West Hollywood recently voted to ban the sale of puppies and kittens by pet stores in the city. As a veterinarian, I was thrilled to see this action, and hope it spurs similar laws in other cities around the country. Some of the news reports I saw recently indicated the ban was proposed by a council member after they had spent time in a pet store and learned, first hand, what an unregulated and unscrupulous business it can be.
Most people, including veterinarians, really have no idea about the inner workings of pet stores. It is typical for puppies coming out of pet stores to have a myriad of diseases that indicate they likely came from dirty facilities, kennel cough and diarrhea are two of the most common. There is not much more disheartening than to have to tell a client with a new puppy they just spent a considerable amount of money to purchase, that their new baby has a life threatening disease, like Parvovirus or pneumonia that is expensive to treat. Additionally, many of these puppies have congenital birth defects that are the result of inbreeding and can lead to lifelong problems for the pet.
Early in my career, I had the experience of working at a clinic that provided the veterinary care for a pet store. The store itself was in an affluent community, had a good reputation for selling quality puppies and kittens, and did robust business. What I learned about the nuts and bolts of the pet store business was eyeopening. I'd like to share what I discovered, in the hopes that if you, or someone you know, are looking for a new pet, you'll be forewarned and go to a shelter.
Although it is the law (at least here in California) that all puppies and kittens be examined by a veterinary prior to sale to ensure they are healthy and free from major congenital defects, there really is no way to enforce the law, and the pet store does not necessarily take the veterinarian's advice. In my two years dealing with this pet store, I never once examined a kitten, although I saw ten to twelve a week as newly purchased pets. The kittens were always four weeks old, although the clients had been told they were six, and had severe diarrhea due to a plethora of parasites. The kittens were sold for $90, which included their first set of shots. The clients would have been horrified to learn those shots had never been given and that the kittens came from locals whose own cats had litters they were trying to get rid of, or that they had found in a feral cat colony and taken away from their mothers. The pet store owners had scars from taming these feral kittens prior to sale.
Although I believe we did examine most of the puppies, the pet store rarely took our advice to wait to sell a puppy until its diarrhea or cough had resolved. They simply redistributed the medicine we had given them to the new owners, or more often, acted surprised when the new owners complained the puppy was sick. They would tell the owners it had never been sick in the pet store.
Lying to prospective owners is commonplace in the pet store industry. Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell which stores are honest and which are saying whatever it takes to move their inventory. Most consumers are savvy enough to know about puppy mills, but have to take the word of the pet store employee that their puppy didn't come from a mill. The store I worked with got 95% of its puppies from puppy mills, the other 5% were illegally imported from Mexico. However, 100% of the owners were told they came from local, responsible breeders. In truth, a responsible breeder would never sell their puppies at a pet store.
I learned that puppy mills have different standards of "purebred" puppies that they sell to pet stores. The highest standard is what one would expect they were purchasing when a puppy was labeled a purebred, both mom and dad were papered purebreds themselves. The second level, less expensive for the pet store, is mom is a papered purebred and dad is an unpapered purebred. Not too bad, but maybe not a puppy you would pay a premium for. In the third and least expensive level, which is what the reputable pet store I dealt with usually sold, mom is an unpapered purebred and dad is a mixed breed dog, maybe mixed with the same breed as mom, maybe not. Dad's breed is not given. The puppy mill sends a disclosure statement to the pet store that says something to the effect that the puppy mills are legally allowed to call the puppies purebreds as long as the puppy is guaranteed to be at least 50% of that breed. It then goes on to say that how the pet store chooses to market such a puppy is up to the pet store and is the pet store's liability if the owners complain.
You may wonder why I never ratted out the pet store to clients. The reason is two fold, I didn't want to lose my job, and I had no proof. Anything I could have said would have been slanderous and the pet store owners made sure all the vets at the practice knew they would take legal action if they heard we were badmouthing them with no proof.
Are all pet stores as unscrupulous as the one I worked with, probably not. However, in my nine years of practice, of all the puppies from all the pet stores I have examined and have seen paperwork on, every single one came out of a puppy mill, and the owners had no idea. It really is buyer beware when it comes to pet stores. Until either laws like the one in West Hollywood are passed nationwide, or consumers stop buying puppies from pet stores, puppy mills will continue to thrive. If you're looking for a new pet, go to a shelter. At least there, what you see is what you get. You may not know the exact background of your pet, but at least you can be confident someone isn't making it up to get you to buy the pet.
You can find me lurking about at Adventures With Three Girls
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