Helpful Tips for USDA Licensing 

Matt Matasci Matt Matasci · Updated May 24, 2024

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You’re an animal lover with a passion for dogs and a desire to develop your own breeding business. But before you can get started, you need to ensure your business complies with the Animal Welfare Act and has the appropriate USDA license or registration. Failure to comply with this federal law can result in hefty fines.

How do you know if your business is required to obtain this license? Which license do you need to apply for? Do you need to have a USDA registration as well? Why do you even need a license in the first place?

You may have many questions about USDA licensing, but there isn’t a lot of guidance outside of confusing government websites. Our goal is to give breeders an easy to read, centralized reference for USDA requirements.

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Background on the Animal Welfare Act and USDA License

The United States Congress passed the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) in 1966. They created the AWA to ensure humane treatment of animals — specifically animals intended to be used as pets, for exhibition or for laboratory use.

Some Facts About the AWA

  • It contains specific language to prohibit animal-fighting and unethical importation practices.
  • Code of Federal Regulations, Title 9, Chapter 1, Subchapter A gives the legal requirements for businesses regulated by the Animal Welfare Act.
  • The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and Animal Care (AC) enforces the law.
  • The AWA doesn’t cover animals raised for “food or fiber.”

Over the last 50 years Congress amended the AWA several times:

  • The original 1966 law had no name and protected pet owners from theft of their animals for research purposes and to regulate the treatment of certain species commonly used in research.
  • Congress expanded the law in 1970. This amended protected any warm-blooded animals used for research, testing, experimentation, exhibition or as a pet. Additionally, it required animal transporters to adhere to a set of standards. 
  • In 1976 an amendment increased the protections afforded to animals in transit. It also expanded protections for more animals — most notably dogs used for hunting, security or breeding. This amendment also formally named the law the Animal Welfare Act.
  • The 1985 amendment established the Animal Welfare Information Center (AWIC). It also made the act applicable to animal research.
  • In 1990 an amendment to the AWA essentially prohibits pounds, shelters and research facilities from holding a dog or cat for five days before selling it or euthanizing it. 
  • 2002 saw the most recent amendment to the act, expanding prohibition on animal fighting to birds. 

Upcoming Changes to the Licensing Process

As of November 2020, there have been some changes to Animal Care’s licensing process. The goal of the changes is to increase the rate of compliance, ease some of the administrative burdens of the process and strengthen animal welfare safeguards.

  • Prior to this change, licensees received an annual license for a $40 processing fee
  • Each year about a third of licensees transition to three-year terms.
  • By 2023 all AWA applicants will get three-year licenses. 
  • The flat processing fee will be $120 for a three-year term.
  • Applicants for three-year licenses must submit their application and fees at least 90 days prior to the expiration of their current license. 

When you submit your application, you must include‌:

  • The total number of animals you will hold or use.
  • Whether any overnight travel is a part of your activities.
  • If you have any previous violations or charges of animal cruelty and whether it was filed under local, state or federal law.

After you submit the application, schedule a pre-licensing inspection. You will then have three attempts, or 60 days to demonstrate full compliance with the AWA and pass the inspection.

What Happens If You Fail?

If you don’t pass the inspections or the 60 days time limit runs out, you’ll forfeit the $120 license fee and wait for at least six months before submitting a new application. 

  • You can appeal to the AC Deputy Administrator if you fail the third inspection.
  • If the appeal is denied, you can submit it for legal review only if you held a valid license when you submitted the application and the AC Deputy Administrator received the application 90 days before the valid license expired. 

What’s the Difference Between a USDA License and Registration?

Do you need a USDA license or registration with the USDA? These two terms seem similar but are two very distinct requirements. The type of animal-related business you own determines whether you need to licensing, registration or both.

Most commercial breeding businesses need a USDA license, though there are some exemptions. Use the APHIS Licensing and Registration Assistant. This tool helps you determine if you need licensing or registration, both, or if you’re exempt.

This self-service tool takes between five and 15 minutes to complete — once completed, the tool provides you with a link to the correct registration or license application.

Generally speaking, the USDA license is for breeders, dealers and exhibitors of warm-blooded mammals and has a processing fee. Registration is for intermediate handlers, research facilities and animal transporters and is free.

How to Know If You Need a USDA License

If you sell pets sight unseen to buyers you need to be licensed — this rule particularly applies to businesses that produce large volumes of puppies and sell them wholesale to retailers.

However, if you’re a smaller breeder that transports puppies to long-distance customers without meeting them in-person, you need a USDA license. Even if most of your puppy sales are done in person, you must be licensed to ship a puppy to an off-site buyer.

Hobby Breeders: If you’re a “Hobby Breeder” that allows buyers to see the animal in-person before making the purchase or adopting them, you likely qualify for an exemption. Most breeders are regulated by breed and registry organizations as well as local and state laws, so federal licensing requirements are not as stringent. 

You’re exempt from licensing if:

  • You make less than $500 in a calendar year from your breeding business.
  • If you have four or fewer breeding females on your premises.
  • If you sell fewer than 25 dogs a year. The dogs must have been born and raised on your premises.
  • If you work together with other breeders, you must account for the total amount of sales, number of breeding females and number of puppy sales between all parties. If that number exceeds $500, 4 breeding females or 25 puppies, respectively, you’re not exempt.

USDA License

Breeder License Applications:

Classes of USDA License:

  • Class A License — Breeder — This license is for breeders who only sell puppies they’ve bred themselves.
  • Class B License — Dealer — If you resell puppies you’ve purchased from breeders, you need this license. 
  • Class C License — Exhibitor — You’ll need this license if you exhibit animals to the public. 
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How to Apply for a USDA License or Registration

USDA Registration

Breeder Registration Applications:

Classes of USDA Registration:

  • Class H Registration — Intermediate Handler — Anyone (other than a dealer, research facility, exhibitor) who receives custody of animals for commercial transportation needs a Class H registration.
  • Class R Registration — Research Facility — Any facility that uses animals for research purposes must be registered.
  • Class T Registration — Carrier — All animal transporters need a Class T registration.

For further guidance for parties that need licensing and registration, the USDA has published comprehensive Guidelines for Dealers, Exhibitors, Transporters and Researchers.

State Licensing

In addition to meeting federal licensing and registration requirements, many states have their own commercial pet breeder laws. Check your state to be sure you’re in compliance with its own animal welfare laws. a state-by-state list of these laws.

Only Hire USDA-Registered Pet Transporters

With this information you should have a clearer idea of what steps to take to get your business in AWA compliance. If you only sell puppies to buyers that come to your physical location, you may not need to worry about USDA licensing. 

If you do ship puppies to out-of-state buyers, consider that the transporter should be registered with the USDA. CitizenShipper makes it easy for drivers to register with the USDA by streamlining the process into two steps through our website. 

It gives buyers added comfort knowing their newest family member comes from a reputable, USDA-licensed breeder and is in good hands being transported by a USDA-registered driver. Give your customers this security and use CitizenShipper for all of your puppy-shipping needs!