The United States Department of Agriculture surprised state officials, businesses and animal welfare organizations last week when it removed a database of inspection reports from its website.
The records included reports and enforcement records for dog breeding facilities, research labs, zoos and circuses.
The move prompted an outcry.
The USDA did not respond to a request for comment.
A statement on the USDA website said the action was aimed at removing personal information from documents. Records would still be available through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. An update to the first statement said, "adjustments may be made regarding information appropriate for release and posting."
"It' not just about dogs, it's about consumer protection," said Bill Smith, founder of Main Line Animal Rescue. He said FOIA requests can take years.
The Chester County organization has relied on information from the USDA records in other states to pull dogs for adoption. If a kennel has a number of violations, MLAR will contact the kennel and offer to take dogs, Smith said.
"This way we have no way of finding them," Smith said.
People who buy animals from stores or breeders will no longer be able to look up the reports to see if there are violations. If the dog is sick or deformed, puppy lemon laws need inspection reports to back up the consumer claims, Smith said.
Humane Society of the United States has used the data to publish its "Horrible Hundred" reports on puppy mills to alert consumers who are considering buying dogs online or from pet stores, said John Goodwin, Senior Director, Stop Puppy Mills Campaign.
Seven states, New Jersey, Connecticut, Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, Louisiana, and Arizona, along with individual cities, including New York City, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, forbid the sale of dogs from puppy mills that have violated the Animal Welfare Act, said Goodwin.
Those laws are completely unenforceable as long as the USDA maintains this data purge, he said.
In 2005, the Humane Society sued the USDA for access to reports concerning the use of animals in university and other laboratories. As part of a settlement, the federal agency agreed to post the data on research animals on its website.
On Monday, the society notified the agency the removal of information violated the terms of the agreement and if not corrected, it would move to reopen the settlement, Goodwin stated.
Sgt. Nicole Wilson, humane law officer for the Pennsylvania SPCA, said the change would not affect investigations for law enforcement agencies, which would still have quick ccess to the information.
In Pennsylvania, inspection reports from the state Department of Agriculture are available online, said Wilson.
Wilson agreed the impact will be on consumers but also on the department itself, which would face an additional workload processing FOIA requests.
"It is just going to add more problems on both sides of the issue," said Wilson.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday the decision may in part be politically motivated.