Federal inspectors say they have increased their dog breeding facility inspections after a highly critical 2010 review that said the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service was not doing enough.

But the inspection service, known best by its initials APHIS, had only 120 inspectors to check some 7,300 licensed and registered animal breeding facilities, including 1,764 dog breeding facilities, in the United States as 2014 came to a close, an agricultural department official said. They inspect facilities once a year, on average, although more often at facilities cited for being out of compliance with the Animal Welfare Act, said Tanya Espinosa, an APHIS public affairs specialist.

Espinosa declined to say whether or not APHIS has enough inspectors, leaving that judgment to those who set policy, or – as happens with matters blending emotional issues, animal welfare and government resources – those who have an opinion in general.

“We use what we have available, and that’s what we have available to do our jobs and inspect our facilities,” she said in an IowaWatch interview.

“I think that, ultimately, our inspectors do a fantastic job ensuring that the licensees get inspected as needed, and as required.”

That would be an improvement over how internal USDA inspectors felt about APHIS in the May 2010 audit report that said APHIS’s Animal Care unit was not pursuing enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act aggressively enough. The audit followed multiple news reports about large-scale dog breeders in the United States who failed to treat animals in their care humanely.

USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service complaints about Debra Pratt's dog breeding facility near New Sharon, Iowa, before she lost her state license to have a facility included clutter and junk around the dog enclosure, and having no shelter for animals. Photo taken during March 26, 2013, inspection.
USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service complaints about Debra Pratt’s dog breeding facility near New Sharon, Iowa, before she lost her state license to have a facility included clutter and junk around the dog enclosure, and having no shelter for animals. Photo taken during March 26, 2013, inspection. Credit: USDA photo by John Lies
USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service complaints about Debra Pratt’s dog breeding facility near New Sharon, Iowa, before she lost her state license to have a facility included clutter and junk around the dog enclosure, and having no shelter for animals. Photo taken during March 26, 2013, inspection. Credit: USDA photo by John Lies

The 2010 audit covered dealers with a history of violations in the previous three years and identified what it called major deficiencies with how APHIS administered the Animal Welfare Act.

APHIS has shifted its focus from predominantly educational efforts to enforcement, an action plan update in March 2013 filed in response to specific criticisms stated. It also has developed uniform requirements and guidance for confiscating suffering animals that all inspectors must follow and its inspectors collaborate more among themselves and with state regulators.

Also, the action plan report stated, the agency re-emphasized for inspectors when to write citations for repeat violations and increased administrative oversight of inspections. Annual inspections increased from 1,516 in fiscal 2010 to a peak of 2,606 the following year and 1,882 in fiscal 2013, data IowaWatch obtained with a Freedom of Information Act request show.

“I believe that they did a decent job of bringing their inspectors in and educating them,” Mary LaHay, president of Iowa Voters for Companion Animals, said. “I believe that there are inspectors out there who really want to do a good job.”

Still, LaHay said she is concerned that inspectors do not have to cite breeders for indirect violations, one of two kinds of violations inspectors can find. Indirect violations are defined as not harming an animal’s health. Direct violations are deemed to harm an animal’s health and considered to be the most serious.

LaHay said some indirect violations that are not cited could affect an animal’s health, especially if one is failure to have veterinary records on site at the breeding facility.

Espinosa confirmed that inspectors in some instances may view not having veterinary records to be more of a “teaching moment” than something that puts animal health in danger. Teaching moments, during which inspectors help a breeder facing a minor infraction get back into compliance without being cited, are allowed only for indirect violations, she said.

APHIS inspectors have authority to judge what is or is not a teaching moment when dealing with minor infractions such as chipped paint in a room where animals are not housed, lids off garbage bins and other things that do not affect animal health, Espinosa said.

“That’s nothing new,” Espinosa said. “It’s a way for a minor problem to be corrected quickly without a formal non-compliance being cited on the inspection report. The inspectors do keep track of them. And so if they’re not corrected the next time, it is cited.”

Inspectors are to cite breeders if failing to have those records where animals are housed has had an impact on animals, Espinosa said. The same is true at facilities that have changed attending veterinarians, cannot find their written program of veterinary care or have a poor compliance history, she said.

Several factors are taken into consideration when dealing with a failure to have veterinary records on site, Espinosa said. Breeders are not cited if inspectors have reviewed written care programs in previous inspections and found the breeding facility to be in compliance then, she said.


