PA animal cruelty bill stalls in Senate

Legislation that would make it a crime for a non-veterinarian to perform virtually all surgeries on dogs sailed through the state House in February with unanimous support.

The bill would require that only veterinarians perform debarking, surgical births, ear cropping and tail docking on dogs over five days old - an effort to halt the botched surgeries performed in the unsterile environment of a commercial kennels by untrained people. 

So what's stopping it in the Senate?

The bill (HB 39)  - resurrected from the last legislative session where it was sacrificed to ensure the passage of the new dog law - is currently held up in the Senate Agricultural and Rural Affairs Committee. Hobby breeders and other interest groups are seeking several amendments that the bill's sponsor contends will kill it.

"They want to destroy the bill," said Rep. Thomas Caltagirone (R., Berks), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who reintroduced the legislation at the start of the new session in January. "They didn't want the dog law and now they've thrown down the gauntlet and we're running into a wall opposition."

Agriculture committee chairman Michael Brubaker (R., Lancaster) could not be reached for comment.

One amendment, sought by the Pennsylvania Federation of Dog Clubs, would strike a major provision of the bill by allowing non-vets to perform ear cropping.

Julian Prager, the federation's legislative chairman and a member of the governor's Dog Law Advisory Board, said the group's amendment would require a veterinarian be present to administer anesthesia, but that breeders would perform the surgery because they are more familiar then vets with the way a cropped ear should look.

"If vets cared to learn the standards for the breeds so that they could do the surgery to meet the standards of the breeds, we would have no objection to restricting these surgeries to veterinarians," Prager wrote in an email. "However, many either won't do the surgery or won't learn where the line of the surgery needs to be done for the shape described in the standard."

He said when a surgery is not completed to meet the breed standard it makes the dog worthless for showing in conformation classes.

Bryan Langlois, medical director at the Humane League of Lancaster County, said only a veterinarian understands the full scope of care needed during and after surgery.

"I as a vet would not feel comfortable to let a lay person do any kind of surgery on an animal even if I was right over them monitoring anesthesia," said Langlois. "The legal implications of allowing this aside, it goes against the most basic of medical premises of "do no harm."

The American Veterinary Medical Association issued a statement last fall saying it opposed ear cropping and tail docking solely for cosmetic purposes and encouraged the removal of cropped ears and docked tails from breed standards.

Animal welfare advocates said they were stunned that the breeders group would want to weaken animal cruelty laws.

"It shows a lack of regard for the skill that a vet performs," said Stephanie Shane, director of the puppy mill campaign at the Humane Society of the United States. "To think a lay person could do it as well as a vet is nonsensical."

Bob Baker, an investigator with the ASPCA, said the original bill would curb the biggest problem in kennels: lack of veterinary care.

"This would stem current trend of doing their own vet care including surgeries and buying illegal prescription drugs," he said.

The bill also would allow dog wardens to enforce cruelty laws in counties without humane officers. That provision also is apparently facing opposition, although it was unclear which group was opposing it.