A ban on most sales of dogs and cats in Maryland is back in court as part of a years-long battle over how to address inhumane treatment of potential pets.
Under the law, cats and dogs can only be sold by their original breeders, not by pet stores and middlemen. Pet stores in the state along with breeders and brokers from out of state have sued, saying Maryland is unfairly shutting them out of the market.
In an earlier version of the law, passed in 2018, animals could be sold by businesses that were not “open to the public.” But a loophole allowed pet stores to keep operating by appointment. To tighten restrictions further, an updated version of the law was signed last year making clear that any for-profit store cannot sell animals unless they were born there.
Maryland is one of several states that have taken steps to prevent sales from “puppy mills,” where dogs are bred in large numbers and with minimal care. Critics say that in addition to being cruel to the animals, these breeders are taking advantage of customers by selling them expensive dogs with potential health problems. California, Illinois, Maine and Washington have similar laws; a New York ban is awaiting the governor’s signature.
But pet stores, brokers and breeders argue Maryland’s law goes further, unconstitutionally interfering with interstate commerce by giving preferential treatment to local businesses.
“This is the primary distinction from any other local ordinances or the other four statewide bans that have gone into effect across the country,” attorney Meagan C. Borgerson said in an oral argument at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit recently. “There is now no avenue for an out-of-state breeder to sell their dogs in the state of Maryland face-to-face with the Maryland consumer.”
The businesses also contend the ban is counterproductive, because Maryland residents can still buy dogs online from any seller and have them shipped into the state.
“There is a high likelihood that Marylanders will instead turn to less regulated sources, such as online marketplaces which are known to have a high incidence of fraud,” Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council President Michael Bober said in a testimonial.
“There was certainly no intent to corner the market in dogs,” Assistant Attorney General Ryan Dietrich said at oral argument. “Breeders in Maryland are limited in the same way that breeders out of state are limited.” For some residents, he noted, it might be easier to go to a breeder in Pennsylvania or Delaware than in Maryland.
The law’s supporters said they hope Marylanders will turn to shelters or breeders they can visit in person. Simply knowing a dog came from a breeder that is licensed by the U.S. Agriculture Department or even one with a clean inspection record is not enough, they argue, because of lax enforcement.
Inspections and citations under the Animal Welfare Act are on the rise after falling sharply during the Trump administration. But inspections resulting in citations are still half what they were in 2015, according to statistics from the Animal Welfare Institute.
“We’re not feeling any better today than we felt last year or two years ago,” about the USDA, said Nancy Blaney, Animal Welfare Institute’s government affairs director. “The best way to ensure that you’re not getting animals from terrible situations is just to not have them in the store.”
Blaney pointed to the case of Envigo, a facility breeding beagles for research in Virginia that was inspected five times and issued 74 citations over 10 months but allowed to continue operating until the Justice Department intervened. A subsequent civil settlement does not bar the company from breeding dogs in the future.
“That kind of tells you all you need to know about how seriously they take these things,” she said.
The earlier version of the law was upheld by the 4th Circuit, and a judge in a district court deemed this version constitutional.
“Plaintiffs appear to be exemplary breeders, brokers, and pet stores owners. They work hard to ensure that their puppies are raised and transported in humane, caring environments and purchased by responsible owners,” she wrote. “But, it is not the Court’s place to judge the wisdom or fairness of the State’s decision to pass the Act.”