ASPCA Sues USDA for its Non-Enforcement Policy on the Animal Welfare Act

Agency policy allows commercial dog dealers licensed by the USDA to violate the law
June 14, 2021

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The ASPCA® (The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals®), represented by Cooley LLPfiled a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for abandoning its responsibility to enforce the Animal Welfare Act (AWA)—a federal law passed more than 50 years ago to ensure the humane treatment and care of commercially bred dogs.

There are approximately 2,000 commercial dog breeders and dealers licensed by the USDA, and at any given point, these facilities house about a quarter of a million dogs and puppies, with most of the puppies sold at pet stores or over the Internet.

Because these businesses generally are not open to the public, Congress has directed the USDA to inspect their facilities to ensure they provide minimum standards of care. The USDA is required to identify violations of the law during inspections so that dog dealers who violate the law may be held accountable through the use of penalties provided for in the AWA, such as fines and license revocation.  

Contrary to this Congressional mandate, the USDA has chosen to let violations go unreported and unpunished. The agency has not imposed a single penalty against a dog dealer since 2017, despite overwhelming evidence of cruelty. Instead, the agency has adopted a “customer service” approach that has been proven ineffective by the agency’s own research.   

“The USDA has abdicated its critical responsibility to use the Animal Welfare Act to stop animal cruelty, allowing commercial breeders to put their profit motives above the welfare of vulnerable animals in their care,” said Matt Bershadker, ASPCA President and CEO. “The agency’s adamant refusal to take action against inhumane dog dealers is an unlawful rejection of its obligation, and sadly indicates that animal suffering at the hands of USDA-licensed breeders will be tolerated, despite the intention and authority of the AWA to protect those animals.”

Beginning in 2017, the USDA formalized various policies that direct inspectors to disregard violations in certain circumstances. According to agency policy, if a violation is “minor”, it is a “Teachable Moment” not a violation; if a violation is observed during a “Courtesy Visit”, it is not reported. As a result, the number of reported violations has declined significantly in recent years. Prior to adopting these policies, USDA inspectors recorded close to 2,000 violations each year. In 2018, after these policies were formalized, the number of violations cited on inspection reports declined to 280, and in 2020, the number declined further to just over 150.


Even in the cases where violations were recorded on official reports – dogs caged outdoors in freezing temperatures, puppies with visible ribs, dogs with open wounds, dogs in cages so small they could not stand and dogs fed food contaminated by rodents – the agency did not act. 

“The USDA refers to licensed dog dealers as the agency’s ‘customers’ and their deliberate refusal to enforce the law – even when licensees have subjected dogs to egregious suffering – demonstrates that the agency believes its customers’ interests always come first,” said Robert Hensley, Legal Advocacy Senior Counsel for the ASPCA. “The agency has been asleep on the job and we’re asking the court to end the USDA’s customer service approach that has caused so much harm to the animals it has a legal and moral obligation to protect.”

The ASPCA Legal Advocacy department focuses on increasing legal protections for animals across the country and shaping stronger animal welfare laws through the judicial system. The ASPCA’s Barred From Love campaign urges the public to speak out against cruel breeding and also encourages dog lovers to adopt from a local shelter or rescue group or learn how to identify a responsible breeder.

For more information about the ASPCA’s efforts to protect dogs in commercial breeding facilities, visit

To download photos or videos of AWA violations documented during routine USDA inspections, please click here.