Dog law debate goes down to the wire

When Gov. Rendell signed the dog law on October 9, 2008 he said the day marked the end of wire flooring in commercial dog breeding facilities, as it did specifically under Act 119, which requires flooring for adult dogs be solid or slatted.

But the law also allowed puppies under 12 weeks of age to be housed on wire. Considering half of that time or more is spent with their mothers, adult female dogs could be housed on wire too.

That was the conclusion and the policy directive from the Department of Agriculture, in its final regulations now under consideration by the Independent Regulatory Review Commssion. 

In a last minute change to the regulations, though, language stipulates that nursing mothers be kept in enclosures that are 50-50 wire and solid flooring. To animal welfare advocates this amounts to a return to the rabbit hutch-style kennels widely used by puppy mills that they fought so hard for years to end.

The Department of Agriculture released its final regulations two weeks ago. This is the phone-book thick (nearly 900 pages) document of detailed requirements for operating a commercial kennel covering a range of conditions, including lighting, ventilation and humidity.

The Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement says it will allow pregnant females to also be housed on wire one week prior to giving birth (although that time period is not specified in the regulations) and until her puppies are weaned.

Since female dogs are bred twice a year, if one took into account the full gestation period and up to 12 weeks with the nursing puppies, that adds up to eight months a year on wire, some dog health experts say. 

These same dogs would be exempt from another key provision of the dog law: "unfettered access" to outdoor exercise.

The bureau released a policy statement shortly after filing the final regulations two weeks ago requiring that nursing mothers be carried out and exercised twice a day  - a provision many say is unenforceable.

The bureau says the state dog veterinarian has and will be called in if they think a breeder is cheating and putting dogs on wire who are not pregnant or who are only in the early stages of pregnancy.

Kennel inspection reports reveal the biggest problem area in kennels is the wire floor. Among the issues reported repeatedly by dog wardens regarding wire: that it sags, loses its coating, breaks and leaves sharp edges. Not to mention many cases where the wire's openings are wide enough to swallow the legs and feet of dogs. In cases where the dogs legs are trapped, tragedy can result. All of those cases are violations of the old dog law, but there are numerous examples of kennels being warned repeatedly before the situation is fixed and sometimes lapsing again.

What's not reported, experts say, is the psychological damage to dogs and puppies unable to feel sure of their footing. The result, most often, when breeding females are taken off the wire years later by rescue volunteers: they can't walk.

Some animal welfare advocates contend the regulations violate the new law. Others say the compromise is the best that could be hoped for given the "gap in the law" and warn that stalling the regulations - or filing suit over the wire - would destroy the myriad positive provisions in the regulation such as the new standards on temperature, lighting, humidity, ventilation and ammonia levels. 

In an opinion piece published in the Patriot-News of Harrisburg today, Nancy Gardner, president of the Cumberland Valley Animal Shelter and a member of  Gov. Rendell's Dog Law Advisory Board, lays out the law and the regulatory review process. She also has some strong words for the Department of Agriculture which she believes is "pandering to breeders."

An editorial, today in the Chambersburg Public Opinion backs Gardner, saying the administration's move amounts to "repealing" the dog law and sets up an enforcement nightmare for dog wardens who must decide if a dog is pregnant or not.

The document is now in the hands of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, which have 20 days to take action (neither chamber is scheduled to be in session again until September) on the regulations. The Independent Regulatory Review Commission holds its meeting to discuss the regulations on August 19.