Concerns about the health of puppies and kittens are real.

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Rabies, and other serious infections in these animals, pose serious health risks to humans and other animals.

Knowing where puppies or kittens come from, and the veterinary care provided at that source, are the best ways to ensure that these animals are healthy before they are purchased or adopted.

On September 5, 2014, North Dakota health officials notified the public that one of a litter of kittens sold by a pet store had tested positive for rabies.  The kitten “was part of a litter of six that was anonymously dropped off” according to the Associated Press.  More likely than not, other kittens in that litter may have been infected with rabies, so anyone exposed to the kittens was encouraged to report to the local health department.

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Rabies in humans is nearly 100% fatal, unless post-exposure treatments with rabies immunoglobulin are administered before the virus spreads.

Another recent rabies outbreak, this time in China, reportedly resulted in five human deaths, and in response officials “killed 4,900 dogs and vaccinated another 100,000 in its anti-rabies campaign.”

Why should rabies in China concern us in this country?   Because, as previously reported, the CDC has warned that animals, particularly puppies, are being imported into the US with falsified paperwork, including false proof of rabies vaccination.  This is of particular concern when the animals are imported from rabies-endemic countries, like China, where routine vaccination and other animal health controls are not commonly enforced.  When these animals are imported for adoption or sale, the owners, their families, and other pets are at risk of exposure to any diseases the imported animals may have.

Recognizing this increased risk, USDA has raised its standards for puppy mill imports by further restricting the importation of puppies from other countries to prevent the spread of disease from puppies bred in substandard conditions.

“Puppy mills” are defined by USDA’s Inspector General as “large-scale dog breeders that failed to provide humane treatment for the animals under their care.”  See Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Animal Care Program Inspections of Problematic Dealers, Audit Report, 33002-4-SF, May 2010.  USDA notes that “neglected or abused pet animals confiscated from substandard breeding operations are often sent to shelters to provide for their care.”  Federal Register, Vol. 78, No. 18, September 18, 2013, 57228.

While local and state governments are placing increased restrictions on the sale of puppies and kittens from “puppy mills” and other commercial breeders, puppies and kittens coming from entirely unknown sources, or sometimes from the very worst puppy mills, are increasingly sold at pet stores and from rescue groups, limiting the ability of regulators to ensure their health.

Unlike rescue groups, facilities that breed and sell their animals to pet stores are required to obtain a license from USDA pursuant to the Animal Welfare Act (“AWA”) (7 USC § 2131 et seq.) first passed in 1966.  As described in The Animal Welfare Act: Background and Selected Animal Welfare Legislation the AWA was enacted “to ensure the humane treatment of animals intended for research, bred for commercial sale, exhibited to the public, or commercially transported.”  All licensed dog breeders must comply with USDA standards including provisions for “humane handling, shelter, space requirements, feeding, watering, sanitation, ventilation, veterinary care, and transport.”

USDA protects the health of animals and humans through these programs.  To prevent the spread of disease between animals and humans (zoonotic disease) USDA recently expanded their regulations to include the sale of animals through the Internet, noting:

“Animals can carry zoonotic diseases (diseases that can be transmitted between, or are shared by animals and humans). The possibility of an animal carrying a zoonotic disease is reduced with adequate veterinary care, including vaccinations. To the extent that improved oversight reduces the likelihood of pet-to-human transmission of zoonotic diseases such as rabies, the public as a whole will benefit from the rule.”  Federal Register, Vol. 78, No. 18, September 18, 2013, 57228.

It does not make sense to prohibit the sale of puppies and kittens from commercial breeders who are exceeding USDA’s required standards, in favor of puppies and kittens from unregulated sources.  In fact, this creates an increased animal and public health risk that should be addressed.