USDA Fails to Ensure “Licensed” Animal Businesses Have Met Licensing Requirements

March 25, 2021

  • The USDA is responsible for issuing and renewing licenses for animal businesses, including commercial dog breeders, roadside zoos and laboratories that experiment on animals.
  • The USDA relicensed thousands of these businesses last year when, in fact, it never verified their applications because of a COVID-19 fueled mail backlog.
  • The ASPCA is calling upon Congress to direct USDA to reform its licensing and enforcement programs to finally give animals the level of care they legally deserve.

Individuals or businesses who sell, transport, research or exhibit certain types of animals—such as commercial breeders, zoos, wildlife parks, and research facilities—are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to ensure that these licensed facilities meet the minimal care standards required by the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). While licensing is a core responsibility of the USDA, there is an ongoing issue: In 2020, this agency stopped opening and processing applications from commercial dog breeders, roadside zoos and animal labs seeking to renew their licenses.

The USDA claims that thousands of these facilities are licensed, but it hasn’t processed their renewals—or verified whether they’re seeking to be relicensed—due to a mail backlog problem. The application process and agency review are both intended to stop any unqualified person or business from obtaining a license; for example, someone whose license had been suspended or someone who violated animal cruelty laws.

According to the USDA, it was unable to process renewal applications or make contact with animal businesses who have expired licenses to determine whether they wanted or were qualified for a new license because of COVID-related mail access issues and competing priorities, including a website upgrade.

Instead, the agency simply categorized thousands of facilities with expired licenses—including some that had expired months or years prior—as having an active USDA license.

Labeling businesses as “USDA-licensed” without an actual agency determination of their qualifications is not just a technical glitch. An active license permits the holder to conduct activities like exhibiting bears or tigers, selling puppies to pet stores or breeding rabbits for labs. It communicates to the public that the facility meets required animal welfare criteria. Without any review, the USDA can’t know how many animals the facility has, if it violated animal cruelty laws, or even if it’s open or closed.

By choosing to continue to represent businesses as USDA-licensed, the agency once again dangerously misrepresents the level of oversight and protection it provides to the estimated millions of animals kept by for-profit facilities across the U.S. If the USDA cannot maintain an accurate list of which businesses are approved to conduct regulated activities, how can we expect it to ensure that animals are being cared for under the bare minimum standards of the law?

To address this and other problems with the USDA’s Animal Care program, the ASPCA is calling upon Congress to direct the USDA to finally make the necessary reforms needed for animals to receive the care they’re entitled to under the law. Please take action today and urge your legislators to support language in the Fiscal Year 2022 appropriations bill that would ensure reforms to the USDA’s licensing and enforcement program under the Animal Welfare Act.