“How old must a puppy be prior to being offered for sale?”
The answer to this question, like just about any question in law, depends on where you live. Approximately eighteen states have laws or administrative regulations that dictate how old a puppy must be before it is offered for sale or adopted out to an owner. Of those states with laws, all but one require that a puppy be at least eight weeks old before being offered for sale (See Pennsylvania and Nebraska, for example). Virginia mandates that a puppy be at least seven weeks old. Other states focus on the separation of the puppy or kitten from its mother in addition to specifying a minimum age. Nevada's recently amended law provides that a retailer, dealer, or operator shall not separate a dog or cat from its mother until it is 8 weeks of age "or accustomed to taking food or nourishment other than by nursing
., whichever is later." [emphasis added]. Likewise, Illinois also phrases its law with the idea that a puppy or kitten shall not be "separated from its mother" until the puppy or kitten has attained the age of 8 weeks.
(Click here to see a table that breaks down each law with a link to the text of the statute).
One thing that is crucial to understand with these puppy sale laws is that they may not apply to everyone. In other words, the laws may be limited to a particular class of people, such as dog breeders, kennel operators, or other animal facilities. About twelve of the eighteen states make it unlawful for any person to sell an underage puppy. The remaining states limit the provisions to pet shops, animal dealers, or breeders. Like many of the pet sale laws (generally known as “puppy lemon laws”), the focus of these laws is on curbing the distribution of puppies from unregulated sources like puppy mills rather than preventing sales by those not in the breeding business (i.e., individuals who are simply giving away an unwanted litter).
While the focus of these laws may be at curbing the phenomenon of “dealing dogs,” certain parties are sometimes excluded from these laws. As may be expected, many states exclude non-profit animal shelters or humane societies from the law’s reach. This type of exclusion becomes necessary when considering the unwanted puppies often left on the doorstep of such organizations. In addition, a few states have provisions that exclude those dealers regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) who supply dogs for research purposes. The federal AWA regulates only a specific group of people involved in dog commerce; specifically, dog dealers and exhibitors. Dealers are defined as those individuals who buy dogs to sell for research or pets, but that term does not include retail pet stores. Exhibitors are those individuals who purchase animals to exhibit or perform in circuses, zoos, carnivals, and the like. Essentially with regard to dogs, the AWA would apply to those people who raise or collect dogs to sell to universities or other research facilities for money or people who raise dogs to sell to pet stores or breeders. With those limitations in mind, the AWA regulations (the rules by which the dealers and research institutions must abide to maintain their licenses and avoid fines) state that no dog may be delivered to any transportation carrier unless it is at least eight weeks old and weaned. This provision (Sec. 2.130) excludes registered research facilities, however.
Certain parties may be excluded by default because the statute does not reach the activity. For example, many of the state statutes only apply to sales of puppies and not any transfers that do not involve any monetary or other consideration. In fact, the impetus behind nearly all of these statutes is to regulate the commerce of puppies within the state. However, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania include adoption and any transfer of an underage puppy within their laws. In any event, it is safe to say that most states are concerned about the supply and demand aspect of the puppy trade. States are attempting to curb the sale of immature puppies at the source. Maryland even goes so far as to make it illegal to display an underage pup so that it does not entice uninformed consumers.
As might be expected, the penalties for violation of these provisions are far from severe. About half the states make a violation of the law a criminal misdemeanor. California’s law makes it a misdemeanor to sell a puppy under the age of eight weeks as does Nebraska's. Violation of the California law can incur a fine of up to $250. Most state penalties, if even specified, range from a fine of $100 to a possible 30 days in jail. Many of the statutes make the action unlawful, but fail to describe what would happen to a person who violates the section.
What happens in those states without such laws? This answer is less than clear. Certainly a retailer who sells a puppy not yet weaned from his or her mother and able to eat on his or her own is not acting in the best interests of the puppy. Should the puppy then die or suffer inhumanely, despite the best efforts of the pet purchaser, the retailer could conceivably face animal cruelty charges. Moreover, in those states that have enacted pet purchaser protection laws (click here for those states), a possible claim that the merchant violated an implied warranty could be raised. Without a definitive law, the best action by a purchaser is to research the breed he or she wishes to purchase or talk to a veterinarian.