When a Dog Is a Lemon

The odds of getting a sick animal at a pet shop are disturbingly high. Here's what to do if it happens to you.

It was love at first sight: Those expressive brown eyes, that noble nose ... that wagging tail.

Lots of otherwise level-headed people fall head-over-heels for a puppy displayed in a pet store window. They may have gone to the mall to buy shoes, but end up taking home a considerably pricier item, a purebred puppy that costs several hundred dollars, upkeep not included.

Unfortunately, these shopping mall romances often have unhappy endings. Because after the puppy is home, the kids have given it a name and it's become part of the family, there's a very good chance the owner will discover that the dog is sick, or even dying.

The odds of getting a sick animal at a pet shop are disturbingly high. More than half the out-of-state puppies sold in California pet stores were ill or incubating a disease, according to a survey commissioned by the state legislature.

Pet stores are occasionally sued by customers or fined for selling unhealthy dogs. For example, a few years back Pet Depot agreed to pay New Jersey $7,500 in penalties and costs for selling dogs it knew were unfit for sale (among other violations).

Because problems with animals from pet shops are so common, several states now require pet stores to make detailed disclosures to buyers. They've also enacted "lemon laws" for dogs, holding pet stores financially liable for selling sick dogs.

What Sellers Must Tell Buyers

Some states require sellers to disclose facts about the dog's health, age, and history. If your state doesn't require these disclosures by law, ask for the information anyway. Be wary of any seller who can't or won't give you answers.

New Hampshire, for example, requires retail sellers to show prospective buyers, upon request, a health certificate for any dog or cat that's for sale. In California, retail sellers must fill out and give the buyer a form (provided by the state Department of Consumer Affairs) that lists, among other things, where the dog came from, if it came from a licensed dealer, its immunization record, and health information. Retailers must also conspicuously post on each cage the state in which the dog was bred.

Special State "Lemon" Laws

Because disclosure laws aren't enough to solve the problem, some states are concentrating on protecting buyers instead of policing sellers. Following the example set by lemon laws that give car buyers a procedure to get a refund or a new car if theirs turns out to be a hopeless lemon, a few states have adopted similar laws for pet buyers. Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Vermont, and Virginia all have such laws.

Generally, these laws give owners who find themselves with sick pets one or more of these choices:

  • Return the animal for a refund, including the cost of veterinary services that were needed to determine that the animal was ill or to relieve its suffering.
  • Exchange the animal for another, and also get reimbursement for certain veterinary expenses.
  • Keep the animal and receive reimbursement for reasonable veterinary costs of trying to cure the animal. The amount of reimbursement is usually limited to the purchase price of the pet.

In most states, the owner has one to two weeks to return the animal, with a certificate from a veterinarian stating that the dog has a serious disease or congenital defect that was present when the dog was sold. If the dog suffers from a congenital disorder, the owner may have up to a year to return it to the pet store.

To make sure consumers know of their rights under these laws, several states require pet stores to give buyers a written notice explaining them. In some states, the form must contain a certificate for a veterinarian to complete if the animal turns out to have a serious illness or congenital defect.

The Puppy Mill-Pet Shop Connection

Many pet store animals are sick because they come from Midwestern puppy mills -- breeding operations where crowding and neglect are the rule. Many dogs bred in puppy mills suffer from malnutrition, disease, or genetic defects. As their name implies, puppy mills churn out puppies like factories turn out auto parts. And their purpose is the same: to make money.

Why do pet stores buy animals from such places? There's a simple answer: Most reputable dog breeders refuse to sell dogs to pet shops. In fact, the code of ethics of some breeders' groups forbids it.

If you have your heart set on a purebred dog but don't want to buy from a pet store, try these alternatives:

Reputable breeders. You'll probably pay less because there's no middleman -- and you'll be able to see the conditions under which your pet was raised.

Shelters. If you don't mind that your pet doesn't have papers, check local animal shelters, both public and private. They have lots of purebreds.

Rescue groups. These groups specialize in finding good homes for dogs of certain breeds. (Some handle mixed-breed dogs as well.) They often place dogs for free, although they encourage donations to cover their expenses. A local humane society may be able to direct you to such a group, or search the Web -- lots of groups have many descriptions and beguiling photos of dogs who need names.

Remember: Purebred status alone tells you nothing about a dog's health or temperament.

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