website: “The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) requires wholesale breeders and dealers who supply animals to pet stores, brokers, or research facilities to be licensed with USDA. Breeders and dealers are required to meet the minimum standards of humane animal care and treatment established by the AWA” (USDA).

Essentially, the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) is a federal law that was initially passed by Congress in 1966 to prevent pet theft and ensure the humane treatment of dogs, cats, and other animals used in research and exhibition. Over time, the Act has been amended to cover a broader range of animals and activities, including certain warm-blooded animals for research, exhibition, pets, and those involved in animal fighting, while excluding farm animals used for food and fiber, as well as certain other categories.

The AWA sets standards for the care and handling of these animals, mandates record-keeping by regulated entities like pet breeders and research facilities, and establishes penalties for noncompliance. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service administers the AWA, ensuring compliance through licensing, inspections, and enforcement. The Act reflects a national concern for the welfare of animals and has evolved in response to changing societal values and knowledge about animal care and well-being.

Enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act: Responding to Violations

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When a violation of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) is identified, a structured enforcement process is initiated to address and rectify the issue. This process is designed to ensure compliance and protect the welfare of animals covered under the Act. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) plays a central role in this enforcement process. Here’s a breakdown of what’s supposed to happen after a violation occurs:

  1. Inspection and Documentation: APHIS inspectors conduct routine and unannounced inspections of facilities regulated under the AWA, such as commercial breeders, research institutions, zoos, and exhibitors. If a violation is found, the inspector documents it in an inspection report, detailing the nature of the non-compliance and the specific AWA standards violated.

  2. Notification: The facility in violation is immediately notified of the findings. The inspection report is discussed with the facility’s management to ensure they understand the nature of the violation(s) and the steps needed to come into compliance.

  3. Corrective Plan: Depending on the severity and nature of the violation, the facility may be required to submit a corrective plan outlining how it intends to address the identified issues. This plan must be approved by APHIS and usually includes specific actions and timelines for compliance.

  4. Follow-up Inspections: APHIS conducts follow-up inspections to verify that the facility has implemented the corrective actions and complied with the AWA standards. Multiple follow-up visits may occur to ensure sustained compliance.

  5. Penalties and Legal Actions: If a facility fails to correct violations or if severe and repeat violations occur, APHIS may take further enforcement actions. These can include official warnings, fines, confiscation of animals, suspension or revocation of licenses, and in extreme cases, referral to the U.S. Department of Justice for legal action.

  6. Public Record: Inspection reports and enforcement actions are generally made public, providing transparency and accountability in the enforcement process.

The enforcement process is designed to be educational and corrective, aiming to bring facilities into compliance with AWA standards. However, in cases where there is a blatant disregard for the law or where animal welfare is severely compromised, APHIS has the authority to take significant enforcement actions to protect the well-being of the animals involved.

“The Animal Welfare Act sets minimal welfare requirements for animals in commercial facilities, including dogs in puppy mills, yet the USDA has continually failed to enforce those requirements,” said Robert Hensley, Senior Counsel, ASPCA Legal Advocacy and Investigations. “Thousands of vulnerable dogs and other animals have suffered and died because of the USDA’s repeated failure to take any meaningful inaction against problematic dealers, and hundreds more remain at risk under the agency’s failing oversight. We urge Congress to step in to fix the USDA’s broken system and ensure animals in federally licensed facilities get the protections they deserve.”

Documented Violations and Lack of Action

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There are a quarter of a million dogs in USDA licensed commercial breeding facilities, and countless examples of facilities where dogs were suffering, yet the USDA took no action at all. Examples of the USDA’s failure to act during FY23, include:

  • The USDA found a dead puppy under an elevated floor that had not been noticed by the licensee. Another puppy was found to be small, with a head tremor, making it difficult to walk and was continuously stepped on by his littermates. The licensee had taken no action to address these issues, and the USDA issued a warning but took no further action. The breeder later voluntarily cancelled his license.
  • In March 2023, the USDA found several mother dogs with puppies who had been left overnight without any water. When they were finally given water, one dog drank for over a minute while her puppies hovered nearby, trying to drink as well. The USDA took no enforcement action against this licensee.
  • In April 2023, the USDA passed on a relicensing inspection, granting the breeder licensure for the next three years, despite repeated violations on inspection reports throughout 2023, including dogs with severe gum disease and inflamed ears.

Goldie’s Act: A Call for Reform

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To address these ongoing failures, the ASPCA is urging Congress to include Goldie’s Act in the upcoming Farm Bill. Sponsored by a bipartisan team of lawmakers including U.S. Reps. Nicole Malliotakis (R-N.Y.), Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), Chris Smith (R-N.J.), and Zach Nunn (R-IA), Goldie’s Act (H.R. 1788) — which is named after a Golden Retriever who suffered and died in an Iowa puppy mill — will require the USDA to conduct more thorough inspections, impose penalties for violations, and report suspected cruelty to local law enforcement.

The Role of Congress and the Need for Legislative Action

The bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus recently endorsed Goldie’s Act, which has garnered support from nearly 150 animal welfare, law enforcement and shelter organizations, and received attention during Secretary Tom Vilsack’s recent appearance before the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, when Congressman Nunn raised the urgent need to pass this bill.

For more information or to read the ASPCA’s full analysis of the USDA’s FY23 enforcement data, please visit www.aspca.org/USDAEnforcement2023.

Ensuring Accountability and Protection for Animals

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Founded in 1866, the ASPCA® (The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals®) was the first animal welfare organization to be established in North America and today serves as the nation’s leading voice for vulnerable and victimized animals. As a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation with more than two million supporters nationwide, the ASPCA is committed to preventing cruelty to dogs, cats, equines, and farm animals throughout the United States.

How The ASPCA Helps Our Furry Friends

The ASPCA assists animals in need through on-the-ground disaster and cruelty interventions, behavioral rehabilitation, animal placement, legal and legislative advocacy, and the advancement of the sheltering and veterinary community through research, training, and resources. For more information, visit www.ASPCA.org.

Corey Turner
Corey Turner, owner of FurBallFun.com, draws on a lifelong love for dogs and extensive pet ownership to offer a unique perspective in the pet industry. With a successful background in project management, he excels in critical analysis, precise attention to detail, and quality assurance. This expertise allows him to effectively differentiate true value from marketing hype in the pet sector. Corey’s contributions have been featured in various publications including Rockery Press Guide Books and WealthofGeeks.com. During his free time, he enjoys disc golfing, rock climbing, and bonding with his cherished FurBall friend, Harvey.