By Wendy Bedwell-Wilson
Whether to carry live animals in pet stores is a debate that has spanned the decades.
John Braxton’s grandfather weighed the benefits and drawbacks 68 years ago when he opened Braxton’s Animal Works in Wayne, Pa.
“My grandparents carried birds and puppies,” he says. “But my dad told me that the care they could give them in the store was not what they felt was fair to the animals, and we’ve stuck to that ever since.”
Because they did not have the staffing power to care for the animals, the Braxtons chose instead to specialize in carrying high-quality products, and to refer customers to area rescues and breeders for pets. It’s a scenario that works well for his store.
Alyce Russell, owner of Anderson’s Pet Shop and director of the area Humane Society in Montrose, Calif., points pet-seeking customers directly to rescue organizations instead of breeders.
“We have such huge [dog and cat] populations that rather than sell them, I encourage pet shops to work with rescues,” she says. “Take some rescue dogs or cats, and the rescue gets the money for it, and you get the recognition for working to do something positive and something moral. And you still get your sales.”
Pet stores that do sell pets, however, keep the industry thriving, says Darcy Howen, franchisee of Petland in Rockford, Ill.
“The reality is if pet stores that sold pets went away, you would find that the whole pet industry would collapse,” he says. “What would supply warehouses like Petsmart or Petco do? Eventually they wouldn’t have anyone to sell to.”
Here’s a closer look at the benefits and drawbacks of both sides of the issue.
The Argument for
Pet stores that do carry pets recognize that pet owners want a choice, and that keeps the industry thriving, say proponents. Though some shops have tarnished the reputations of pet stores that sell pets, that doesn’t mean they’re all bad.
“Some pet stores don’t properly handle the pets or medicate them or take care of them or house them,” says Lewis Turner, owner of The PetCare Company in Hermosa Beach, Calif. “But just because some stores don’t do that doesn’t mean that it should be illegal or not permitted.”
Supply and Demand: It’s basic economics: Pet stores that sell pets fill a niche that needs to be filled, Howen says.
“It’s important that we carry a certain number of either purebred or mixed breeds that are coming from breeders because we want to give our customers a choice, and they should be able to have that choice,” he says. “Not everyone wants to buy someone’s abandoned animal, or even a puppy from an unwanted litter,” Howen says. “They want a specific thing: They want a Labrador retriever, and they want it as an 8-week-old puppy. We have a responsibility to provide that.”
Part of providing pets is to ensure that the potential pet owners are well informed about how to care for the animal. DVDs, brochures and care books help retailers educate their customers about the animal they’re considering.
“We provide customers with a shopping list and we have the care books, so we encourage our customers to look at all these things before making a decision,” Turner says. “The more information they have, the better it is for the puppies and for them.”
It’s one of the responsibilities of selling animals, Howen says.
“It’s our job to educate the public so that when they take home whatever animal it is, they have not just the knowledge to take care of it, but also the right things to be able to do it so that the animals have the best opportunity for a good life,” he says.
Ethical Breeding: By selling pets through pet stores, retailers demand high standards from breeders and distributors. Customers, then, have a source for animals that are well cared for, socialized and healthy—and not outrageously priced.
“If we didn’t have good legitimate pet stores that were selling puppies and kittens and doing a good job of educating the public, then everybody would be breeding, and they would charge whatever they wanted for them,” Howen says. “There’d be no qualifications, no standards for the dogs or kittens, birds or reptiles.
“Pet stores do a good job of maintaining a fair market, and also of monitoring their breeders so they do a better job,” he says.
Many pet stores that carry live animals inspect their distributors’ facilities or visit with their breeders to ensure that the livestock is being handled humanely. If that option were removed, animals would be raised with no controls in place, Turner says.
“People will still want pets, and people will still get them,” Turner says. “But if pet stores couldn’t sell pets, people are going to get them without any kind of care or certainly without any kind of guarantee.
“It will encourage people to breed all sorts of pets in their backyard or in their home,” he says. “And what kind of healthy environment will that be?”
Industry Viability: The industry depends on the sale of pets to stay alive.
