Last Updated: 8/18/19
Licensing Requirements for Rabbit Breeders
This post has gotten quite long, so let’s break it into a Table of Contents.
Does a person need a license to breed and sell rabbits in the United States?
This is an excellent question to which every breeder should know the answer. We need to know if we are following the laws of our government, and if we are, why, so that we can respond to anyone who asks.
The short answer is that under current regulations, most rabbit breeders do not need a license to raise and sell rabbits. However, these regulations are currently undergoing revision, so we need to keep a close eye on what happens with them, and speak up to protect our rights. Most breeders are not aware of even how things stand now, but ought to be, especially if we want to understand the potential changes.
At this point, we need to look at these regulations on three different levels:
1) How things are right now. These are the regulations that are currently in place and we currently need to follow.
2) How things would be if the changes that APHIS recently proposed were actually instituted, and
3) What the final wording of the changes might be if they pass.
The AWA is the Animal Welfare Act. Signed into law on August 24, 1966, by President Lyndon B. Johnson, this federal law lays out regulations for minimum standards of care for warmblooded domestic animals not used for agricultural purposes, or those used in exhibitions such as zoos or circuses. States also have their own regulations in addition to AWA. You can learn more about it or even read the full text at the APHIS website.
APHIS is the USDA’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service. The job of APHIS, and more specifically, the “Animal Care” division of APHIS, is to make sure that individuals are complying with the Animal Welfare Act.
The AWA “requires that all individuals or businesses dealing with animals covered under the law must be licensed or registered with APHIS.” Source:
It does, however, provide a number or exemptions from licensing. If you raise animals that are covered under the AWA, you are required to be licensed unless you are exempted.
So is a rabbit breeder exempt from licensing with APHIS or the USDA?
Rabbits only used for food or fiber:
“The rabbit business is exempt from regulation if the rabbits are intended only for food or fiber. If any rabbits are designated for use in the pet, exhibit, or laboratory-animal trade, the business is regulated.” Source: Guidelines for Licensing Registration
Rabbits sold for pet use are currently exempt under the following conditions:
Direct Sales – You are exempted if you sell pet rabbits directly to the final buyer, such as an individual pet owner. That final buyer must not be a research facility, or an “exhibitor” under the AWA definition, such as a petting zoo or circus. You may not sell to a pet store or other retailer and still qualify for the “direct sales” exemption.
(Note: The AWA’s definition of an exhibitor is not what we think of as a “showman,” or someone who shows pedigreed animals, but rather someone who puts animals on display to the public, like a zoo or animal act.)
Under $500 – If you do sell rabbits to an “exhibitor,” research facility, or retailer, you can still be exempted only if the total sales income does not exceed $500. Please understand that this is gross income, not profit.
The $500 threshold confuses people, so let’s look at it this way. Most of us sell over $500 worth of rabbits in a year, right? But the good thing is, most of those sales don’t count. Most of those sales are not regulated by the USDA, because they are “direct sales” right to the buyer. Those are not sales regulated by the USDA, so they don’t count toward the threshold. If you do sell “regulated” animals – like to a pet shop or research facility – you are required to be licensed after you pass the threshold of $500.
If you think about it, you realize that this cap is there to divide commercial pet producers from those that breed pets for a hobby and sell a few to a pet store or research facility.
Rabbits sold for show or show-breeding:
Under the current wording, it’s not very clear where show rabbits stand. Livestock sales are not regulated by the AWA, and to most breeders, show rabbits are much more livestock than they are pets. Pet rabbits don’t usually produce rabbits that are eaten (livestock) but our show rabbits do. However, both ARBA and SRPS have confirmed to me via email that the USDA considers show rabbits to be pets until they are used for food or fiber. Therefore when we sell show rabbits to each other, the way it’s legal is because we are selling directly to another owner.
The rest of this post is based on the belief that show-only rabbits are considered pets. My rationale for believing this comes from reading the Animal Welfare Regulations. If you’d like to read that rationale, please click here.
There’s another exemption called “retail pet store” that may also cover rabbit breeders. The Licensing Guidelines state:
Retail Pet Stores: Anyone whose entire business consists of selling domestic animals to pet owners is exempt.
Currently, rabbit breeders don’t usually need to fall back on this exemption because there others such as the direct sales one that cover most of our transactions. (Note – see the Animal Welfare Regulations, page 13, points i and vii. You’ll see that direct sales and retail pet store are separate exemptions.)
