It’s Getting Harder to Buy Dogs at Pet Stores—Here’s Why

One of the puppies for sale at the Autumn Oaks coonhound event in Richmond, Ind.
One of the puppies for sale at the Autumn Oaks coonhound event in Richmond, Ind. –AP

You’ve probably been in a pet store at some point. I’m not talking about one of the big national chains like Petsmart or Petco—but one of the smaller shops. And let’s face it: you know you played with the puppies.

Whether they were Malteses, bulldogs, dachshunds, or Yorkies, you probably cavorted with the little bundles of fluff. Did you consider where those puppies came from?

Around the country, animal welfare activists say they have been investigating just that—and many say they are unhappy with what they’ve found. Pet stores often get their puppies from commerical breeders, who activists say sometimes place profits over animal welfare.

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As a result, cities in eight states—California, New Jersey, Ohio, Arizona, Colorado, Texas, New Mexico, and Illinois—have banned the sale of dogs at pet stores. Animal welfare activists hope the bans will discourage the operation of subpar commercial breeders, sometimes called “puppy mills,’’ who would have less incentive to breed as many dogs as possible for wholesale distribution. If pet stores could no longer get dogs from breeders, they would be more likely to promote adopting dogs from shelters and rescue groups, activists reason.

The commercial dog breeding industry is overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which protects animals’ health and administers the Animal Welfare Act. If breeders have four or more breeding female dogs on their premises and plan on selling dogs for wholesale distribution to retail pet stores, they must be licensed by the USDA.

But activists say that just because a breeder is licensed, that does not mean he or she takes proper care of dogs. The only way for consumers to know about the quality of the breeder, they say, is to visit the site directly and inspect it themselves.

Massachusetts law requires that all pet shops be licensed, and have adequate housing, feeding socialization, and veterinary care for dogs. Pet shops are inspected annually by the Division of Animal Health and must provide customers with a dog’s complete medical record at the time of purchase. If the puppy gets sick within 14 days of purchase, or is found to have some kind of disease or congenital disorder, the pet can be returned to the shop with a veterinarian’s note.

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The Animal Rescue League of Boston operates a shelter for abandoned, abused, and neglected animals on Chandler Street. Ami Bowen, director of marketing and development for the shelter, said she definitely encourages adoption first and foremost when families are looking for a pet. The Boston shelter gives vaccinations and full health and behavioral screenings to pets. All dogs also get spayed or neutered.

“There are many homeless animals in our community,’’ Bowen said, “and to be able to provide a home and give an animal a chance at a better life would decrease animal overpopulation.’’

Bowen said the shelter works closely with PetCo, one of the national pet store chains that promotes adoption over the use of commercial breeders. Bowen could not name any area pet stores that currently sell dogs. According to Massachusetts law, all dogs entering the state must be accompanied by an official health certificate stating that the animal is healthy and free of transmissible disease and parasites. But Bowen said she’d encourage anyone getting a pet to investigate the source, especially when using online breeders.

If families do use a local pet store, Bowen says they should find out the reputation of the breeder by asking for breeding history and health certificates from the pet shop owner. “In an animal shelter, you actually know a lot more than you’d know from an online source,’’ Bowen said. Bowen said more pet stores should look for partnerships with animal shelters. “It says a lot about local businesses who work with nonprofits,’’ she said.

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Area pet store owners who sell puppies say there is another side to the story. They say preventing pet shops from selling dogs won’t stop the operation of puppy mills, which could just sell to consumers directly, either online or in person. Taking out the middleman, they say, just removes another layer of protective oversight for the consumer.

Pet Express is a family-owned pet store with locations in Saugus, Lynn, Danvers and Braintree. Its website states that it sells Akitas, American bulldogs, Beagles, Basset Hounds, and Brussels Griffon terriers, among other breeds. When the Braintree location opened at the South Shore Plaza in 2013, animal advocates protested, claiming that Pet Express gets its puppies from “puppy mills,’’ or inhumane commercial breeding facilities. There is a “Boycott Pet Express’’ Facebook page with over 2,ooo “likes.’’

Pet Express owner Robert Mellace told Boston.com that he wants nothing more than for Pet Express to be transparent to customers. He said eliminating all pet shop puppies would only “open the floodgates’’ for real substandard breeders.

“Legislators are being influenced by animal rights groups with emotions, not facts,’’ Mellace wrote in an email.

Pet shops and breeders must be looked at on a case-by-case basis, Mellace said. “If the goal is to eliminate “puppy mills’’ why are we not eliminating the source?’’ he said. “The unregulated sales of Internet puppy mill puppies will only continue to grow and consumers will be left with no protection.’’

Mellace said there’s no simple solution, but a combination of stricter breeding regulations and breeder educational conferences could help eliminate substandard breeders.

“Pet shops are the only regulated source for consumer protection and animal welfare,’’ Mellace wrote. “Consumers must have a choice, whether going to a shelter, or a breeder or a pet shop it must remain their choice.’’

Barry Charton owns Pik-A-Pup Kennel in Holliston, Mass. He sells Labrador retrievers, Boston terriers, Cairn terriers, chihuahuas, and toy fox terriers, among many other breeds. Pik-A-Pup gets its puppies from a variety of small breeders who are USDA-certified, Charton said. Though he doesn’t work with commercial breeders, Charton said he thinks it’s wrong for communities to ban pet stores from working with responsible large-scale breeders.

Charton said if customers come to his business looking for an older dog, he readily directs them to local animal shelters. But if people are looking for puppies, Charton said it’s unjust to deny them the opportunity to use pet stores.

“To say pet stores shouldn’t sell puppies dictates that you shouldn’t buy puppies except from breeders,’’ Charton said. “To brand the whole industry as bad based on a couple of bad breeders is unfair. There are a lot more breeders out there who are responsible.’’

It’s unclear whether other states will begin to consider banning the sale of puppies in retail pet stores. According to NPR, lawsuits have been filed by pet store owners in Florida, Illinois, and Arizona, so it looks like the issue will be left for the courts to decide.

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