Animal care advocates worry about matters like having veterinary records on site because the ultimate goal, those IowaWatch interviewed over several months said, is to keep dog breeding facilities from becoming puppy mills. These are the notorious facilities where animal health is in danger and, worse, little to nothing is done about improving conditions putting that health in danger.

“The problem is puppy mills,” Bob Baker, a nationally recognized animal rights expert and executive director of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation, said. “And these are large commercial dog breeders that mass produce puppies in oftentimes neglectful or abusive situations that are certainly for the money.”

Animal welfare at these places takes the second position behind monetary gain and federal inspections make that possible, Baker said. “The current regulations are what I would consider survival standards,” he said.

Baker said USDA officials fail to recognize the public as their constituents and favor dog breeders. “The Animal Welfare Act was not passed to better the dog breeding industry,” he said. “It was passed because animals are suffering.”

Yet, more focus exists now than did in the past, interviews revealed.

Penny Nuzum, of Des Moines, recalls working at Weise Kennels, now closed for reasons other than its inspection record, near Altoona from 2001-03. The facility had some 200 dogs, most of them in cages with wire floors and with swollen feet, she said.

“There wasn’t any heating and cooling,” Nuzum said. “There were a couple dogs that looked like they had a heat stroke and they died. Nobody ever knew, and I just had to get rid of the bodies.”

Animals would be sick for several days without receiving medical treatment, she said. Wire collars attached at birth would dig into dogs’ necks as they grew, she said. “Nobody ever told me to, but I would cut them off when they were tight,” she said.

“My job was just to feed them and water them and get rid of them when they were dead. They had a burn barrel out back and if they were small enough, I’d put the body in a dog food bag and burn it … the bags burn, dogs don’t.”

Nuzum said she stayed working because she wanted to care for the animals but eventually could not take what she saw anymore and quit.

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State Veterinarian David Schmitt said Iowa relies on USDA reports from dog breeder inspections when determining whether or not the state can crack down on frequently cited breeders. “We have the authority to go and make sure that is taken care of,” Schmitt said.

“Those who let things slide are the ones who come to the service (APHIS) as far as noncompliance issues. By and large, the vast majority are trying to do things right—because they know it impacts their bottom line.”


Sybil Soukup, executive director of the Humane Society of North Iowa, said the animal breeding industry is guarded. “Most of them will not allow you to come to their facility and see their adult breeding dogs,” she said.

Soukup said consumers should be better educated about the industry. A breeder might be USDA certified but “that doesn’t mean anything,” she said. “The standards enforced by the USDA inspectors are according to the AWA (Animal Welfare Act), which was passed in Congress in 1965. Well, puppy mills didn’t exist in 1965 on a scale that they do now and the standards are very marginal.”

But being USDA certified at least subjects dog breeding facilities to APHIS inspections. Those inspection reports are available online, although Tonya G. Woods, director of legislative and public affairs, wrote in a letter to IowaWatch that the website where inspections may be read has been plagued with technical issues.

That has made collecting APHIS data to compile statistics on the number of inspections performed annually on USDA-licensed dog breeders from 2004 through 2011 difficult. The USDA does not maintain those statistics, Woods wrote in her letter, in response to an IowaWatch Freedom of Information request. Nor does it maintain statistics showing the number of direct, indirect and repeat noncompliance issues cited annually in those same years, she wrote.

IowaWatch was able to learn, though, and report in a previous story that APHIS performed 6,840 inspections nationally on USDA licensed dog-breeding facilities from Sept. 27, 2010, to May 30, 2014. Inspectors cited 483 direct noncompliance issues – those that pose the most serious risk to the animal’s health, an analysis of the data from that time period showed. Twenty-four breeders during that time were cited for having four or more direct noncompliance Issues.

Inspectors brought enforcement decisions on 16 USDA licensed dog breeders in that time, an IowaWatch analysis of records showed. Three of those 16 are from the Humane Society of the United States’ 2013 and 2014 worst puppy mills catalogs.

The national Humane Society issues an annual list of problem puppy mills: six on the 2014 list are from Iowa. Eight were on the list in 2013. Doug Dettbarn, whose Purple Heart Kennel in Strawberry Point was on the 2013 list, said he runs a good operation and that a big concern should be breeders who do not obtain USDA permits or submit themselves to inspections.

