WASHINGTON – When New York resident Jillian Civitano saw a picture of Tink on a Texas dog dealer’s website, she fell in love and purchased the 2-pound Maltese puppy.
She was told the dog was born in South Korea and brought to Texas. But soon after Civitano picked up Tink at LaGuardia Airport, she noticed something was wrong.
“She was covered in pee,” Civitano said. “She was very neglected.”
After taking the dog to the vet, Civitano found Tink had ear mites and a life-threatening upper respiratory infection. The puppy survived, but only after $800 in medical treatments.
Tink was one of more than 7,000 dogs imported to the U.S. for resale in 2013, a 20 percent increase compared with the previous year. Many arrive already sick or dying from foreign “puppy mills,” where unregulated commercial breeding facilities often prioritize profit over animals’ health.
In response to complaints from heart-broken pet owners, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is working with animal protection groups like the Humane Society to halt the rising number of dogs entering the U.S. from foreign puppy mills.
Last week, the USDA announced a new requirement that dogs imported to the U.S. and intended for resale must be at least 6 months old and be vaccinated upon arrival. The rule is designed to protect Americans and American pets from unvaccinated and unhealthy dogs.
The rule, now part of the Animal Welfare Act, goes into effect in November and carries penalties of up to $10,000 per violation.
“We are very happy that the USDA has finalized this rule to prevent these dogs from coming to the country (and) being sold to consumers who don’t expect they’re coming from puppy mills,” said Melanie Kahn, senior director of the Humane Society’s Puppy Mills campaign.
This is the second time the USDA has issued a rule in the past 12 months to protect puppies. Last September, the agency passed a rule requiring U.S. breeders who sell puppies and kittens from websites and other remote locations to be federally licensed and inspected.
U.S. pet vendors sometimes prefer purchasing puppies from foreign mills because the animals are sold for less, according to Deborah Press, senior regulatory affairs manager for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Kahn said consumers are usually unaware they are purchasing a puppy from overseas. Often the puppy is either purchased online, through a dealer based in the U.S., or at a “mom and pop” pet store, typically on the coast.
While puppy mills have been a problem for decades, consumer interest in buying miniature animals such as so-called “teacup” dogs is fueling an increase in imports from South Korea, according to Kahn.
“I hate to talk about dogs as products, but people in certain areas of our country think about dogs as fashion accessories, and the smaller the better,” she said. “I think it’s just puppy millers paying attention to what consumers want.”
Both Kahn and Press said they were optimistic the new rule would reduce trade with foreign puppy mills. “The ban on the import of puppies under 6 months is going to really reduce the trade in young puppies coming into this country from abroad,” Press said.