Perhaps you have heard about a maximum number of breeding females that an owner may have and be exempt from a license. This minimum is for dogs, cats, and exotic or wild animals, and has no bearing on rabbits or cavies.
if you are selling rabbits for meat or fiber you do not need a license.
If you are selling directly to a pet owner or another showman, you do not need a license.
If you are selling to a retailer such as a pet store, and exhibitor such as a petting zoo, or a research facility you do not need a license as long as you make no more than $500 gross from this type of regulated sale in a calendar year.
That’s how it is now. That’s probably not how it will always be, but that’s how things are now.
So let’s look at how things might become:
In May this year, APHIS proposed some changes to their regulations about who can sell animals for what purposes without a license from the USDA.
You can read about the effects of the change as it was originally proposed on SAOVA’s website. The proposed changes remove the “direct sales” exemption altogether. That means the “retail pet store” exemption suddenly becomes important for rabbit breeders. As it was originally proposed, the change would limit the definition of “retail pet store” to mean that a buyer has to physically enter the seller’s place of business to buy a pet (or show rabbit) in order for the seller to be exempt from licensing. For most rabbit breeders, that means having buyers come right to your home.
What will it mean for rabbit breeders?
Thankfully, through the efforts of ARBA, SRPS and many other dedicated animal-raising organizations, APHIS has changed their tune on the proposal, to some extent. APHIS is now telling people that the “enter place of business” idea will be replaced with (or will be defined as?) “face to face contact” between buyer and seller, in a place of public oversight, prior to the sale of the animal. If this is the case, breeders could be exempt as a “retail pet store” if you sell rabbits directly to final owners, as long as you meet the owners face to face in a place of public oversight.
The proposed change does not affect the $500 threshold. As we understand it currently, under the proposed change, all rabbit sales will be regulated unless
-The rabbit is intended for food or fiber purposes
-The rabbit is intended for pet (or show) purposes, and the buyer and the seller meet face to face in a place of public oversight, so the buyer can examine the rabbit before purchasing.
-The total gross of REGULATED sales does not exceed $500. Realize that face-to-face sales and food/fiber sales are not regulated and therefore do not count toward the $500 threshold.
*Remember – The maximum number of breeding females rule has no effect on rabbits!*
If the proposal is changed to “face to face” sales, it will affect rabbit breeders in only one big way. The original intent of the proposal is to stop sight unseen pet sales, where the buyer does not have a chance to examine the animal before purchasing. All in-person sales will not be regulated, but all sales where the buyer and seller do not physically meet would be regulated. To use an example, if I sold a trio of rabbits based on pictures to a person on the other side of the country, and then sent them to convention with a third party where the buyer could pick them up, that would be regulated by the USDA. If I wanted to ship rabbits by air to someone on the west coast, that would be a regulated activity. I would need a USDA license to do these things if I sold more than $500 worth of regulated animals in a calendar year. (Remember, you can sell up to $500 of normally-regulated sales each year without needing a license.)
Obviously, not being able to share stock around the country without meeting the seller face to face could put a significant crimp in certain breeding projects. Take my breed, the Silver. Despite its unique history which dates back to the 1500’s, the Silver today is a very rare breed. There are a few Silver hot spots in the country; a few states where you can find one readily. But I often hear of people interested in the breed who don’t live in one of the “hot spots,” and they find it very difficult to locate stock for sale. The only sure place I know to find some Silvers for sale is the ARBA convention each year. Not everyone can travel to convention, but almost everyone can find someone nearby who is going and will transport rabbits. If suddenly people couldn’t even get rabbits that way, this breed would be even more likely to die out. We might lose one of the very first breeds that people raised domestically. Okay, not the end of the world, but it’d be a shame to have it happen for no good reason.
What can we do about the situation?
We won’t know exactly what the new wording of the proposal will be until it passes congress. At this point, APHIS hasn’t even decided what the final version will say. The comment period on the proposal closed on August 15, and now APHIS will review the comments and make a final decision. Then the proposal must pass congress.
Don’t stop there.
So send your comments to your Congress representatives and to the Congressional Ag committees and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. Click the link – the Cavalry Group has a form that makes it super easy.
Frequent Questions & Answers
When will the changes go into effect? Maybe never. If they do, it will be at least several months as APHIS needs to come up with a final proposal and then it needs to be approved by congress.
Will it affect transporting rabbits to Convention this year? No, the changes will almost certainly not be in effect during Convention 2012.
