Feline Conservation Federation

Understanding USDA licensing

Commercial Activity is required for a USDA License
    USDA Animal Welfare Act regulates the use of animals in commerce.  Commercial activity is a prerequisite for licensing by the USDA.  If there is no commercial activity, (i.e., the animal is merely a pet, or part of a personal collection), you are not eligible to enroll in the Animal Welfare Program and gain a USDA license.  USDA licenses animal facilities that own or possess these animals.  The license is issued to an individual, and the licensee may conduct commercial activity using their animals as long as they adhere to the rules and regulations of the Animal Welfare Act.  The Animal Welfare Act has regulations concerning enclosure designs and materials to insure each are of adequate size for the species enclosed, and of design and strength to contain the species. USDA also requires a veterinary care program and yearly inspections by a veterinarian. USDA animal care professionals conduct unannounced site inspections and write up any non-compliant items found and licensees are given a designated time period to make necessary improvements. They also inspect all paperwork to insure that the animal transfers are properly documented. 
    There are three classes of USDA license - A, B and C.  For ownership of wild felines, each class of licenses requires that the license holder demonstrate adequate husbandry knowledge of the species they possess.

Class A License
    In the case of wild felines specifically, a USDA Class A license, sometimes referred to as a breeder's license, is mandatory if the individual is engaged in the sales of offspring produced by the individual's felines.  If the individual is breeding his adult animals but is not selling the offspring, he is not eligible for a USDA Class A license. (no commercial activity)  Holder's of a Class A license may not broker animals, only sell their offspring. Class A license for wild felines requires adequate caging and a perimeter fence, no closer that 3 feet from the cage. Perimeter fences for felines defined as dangerous (specifically lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, cougar, cheetah) must be eight feet in height.  A six-foot perimeter fence for smaller feline species (serval, bobcat and such) must surround all cages.  In the case of multiple animal collections, often a single perimeter fence encloses all the animal cages.

Class B License
    A USDA Class B license, sometimes referred to as a broker's license, is mandatory if the individual is selling wild felines not bred by the adult animals in the licensee's possession.  That is, they are brokering other people's animals - buying and selling adults or offspring, not part of the licensee's long-term collection. 

    Holder's of a Class B license may engage in limited, controlled exhibiting, and such as is required to facilitate the sales of offspring or recently acquired animals.  When conducting exhibition of animals the licensee must be responsible for physically preventing any direct contact between the visitors and the animals and their cages.   This type of exhibiting cannot be a major part of the commercial activity engaged in by the licensee.  Class B license for wild felines requires adequate caging and a perimeter fence, no closer than 3 feet from the cage. In the case of multiple animal collections, often a single perimeter fence encloses all the animal cages.

Class C License
    USDA Class C licenses are commonly referred to as an Exhibitor's license.  Person's holding class C licenses may exhibit their animals to the public. This is the same license all zoos possess.  All exhibitors, whether municipal owned zoos, or privately owned zoos, circuses, or professional educator's that bring animals off-site to the places of business of their customers, must adhere to the same USDA guidelines and standards.  USDA Class C facilities may breed and sell offspring, they may broker offspring bred by others, and they may exhibit animals, though the major activity of a Class C licensee must be the exhibiting of the animals.  Examples of this are found with zoos: 1. they are open to the public (exhibit),  2. produce baby animals and sell them (breeder), 3. they trade animals amongst other zoos and often times sell animals for various reasons after only owning them a short while (broker).

    USDA Class C animal owners or Zoo Curators are required to have adequate knowledge and husbandry skills to maintain the species they possess.  USDA recently clarified in a draft proposal what constitutes proper training and experience requirements for Class C exhibitors, recognizing that the Class C licensee places wild animals with some frequency in close proximity to the public. Specific training requirements vary for the different types of exhibiting activities. Close contact with the public, such as photo booths with cubs, or photo shoots, or movie work, require 2 years of training, with one of those years consisting of direct hands-on training under the supervision of another experienced USDA licensed handler. Further, a minimum of two trained handlers must be on duty per animal exhibited.
    In situations where the animal is kept confined in his cage, and the public is allowed on the property to view it, the licensee must have a minimum of 1 year of handing and husbandry experience.  In the case of zoos, which maintain Class C licenses, but have individuals, not actually licensed by the USDA who are responsible for the daily care of the animals, it is the license holder's responsibility to ensure that the employees or volunteers are adequately trained and experienced in the husbandry and handling needs of the animal they provide care to.  Should a licensee hire persons not qualified to care for their animals and not properly train them, then the licensee is in violation of the Animal Welfare Act and can be cited for a non-compliant item.

Confinement Minimum's for USDA licensed possession of Wild Felines
1.   A cage. It must be strong enough to contain the animal and of a sufficent size to allow normal postures and exercise.
2. A perimeter fence.  Zoos or any licensee that maintains wild felines in captivity must construct a perimeter fence with a minimum height of 8 foot tall for large felines and bears. Small cat species can be confined behind a perimeter fence that is just 6 feet in height.  A perimeter fence should be such that it forms a barrier and is capable of temporarily containing the animal running loose.  It must also be designed to prevent unauthorized entry by human or domestic animal, or various wild roaming animals.  Public zoo perimeter fences do not have to be absolutely escape-proof, as that is, in many cases, prohibitively expensive. Many species of animal can climb any height of fence.  A perimeter fence is for a temporary containment fence, which in most cases does contain the animal long enough for staff to recapture the escaped animal.

For facilities that are licensed to exhibit their felines, an additional requirement must be met
3. A barrier fence. 
 The barrier must be adequate to prevent the unauthorized contact of the cage enclosure and it must surround the cage.  This barrier can be various heights, materials, and designs, according to the species and property layout. There is no set standard, but generally a four foot tall fence at least three feet from the cage wall will suffice. The nature of the facility also can influence the design of the barrier. 
    In small facilities where there is a high ratio of personnel to viewing public, as is the case in private small scale collections, USDA may be satisfied with merely a barrier rope type fence, if the viewing public will be accompanied by facility personnel. In the case of a large municipal zoo, where people wander freely, the barriers must be designed so as to severely hinder most attempts of a curious child, malicious vandal, or stubborn adult to gain access to the animal's enclosure. In the case of exhibitors that take their animals offsite, they must contain the animal in a cage, and surround the cage with a physical barrier which prevents the viewing public from gaining access to the cage and the animal inside.


    The Animal Welfare Act is enforced by a system of unannounced inspections by a trained USDA inspector.  Licensees must be available for inspection, and cages, animal health, food storage and preparation areas, medical supplies and all animal transfer paperwork is open to inspection.  Should the inspector note that the any of these items are not up to USDA standards, a "non-compliant item" will be noted on the inspection report with a set date for this non-compliant item to be corrected.  The USDA Animal Care inspector will then return to the facility after the date given for the item to be corrected and verify that the licensee has corrected the item. 
    In cases where a licensee has a chronic history of non-compliant times, the USDA does impose fines, ranging from a minimum of $500 to upwards of $20,000 or more.  Further, USDA may revoke a license temporarily or even permanently for gross neglect, abuse, or non-compliance.

For more information about USDA licenses and the animal welfare act, visit the USDA Animal Care website