The suit, filed by the California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund, contends a regulation approved in 2010 that allows mothers and puppies to live in cages where half the flooring is metal-strand wire violates amendments to the state dog law made two years earlier.
That dog law was aimed at increasing standards for care in large kennels that sell to pet stores widely known as "puppy mills."
The suit, brought on behalf of three Dauphin County taxpayers and dog owners, also contends that the regulations violate the mandate that dogs be allowed "unfettered" access to outdoor exercise.
"The Department of Agriculture gutted the dog law when it essentially rewrote the standards to allow wire mesh flooring," said Carter Dillard, director of litigation for the group, adding that the department also replaced "unfettered" with "daily" access to outdoors. "Writing regulations that didn't improve conditions was a blatant giveaway to breeders," Dillard said.
Samantha Krepps, agriculture spokeswoman, said the agency doesn't comment on pending litigation.
But she said the issues in the suit were raised during the regulatory review process and "very thoroughly considered by the Independent Regulatory Review Commission" when it approved them in November 2010.
The public battle erupted in 2010 after regulations were issued that provided more space, light, ventilation, exercise and safer conditions for thousands of dogs in commercial kennels. Exemptions were made on flooring and exercise for nursing mothers and puppies.
Since 2010 the number of commercial kennels - those selling or transferring 60 or more dogs a year - has dropped from a high of more than 300 to 59.
Marsha Perelman, a member of the governor's dog-law advisory board who helped draft the dog law, said the law exempted puppies under 12 weeks old who were housed with their mothers.
Flooring was divided for sanitary reasons because puppies produce more waste and outdoor access through dog doors with flaps, while safe for adults, posed risks for puppies, she said.
"It was done with the best input from the best experts we could find to reflect the safety and health of the puppies," Perelman said. "Given the fact that Dog Law can't police kennels 24/7, the law and regulations offer the best option for balancing the health and safety of puppies with the comfort of nursing mothers."
Presumably, after the weaning process, mother dogs would later be moved off wire to cages with solid flooring, but some animal welfare advocates charge that with only two inspections a year no one is monitoring the movement of adult dogs back to solid-floored cages.
"The only reason they gutted the law was to save breeders money," Dillard said. "Breeders should be able to maintain solid flooring or they shouldn't be in business."