So will I have to meet buyers at my house? According to how the proposal was originally written, yes – at your house or other “place of business.” But right now APHIS is telling us that that will not be in the final proposal. Instead sales must be made with the buyer and seller meeting face to face in a place of public oversight. But even that may change by the final revision.
Can I sell to a pet store without a license? Yes, if your income from such a sale is not over $500 annually. This applies NOW, not just if the proposal passes.
Could I sell a rabbit and send it to convention with a transporter, even if I am not attending myself? Under current rules, yes. Under the proposed rule, you would have to get a USDA license to do this, unless you do not exceed $500 in gross income from this type of sale.
Under the proposed change, could I ship rabbits by air without a license? If the buyer did not see the rabbits before purchase, that would be considered a “sight-unseen” sale and be regulated. You could do it without a license if your income from that type of sale is $500 or less each year. Rabbits shipped outside the United States are not regulated.
Is the $500 threshold added up per-sale, or on a yearly basis? On a yearly basis. Your total gross income for a year for ANY sale that is normally USDA regulated must not exceed $500 or you would need a license. That means if you sell $200 worth of rabbits to a pet shop in March, and $350 worth of rabbits to a research facility in November, that would cross the line. Realize, the $500 threshold applies NOW – it’s not just a “if this passes” thing!
Can I not have more than four brood does? Yes you can have more than four. The breeding females limit has no effect on rabbits or cavies.
What if the buyer and seller chat on Skype? What if they exchange pictures of the rabbit? Can that count as face to face? I don’t think that counts. However, APHIS needs to clarify what “face to face” means exactly. Put the question in your comments.
I thought ARBA told us not to worry about it? As much as I appreciate the ARBA, believe that it is underestimating the effect that this proposal would have on its membership. True, by the time the proposal passes congress it may be modified to the extent that it will have virtually no effect on rabbit breeders, but we aren’t to that stage yet. Please consider carefully what I’ve said in this post, do your own research, and see if you think that the proposal will have any effect on rabbit breeders. Other animal-breeder organizations such as the AKC, the Cavalry Group, and the Sportsmans and Animal Owners Voting Alliance are not taking this proposal lying down. The very fact that it was started by the animal rights-oriented Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) proves that this proposal is of no small concern to animal breeders.
Should I just go get a USDA license? No, there’s no reason to do that, at least right now. Wait to see if this proposal passes, and what the final wording will be if it does.
What does it take to get a USDA license? You need to comply with the Animal Welfare Regulations. Check them out to see what the required conditions are for keeping rabbits. In addition to other requirements, licensees need to have an adult on the premises during all businesses hours.
If I had a USDA license, would my rabbitry need to be inspected? Yes. Last week I heard with my own ears Dr. Rushin of APHIS say that they currently do inspect all facilities before issuing a license. Also, we know that APHIS does not always announce their inspections in advance, and may show up anytime.
This is all so confusing. Should I just quit? No! No, no no! Don’t give up your rights as US citizens to raise animals. Don’t give up to the minority: squeaky-wheel animal rights activists that just want you to quit. We can work through these concerns and keep our critters. Don’t give up. And if you have any questions, feel free to email me.
Washington Animal Watch – Detailed information about what legislation mean to animal breeders, and rabbits in particular.
http://thecavalrygroup.com – An organization providing legal defense for animal owners. They offer very affordable membership rates. I highly recommend checking them out
http://www.icontact-archive.com/sRszqmyZGmERhv5PQPZvnX-eSvbsTRM0 – Three important steps to help fight this proposal
http://showrabbitlegaldefense.blogspot.com – Stay up to date with the Show Rabbit Protection Society
http://www.facebook.com/StopAPHIS201100030001 – Facebook group to stop APHIS.
The Rabbit Ed Society’s Legislation Info Page – Links to info for every state
Please do not consider anything I write to be the final or official word on the subject. I am still learning like most other breeders, but in an effort to fully understand this situation, I have spent many hours reading the Animal Welfare Regulations and related documents, and talking with informed persons including taking part in a teleconference with Dr. Gerald Rushin of APHIS, one of the people that helped write the proposal. I’m pretty sure that what I have written is accurate. In this article I have simplified things as much as I can, but licensing requirements is not a simple issue, and can’t be fully covered in an easy-read article such as this. I’m definitely open to any questions, suggestions, or corrections.
Remember that this page is only about FEDERAL requirements for raising and selling animals. State and local authorities have their own rules as well. The Rabbit Ed Society has helpful links to related pages in every state.