A new day for PA puppy mill dogs as new kennel standards take effect

Today marks the end of lifetime of confinement to small cages, of paw-destroying wire cage floors, of stacked cages as high as a barn roof, of outdoor rabbit hutches, and of no veterinary care for tens of thousands of dogs in commercial kennels in Pennsylvania.

New standards governing cage size, flooring, exercise and veterinary care go into effect today for the roughly 300 licensed commercial dog kennels, most of them in Lancaster County.

Under the dog law signed a year ago by Gov. Rendell, kennel operators who keep more than 59 dogs a year, or sell one or more dogs to a pet store, must house dogs in larger cages and provide daily exercise and regular veterinary care for breeding dogs. The new law also forbids cage stacking, prohibits wire flooring in cages and imposes kennel temperature requirements.

Kennel operators were given a year to make the changes, or longer if they received waivers. The flood of waiver applications submitted to the bureau in the past few weeks suggests that many breeders did not complete the necessary work. The flood of Pennsylvania dogs on the auction markets in the midwest suggests many are downsizing to get under the 59-dog threshold, or getting out of the business altogether.

Some breeders may have been relying on a favorable ruling in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the new dog law. But that suit was thrown out last month by U.S. District Court Judge Sylvia Rambo.

For thousands of smaller licensed kennels (those with between 26 and 59 dogs), however, the old standards remain. 

State dog wardens will be deployed starting today to inspect commercial kennels to ensure compliance and those who are found in violation may receive citations or could lose their licenses, according to the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement. A federal judge threw out a lawsuit filed by breeders challenging the constitutionality of the new dog law.

Jessie Smith, special deputy secretary of the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement, said the stricter standards - widely regarded as the toughest in the nation - will significantly improve conditions for thousands of dogs living in kennels.

Bob Baker, an animal welfare advocate who helped draft the original Pennsylvania dog law almost 30 years ago, said "the dogs have been waiting 27 years for this day to come."

"Ever since the original Dog Law was passed in 1982 and advocates were told by the legislature this is all we can give you this year but you can come back next year to increase the standards of care," said Baker, now an investigator with the ASPCA. "Well it has been a 27 year wait for the dogs. There is no excuse for non-compliance by the breeders. They have had a free pass for 27 years to confine their dogs in tiny wire cages stacked one on top of another in dark, filthy, ammonia-filled barns."

Under an amendment pushed through by farming interests, kennel owners were given the opportunity to apply for waivers to allow up to three years additional time to improve their kennels if they showed they had made substantial improvements or could prove hardship. Justin Fleming, a spokesman for the bureau, said 93 waiver request had been submitted by the Oct. 9 deadline and decisions had been made so far on 23 applications. Fleming said he could not provide information on how many of those waivers had been granted and that the information could only be released through a right-to-know request.

The law stipulates that anyone convicted of violating the dog law in the past five years is not eligible for a waiver. A review of court records shows that 76 Lancaster kennel operators have either pleaded guilty to or been found guilty of dog law violations during that time period.

A number of kennels are either downsizing to get below the 59-dog threshold or going out of business. Nearly 400 dogs - mainly toy breeds - belonging to eight Pennsylvania commercial kennel owners were sold at an Ohio auction on Wednesday. Others are placing their unproductive breeding dogs or "surplus stock" through a program sponsored by the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association and the Federated Humane Societies of Pennsylvania. The Department of Agriculture said it is not "endorsing" the "amnesty" program, but it is distributing the information and the surrender contract to breeders through its dog wardens. (More on the Safe Harbor program tomorrow) There also have been reports of some commercial kennel owners shooting their dogs, which is illegal under the new law.