Dog law overhaul stalls amid controversy in Pennsylvania

DVMs poke holes in legislative crackdown on commercial breeding kennels

July 10, 2008 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

Harrisburg, Pa. — Dozens of amendments, including several pushed by the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association (PVMA), have stalled two bills designed to more strictly regulate the state’s commercial breeding kennels.

The initiatives, which make broad changes to Pennsylvania's dog law, are heavily backed by Gov. Edward Rendell’s office. One bill creates a new class of kennels for commercial use and minimum-care standards for the dogs housed there, while the other expands the state’s animal cruelty laws to prevent surgical procedures by anyone other than licensed veterinarians.

Yet both bills, which came out of committee last month, are bogged down by so many amendments, insiders doubt the language will emerge for a vote before the House recesses. The General Assembly faces a myriad of appropriations measures that take legislative precedence. And against that backdrop, lawmakers like veterinarian Rep. Bob Bastian question a need for new laws considering breeding kennel regulations, which until recently were not enforced, already exist.

“If this is about getting rid of puppy mills, we have statutes right now that can do that,” he says. “I think the problem has really been exaggerated. We’re trying to scale these bills down some. As they stand, the Senate will not have time to deal with this.”

Black eye

Controversy concerning Pennsylvania’s 2,100 breeding facilities centers on largely rural and Amish-populated Lancaster County, which made headlines last spring when undercover video exposed deplorable conditions and abuses in several area breeding facilities. The broadcast, which aired on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, prompted Gov. Rendell to push for tougher regulations, and Jessie Smith, Pennsylvania’s special deputy secretary for dog law enforcement, to administer a crackdown resulting in a surge of citations, now up 600 percent.


That’s proof that new laws aren’t needed, Bastian insists. PVMA spokesman Dr. Bob Lavan adds: “We’re all for improving welfare standards, but why are we trying to rewrite something we were not even enforcing? Why don’t we see what we can do with the laws that currently exist?”

Welfare activists, who are pitted against breeders groups lobbying heavily to bury the legislation, disregard that stance, and the resulting hostility is fostering a circus environment, critics of both sides contend. As Smith publicly condemns stalling a bill that empowers her office to shut down repeat violators, Oprah Winfrey’s Web site urges Pennsylvania residents to lobby legislators. 

Yet PVMA, which supports efforts to raise breeding kennel standards, cites problems with the legislation. The group favors proposed rules that limit the administration of rabies vaccinations to licensed veterinarians and mandates annual examinations. But leaders oppose solid flooring for cages due to sanitation concerns as well as a stipulation for "outdoor" exercise areas. They also counter a rule forcing veterinarians to notify the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture prior to euthanizing an animal because it includes no emergency exemption.

“Sometimes the best intentions have unintended consequences,” a PVMA-authored report says. “By creating an environment which is prohibitive and punitive, even excellent commercial kennels will close and the problem kennels or ‘puppy mills’ will simply go underground or out of state with their operations.”

VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email

Information and opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author and are independent of the VIN News Service. Letters may be edited for style. We do not verify their content for accuracy.