“If there’s ever a point when pet stores are not allowed to sell pets by government action, it would be a terrible blow to pet owners and to the pet industry,” Turner says. “There is a growing faction of people who are on the radical side of alleged pet protection agencies that would like to see pet stores not allowed to carry any type of pet.”
Because pet stores can sell pets, customers continue to purchase products for their animals. Shops can supply folks with healthy food, tasty treats, toys and grooming products. They can refer their customers to trainers, veterinarians and doggy day-care facilities.
It keeps breeders in check, flows billions of dollars into the economy and employs millions of people, Howen says.
“If the animal watches got what they wanted, which is freedom for all the animals, you’d have sick animals everywhere and no one would be caring for them properly,” he says. “Millions of people would be out of work and billions of dollars out of circulation. It would be pretty powerful.”
It also ensures that the next generation will appreciate the benefits of caring for a pet.
“There are a lot of lessons to be learned by children with a pet,” Turner says. “There’s a sense of responsibility—it gives them some sense of taking care of something else, another entity besides themselves. It’s a learning factor. All these things are very important.
“Without pet stores that sell pets, where are they going to get that kind of experience?”
The Arguments Against
Pet stores that choose not to sell pets recognize the staffing issues and legal ramifications involved. Many partner with shelters or rescues, however, to offer their customers companion animals.
Legislation and Litigation: State governments continue to update and change the laws with regard to licensing, care and distribution of live animals. Retailers who sell pets need to stay abreast of the current requirements.
“You might have licensing requirements,” says Michael Maddox, who’s in charge of governmental affairs for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council in Washington, D.C. “There are going to be restrictions on the types of species you’re permitted to carry, and in some cases, you would have to meet certain permit or other requirements for particular species.
Reasons to Carry Pets
• Supply and demand for customers
• Check on ethical breeding
• Industry viability
Reasons Not to Carry Pets
• Legislation and litigation
• Staffing issues
• Pet overpopulation
“Usually restricted to the dog and cat areas, you also have warranty requirements in a number of states, and so those would apply to any dogs or cats sold at a retail level,” he continues. “If you sell pets, you will, within a certain time period, have certain liabilities for vet care or ensuring that they’re healthy.”
Those liabilities are a real threat, he says, and retailers should be aware of the associated requirements and potential legal responsibilities.
“You always have certain liabilities associated with the sale of any live animal because you have care standards that apply to animals that don’t apply to any other product, and you have associated potential liability for private parties who buy pets and then the pet becomes ill or dies,” he says. Staffing Issues:
Caring for the pets for sale in a pet store requires significant staff hours, as Braxton’s grandfather learned years ago. The kennels and cages need to be cleaned, the animals need to be fed and the pets need to be socialized. And the adoption process alone can take significant time.
Some shops, like The Pet Care Company, dedicate specific staff members to the animal adoption task.
“Of the 18 people on staff, only four are trained and permitted to work with customers with regard to puppies,” says Turner. “They’re trained on what to do and how to go over the paperwork. The paperwork process alone takes about an hour to review.”
Even if a shop adopts out rescue animals, the process still requires additional work hours.
“It takes some effort on the part of the person that’s adopting out the dog or cat because you have to work with the customers and the pets,” Russell says. Pet Overpopulation:
Humane societies, shelters and rescues overflow with pets looking for homes, Russell says. With so many homeless animals, why should pet stores sell purebreds and not rescues?
“There are guinea pig rescues, rabbit rescues, bird rescues—there are so many rescues out there to recycle some of the animals that were initially sold,” she says.
To do their part, retailers who sell pets can consider partnering with shelters to host adoptions, Turner says.
“If customers don’t really care if it’s a rescue or a purebred, we always recommend that they get a rescue,” he says. “Ultimately, it is going to be for the benefit of all: the benefit of the pet being taken from the rescue group and the benefit for us, because perhaps they’ll think of us as their pet store.
“I don’t think of it as giving away a potential sale,” he says. “You have to look at the bigger picture. And I think that stores that do look at the bigger picture can look back on their day and feel good about what they do.”
Retailers can make a difference, Howen says.
“There are communities where the pet overpopulation is a huge problem,” he says. “Rather than feeling like they’re not helping the issue, retailers can become part of the solution.” Posted: Dec. 20, 2006