Pet Store Regulations: What Sellers Must Tell You

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Many of the laws controlling dog sellers are aimed at pet shops, but some also affect anyone who puts an "adorable puppies for sale" classified ad in the paper after the family dog has a litter of pups. Here are the basics.

Special License Requirements

If you keep more than a certain number of dogs, or if you breed or sell even one of them, you may need a kennel or breeder's license from your city. And to get a kennel license, you may have to show that local zoning laws allow a kennel on your property.

Letting your dog have a litter of puppies just might make you a "dog breeder" under your local laws. Even if you don't make money from your kennel, you may need a "hobby kennel" license if you keep more than a certain number of dogs, although puppies less than a few months old usually aren't counted for this purpose.

The city of Los Angeles, for example, requires anyone "who sells or offers for sale any dog or cat" to buy an annual breeder's license. It also forbids advertising a dog for sale unless the ad contains the owner's license number. If you breed more than one litter a year, Los Angeles law requires you to have a kennel license, which carries its own set of restrictions and requirements.

Health and Age of Dogs Sold

It is illegal to sell dogs that are diseased. Anyone who does may be penalized, and will at least have to return the buyer's money. Retail sellers may also be fined for selling unhealthy dogs.

Many states do not allow puppies to be sold before they are a certain age, usually about six to 12 weeks.

Pet Shop Regulations

Most states impose only the most basic requirements on pet shop operators: sanitary conditions, proper heating and ventilation, enough food, and humane treatment of animals. Some also require animals to be inspected by a licensed veterinarian before they are sold. Most violations are misdemeanors and can be punished by fines or, rarely, short jail sentences. (Pet shop operators are sometimes also charged with more serious criminal offenses because of their treatment of animals.)

Because problems with animals from pet shops are so common, however, several states now require pet stores to make detailed disclosures to prospective buyers, and give purchasers stronger legal rights after the sale. These laws are discussed below.

Why are pet shop dogs susceptible to so many problems? Because they come from "puppy mills," where dogs spend their short lives in filthy, crowded cages. Reputable dog breeders won’t sell their dogs to pet shops. (In fact, the code of ethics of some breeders' groups expressly forbids it.) So most (though not all) pet shops across the country buy their dogs from midwestern puppy mills, where "the health of the dogs is disregarded in order to maintain a low overhead and maximize profits," as one court put it. (Avenson v. Zegart, 577 F. Supp. 958 (D. Minn. 1984).) As their name implies, these places churn out puppies like factories turn out auto parts. And their purpose is the same: to make money.

Investigators from humane societies and law enforcement agencies have documented many instances of overcrowding and neglect of animals in these operations. Many dogs there suffer from malnutrition, disease, or genetic defects.

What Sellers Must Tell You

Some states require sellers to disclose certain facts about the dog's health, age, and history. These disclosures are no substitute for a complete contract (discussed below), but they're a step in the right direction, because getting all the information you are legally entitled to may help you avoid problems. If your state doesn't require these disclosures by law, ask for the information anyway. You should 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 a health certificate for any dog, cat, or ferret that's for sale. (N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 437:10.) California goes further and requires every retail seller of a dog to fill out and give the buyer a written form, which is provided by the state Department of Consumer Affairs. (Cal. Health & Safety Code § 122140.)  The form documents the dog's medical history and origin, among other things. Retailers must also post conspicuously on each cage the state in which the dog was bred. (Cal. Health & Safety Code § 122215.)

Always ask the seller:

  • Where the dog came from
  • When it was born
  • What immunizations it has had
  • What medications or veterinary treatment it has had

Dangerous dogs. A seller should always tell a prospective buyer if the dog has bitten someone or has shown very aggressive behavior. State law may require certain specific disclosures. In Ohio, for example, someone who knows a dog is vicious and sells or gives it away must give the new owner, the local board of health, and the county dog warden a form which contains the answers to several specific questions about the dog's behavior, including: "Has the dog ever chased or attempted to attack or bite a person? If yes, describe the incident(s) in which the behavior occurred." (Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 955.11.) 

Alternatives to Pet Stores

Pet shops charge high prices for purebred dogs. But keep in mind that purebred status alone tells you nothing about the health or temperament of the dog. Mixed-breed dogs make wonderful pets.

Reputable breeders. If you have your heart set on a purebred dog, go to a reputable breeder. 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. If you find a breeder online, be sure to check references (ask for the phone number and address of other customers) and ask the Better Business Bureau if it has gotten any complaints. Some buyers have been duped by online scam artists who never deliver.

Shelters. Shelters are full of adoptable dogs—including purebreds. Remember that there may be several shelters in your area, run by both public and private agencies.

Rescue groups. Many rescue groups specialize in finding good homes for dogs of a certain breed, while others handle mixed-breed dogs as well. A local humane society may be able to direct you to such a group. An online search for the name of the breed you're interested in will turn up information from a rescue group and photos of dogs who need homes. 

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