USDA License

USDA Licensing

What does it mean to be licensed under the USDA APHIS?

The United States Department of Agriculture has a division called APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service). It is the job of APHIS to uphold and administer the Animal Welfare Act and also to protect and promote agricultural health, regulate genetically engineered organisms, and to support the overall mission of USDA.

The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) was set up to protect animals from neglect or inhumane treatment. The act establishes minimum standards of treatment and care for animals covered under the act. This includes sugar gliders.

The minimum standards establish "adequate care and treatment" for housing animals, handling them and transporting them. This includes their nutrition, veterinary care, and keeping them safe from extreme weather and temperature conditions. When you read the AWA rule book, it is clear that the standards are set pretty low. For example, it is considered humane for a sugar glider to be housed in a cage in which the animal cannot bump its head when it stands up on its hind legs. That means a cage about the size of a breadbox is allowed. APHIS does state; however, that 'Regulated businesses are encouraged to exceed the specified minimum standards."

In general, the husbandry of warmblooded animals is covered under the AWA with the exception of farm animals used for agricultural purposes.

What kind of licenses are available?

Class A licensees are those individuals who deal only in animals that they breed and raise. Class B licensees may breed and raise some of the animals they sell but typically buy and resell animals from other sources. Class B dealers include brokers, operators of auction sales, and bunchersthose who supply dealers with dogs, cats, and other regulated animals collected from random sources.

So-called "hobby breeders" who make $500 or less a year and have three or fewer breeding females are exempt.

Western Region is run out of Fort Collins, CO. The Eastern Region is based in Raleigh, NC. and are divided by the Mississippi River and the borders of the Dakotas and Minnesota.

There are two types of licenses that cover the broad category of "dealers" and "exhibitors." For dealers, there are two classes of license: Class A and Class B. For exhibitors, there is only one class: "C."

Class A dealers are licensed to sell animals he/she has bred and raised.

Class B dealers sell animals they have not bred and raised or transports other licensees animals for compensation. Class B licensees may also exhibit animals.

Class C licensees exhibit animals but may also sell animals as a minor part of his/her business.

The type of license you get and maintain is based on the predominant activity of the operation.

On the license application, you will see choices for many types of operations including standard zoo, breeder, circus, drive-thru zoo, aquarium, pets, animal acts, pet store, auction, roadside zoo, carnival or broker.

Notably, there is no category for "rescue" called out on this form, so you have to write-in "rescue" in the "other" box.

What are the steps to getting licensed?

First, you Contact your regional office to get an application. You can do this on line ( or you can call them. We recommend calling them because you may not get the whole packet you need by fishing around on the web site.

The Western Region office of APHIS is in Fort Collins Colorado and covers states west of the Mississippi River, including the Dakotas (970-494-74780. The Eastern Region is run out of Raleigh North Carolina (919-855-7100). Fax: (919) 855-7123

Although the application form looks simple enough, it's a little tricky. It's OK to call and ask for someone at the APHIS office to help you. Over the years everyone we've spoken to has been very helpful.

In addition to the application fee there is a Federal EIN or Social Security identification form you will also be asked to fill out. Part of the packet also includes the Veterinary Care Program paperwork. The veterinary care program paperwork can be filled out after you send in your license application, Federal EIN/Social Security form and the $10 application fee. This is explained pretty well in the packet they send you in the mail after you call.

2. Veterinary care program

The Veterinary Care Program is used to enlist the support of a local veterinarian who will visit your facility at least once a year and sign a form proving such each time that you keep on file for the USDA ACI (Animal Care Inspector) to review on demand.

There are a few things you will need to have on file for the ACI to see for your prelicense inspection: a) a letter on your vet's letterhead that states you have a commercial relationship in good standing with his or her office and also stating that the vet will support your efforts as a USDA licensee and participate in the veterinary care program for your operation; b) a form that the vet fills out that includes information such as what method will be practiced to euthanize animals that need to be put to sleep; c) a separate form the vet signs on each visit to your facility.

Veterinarians have charged anywhere from $300 per visit to as much as $600 per visit to do site inspections.

Your veterinary care program doctor does not report to the USDA. It would be rare that your ACI ever contacts your vet. The paperwork the vet fills out does not get sent in to the USDA, but rather becomes part of the on-site paperwork you must maintain for the ACI to see when he or she comes to inspect your operation.

3. Prelicense inspection

Before your license is awarded, you will be contacted by a local ACI and an appointment will be set up for the initial inspection. Some ACIs have a traveling computer and printer so the inspection results can be handed to you on the spot. Some don't have that set-up and so they have to file with the regional office manually and then you are notified later in writing. The ACI will look for your operation to be in keeping with the Animal Welfare Act guidelines. These are provided in a blue booklet that comes along with the license application packet.

If all goes well, you will receive the license within a month. Your ACI may tell you verbally that you passed the inspection and may tell you verbally that it is OK to begin operating under the aegis of the USDA. Or he or she may tell you that you have to wait to get the license in the mail. Depends on the ACI.

4. Ongoing inspections

It is up to the discretion of the ACI whether or not you get a courtesy call before inspections or whether those inspections happen un-announced. They are allowed to come un-announced as was the case when LGRS was in Nevada.

In some cases, the ACI will be more interested in seeing your up-to-date paperwork and less interested in checking out the cages and animals. It depends on the ACI.

In addition to the veterinary care program paperwork, the ACI will be interested on subsequent visits in seeing your other forms. Those are: a) Animals On Hand ledger; and b) USDA transfer forms. The transfer forms are used to memorialize the incoming and outgoing of animals. It lists the species, sex, age, etc of each animal and indicates who brought them (or bought them) or the type of transaction.

Do rescues "need" a license?

There is a fair amount of ambiguity over whether or not a rescue "needs" a USDA license. If there is some question as to whether or not your operation requires a license, that can be decided by the Regional Director presiding over the territory you operate out of. We recommend getting licensed if you are a rescue because the oversight from the USDA does add credibility to your operation.

One rule of thumb that may determine the outcome of your licensing is the nature of your fee structure. For example, at LGRS, we charge a flat rate for the adoption of sugar gliders. If more than two are adopted at the same time, the fee is the same as for two. Another way to do it is to charge the exact amount of the veterinary care bills incurred up until the time of the adoption. Unfortunately, some gliders need so much veterinary care (the most expensive of which was around $1,000) that most people would not adopt the glider because the vet fees can easily go above the "street price" for a glider. But according the the folks in the Western Region office of APHIS, you need a license if you collect a flat fee because technically you are classified as a "broker." It could be argued that if the flat fee is always less than the true costs that you don't need a license, but that argument will plot the course for not getting licensed, so if you want to get a license I don't recommend making that argument.

As you can imagine, the USDA does not want to entertain "frivolous" applications and they are over-worked. So casual inquiries will probably not be met with great enthusiasm. If you start a non-licensed rescue we recommend staying away from flat fees until after you are licensed in order to avoid complications in dealing with the USDA. Once you establish your intent to charge a flat fee once you are licensed, it will probably go smoother.

Last Edited July 7, 2011