“I’m a USDA-licensed facility and there are a lot of unregulated puppy mills, so to speak,” Dettbarn, who runs his kennel with Wendie Dettbarn, said.

“We abide by USDA regulations,” he said. “Always have had good marks and produced good dogs.”

But the most recent APHIS inspection at Purple Heart Kennel, in July, revealed some problems that had to be corrected within 10 days. Three shelters where three dogs were housed had a severely chewed or worn piece of wood and also chewed plastic, with some dirt and hair stuck on the chewed surfaces, an inspection report from July 21 stated.

This is a violation of USDA code because chewed surfaces cannot be cleaned thoroughly, APHIS inspectors wrote in their report. Also, vegetation was overgrown along a fence at the facility, the July report said, giving pests such as rodents a chance to nest.

Rodnie Kelly, whose Kelley’s Kennel of Kellerton shows up on this year’s Humane Society of the United States “101 Problem Puppy Mills” said he only had 15 dogs this past summer.

“Does a breeder have to have regular vet inspections? Well the vet comes once a year,” Kelly, who is licensed by the USDA, said. “If there is something wrong I either go to the vet or have the vet come here. Some vets, it’s very expensive. And, of course my vet doesn’t charge as much and I go to him all of the time.”

Kelley said there was a time when a lot of breeders needed to be put out of business. Now, he said, “it seems like they (inspectors) go overboard on some things.”

This photo shows “Okie” (left), “Jenny” (middle) and “Foot” (right) at Debra Pratt's dog breeding facility during a March 26, 2013, USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service inspection.
This photo shows “Okie” (left), “Jenny” (middle) and “Foot” (right) at Debra Pratt’s dog breeding facility during a March 26, 2013, USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service inspection. Credit: USDA photo by John Lies
This photo shows “Okie” (left), “Jenny” (middle) and “Foot” (right) at Debra Pratt’s dog breeding facility during a March 26, 2013, USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service inspection. Credit: USDA photo by John Lies

APHIS has managed to help shut down one large scale breeding operation in Iowa since 2010. It was owned by Debra Pratt near New Sharon, Iowa, and cited for 51 noncompliance issues from Feb. 1, 2012, to Sept. 18, 2013. Of those, 19 were repeat noncompliance issues. More than three-dozen dogs in her care had health conditions that demanded veterinary care, inspection reports show.

The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship performed joint inspections with APHIS and started to pursue, with the Iowa Attorney General’s office help, the revocation of her state permit and civil penalties. The department reached a settlement agreement with her on June 21, 2013, to revoke her permit.

***  ***  ***


Inspection deficiencies cited in an internal audit of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, reported in May 2010, included:
•  The Animal Care unit’s focus on education and expected cooperation by problematic dealers, with little or no enforcement action, did not deal effectively with those dealers.
•  Some Animal Care unit inspectors – six of the 19 who auditors followed on inspections – failed to cite or document violations properly, resulting in some problematic dealers being inspected less frequently than needed.
•  APHIS was using a worksheet used to determine penalties that calculated minimal penalties for serious offenders. Although APHIS had agreed to create a worksheet that would produce higher penalties for Animal Welfare Act violators, penalties with the new worksheet were 20 percent lower than what they were with a previous worksheet.
•  APHIS misused guidelines in about one-third of the cases the auditors reviewed to lower penalties for violators.
•  Some large-scale breeders circumvented the Animal Welfare Act by selling animals over the Internet, using a loophole that exempts breeders from licensing requirements or inspections if they sell over the Internet.

   Source: Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Animal Care Program Inspections of Problematic Dealers, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Office of Inspector General

This IowaWatch story was published by The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA), The Courier (Waterloo-Cedar Falls, IA), The Hawk Eye (Burlington, IA), Fort Dodge Messenger, Iowa City Press-Citizen, Sioux City Journal and Des Moines Register under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners.

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  1. If the inspectors did one inspection per week and worked 50 weeks a year, they could inspect 6000 facilities. The headline makes it seem like there are not enough inspectors. With only 7200 facilities to inspect, they could visit each at least once per year by making sure each inspector visited two per week. Maybe the inspections are very involved so that’s not possible. I don’t know. Still, a worthwhile read about what has been going on with inspections of dog breeding facilities.

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