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Pandemic demand challenges Pennsylvania’s dog industry and oversight

As people nationwide hanker after dogs during the coronavirus pandemic, Pennsylvania's Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement is struggling with a critically low budget.

A dog at ACCT Philadelphia.
A dog at ACCT Philadelphia.Read moreCourtesy of ACCT

For years at her home in southern Pennsylvania, Barbara Schwab has bred and sold goldendoodles for $3,000 each.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, she had barely been able to keep up with customer demand for the breed, a popular designer dog that’s a mix of a golden retriever and poodle. Now, she has joined thousands of breeders nationwide who tell customers — many of whom are at home with time now to care for a pet — that they likely won’t have more puppies for months.

“I’m inundated every single day,” Schwab said. “I’m about ready to let every call go to voicemail.”

Many animal shelters have observed shortages, too, and new breeders are jumping in to grab a share of the market. As dog ownership has risen, it has placed mounting pressure on Pennsylvania’s financially strapped Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement, which is responsible for ensuring the welfare of breeding dogs and puppies in commercial breeding facilities.

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On a Quakertown farm an hour from Philadelphia, Terrence Smith, who is an experienced breeder of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and Havanese, and the mixed-breeds cavapoo and cavanese, receives as many as a dozen calls and several more emails a day for his dogs.

“The volume has increased probably four-to-five fold," he said.

Yet despite intense interest, some potential buyers look elsewhere when he quotes his typical price: $3,000 to $4,000. “When they hear our prices, the conversation is over with," he said.

The demand has fueled an uptick in inexperienced breeders in recent months, who all too often sell rapidly produced puppies at a premium, said humane society officers who investigate and arrest those suspected of animal cruelty and neglect. Other dealers have advertised below-average prices to sell dogs quickly.

“We currently are housing six puppies in connection to a dealer that was bringing them up from the South and trying to resell them, and they were exposed to parvo[virus],” said Nicole Wilson, director of humane law enforcement and shelter for the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The virus can rapidly infect and kill young dogs that sniff or lick contaminated feces.

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In September, the PSPCA rescued several puppies in Lebanon County, two of which had eyelids that rolled inward, a painful condition called entropion. In another case, 34 dogs were removed from a Pennsylvania property. Four had died, including a puppy.

Complaints have been clustered in Lancaster and Lebanon Counties, Wilson said. There, she said, some people involved in the struggling dairy industry had begun to breed dogs so they could regain lost income.

Dogs are “a steady and more predictable market," she said.

The surge in dogs bought and adopted could, in theory, mean a rise in the purchases of dog licenses, which are required in Pennsylvania. Increased license revenue could then — again, in theory — begin to repair the perilous financial situation at the commonwealth’s Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement, which oversees kennels and breeders and works with the PSPCA to root out animal cruelty and neglect, among other responsibilities.

But “people just figure, ‘What’s the chance you’re going to get busted for your dog not having a license?’” Wilson said.

And she noted that kennel operators and breeders, if issued a citation, had “limited disincentive to maintain compliance” when the cost of the citation was “less than what you were making off a single dog.”

So in reality, the bureau’s finances are likely to descend further into critical condition, said Wilson, also a member of the commonwealth’s Dog Law Advisory Board.

“In every area of the state, dog license sales in 2020 have averaged 83% of what they were in 2019, despite increased dog adoptions during the pandemic,” said Shannon Powers, a spokesperson for Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture. “Just under half of Pennsylvania’s estimated three million dogs are licensed.”

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The dog enforcement bureau relies on the revenue from licensing fees that haven’t changed since 1996. It reports that its budget could “go negative” as soon as the coming fiscal year.

Because of its financial situation, the relatively low-profile agency within Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture has reduced its staff and cut back on canvassing to check whether owners have licensed their dogs.

Legislative proposals to increase annual license fees by a few dollars — from $6.50 to $10 a year for spayed and neutered dogs in most of Pennsylvania — are pending in Harrisburg. Advocates for the bureau said the rate increase would substantially improve the agency’s budget and start to defray operating costs, which the Department of Agriculture said had doubled in the last 24 years.

Like other cities with heavier demand for animal services, Philadelphia has higher licensing fees than the state: $16 for a spayed or neutered dog that is at least four months old, or $40 if unaltered. The city-funded Animal Care and Control Team (ACCT) issues the licenses.

The state "licenses are ridiculously cheap,” said Sarah Barnett, an ACCT spokesperson. “It’s a simple fix to increase them slightly and fund critical work being done to protect dogs in Pennsylvania.”

In Philadelphia, ACCT has typically operated on a $4.3 million budget, she said, but city officials slashed $900,000 from the shelter’s budget in May because of revenue shortages exacerbated by the pandemic. ACCT contracts with the city to provide animal care services.

“The shelter benefited from a small business loan secured by its Board of Directors, is actively applying for grants and also relying on support from the community to keep the shelter running. It takes in nearly 18,000 animals annually,” Barnett said.

Wilson and other animal welfare advocates worry about an influx of dogs at shelters once their owners return to their offices and other activities resume.

Also, once rent moratoriums and mortgage forbearances expire, she fears, some people will give up their pets. Often, she said, shelters see an increase in owners surrendering their cats and dogs at the end or beginning of the month, when rent is due.

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For now, dog and cat fosters have helped allay pressure on shelters by freeing up kennel space, said Gillian Kocher, a spokesperson for the PSPCA. At the height of the pandemic, she said the PSPCA heard from more than 100 people every day who were interested in fostering animals, she said, compared with the 10 to 15 daily inquiries before March.

“The increase was just immense," she said. “It was weird to even be here — it’s eerily quiet at such an odd time in our history.”