More puppies are sold at pet stores during the holiday season than any other time of year. Now the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other groups are stepping up efforts to stop these sales, saying many of these dogs come from puppy mills.
Forty billboards in Los Angeles this month encourage people to fight puppy mills by boycotting pet stores and websites that sell puppies. More than 50,000 people have signed a pledge on the ASPCA's website vowing to uphold the boycott, and the ASPCA has an online database of targeted stores at nopetstorepuppies.com encouraging consumers to shop elsewhere. Consumers can also report a store to the ASPCA, and the organization will verify the source of its puppies, Menkin said.
"We are not just saying `Don't buy a puppy,' but `Don't buy anything in a pet store that sells puppies," said Cori Menkin, senior director of the ASPCA's anti-puppy mills campaign. "If pet stores are not able to turn a profit, they will stop selling puppies."
The Humane Society of the United States, Best Friends Animal Society and many other groups are promoting similar initiatives.
As malls and chains drop the commercial sale of puppies, one change for consumers is an increase in convenient locations for shelter adoptions.
In October, Jack's Pets announced they would no longer sell puppies at their 27 stores in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. They are working with shelters to offer in-store adoptions instead. Major chains like PetSmart Inc. and Petco Animal Supplies Inc. stopped selling dogs and cats several years ago, partnering with local shelters and rescues on weekend adoption events. Best Friends has helped several traditional pet stores convert to shelter sales.
Macerich Co., a regional shopping mall company, recently announced a ban on traditional pet stores at its 70 malls. Instead, at the company's mall in Lakewood, Calif., shoppers will find a store called Adopt & Shop, which gets its animals from the Southeast Area Animal Control Authority shelter. On Nov. 25, the store celebrated its 500th adoption, said Aimee Gilbreath, executive director of Found Animals, the organization that runs and subsidizes Adopt & Shop.
Some pet store owners say they're being unfairly maligned.
Jens Larsen, who owns Perfect Pets in Littleton, Colo., is on the ASPCA list and says it's not right. He has been in business for 18 years, sold 1,600 puppies last year and has an A-plus rating with the Better Business Bureau. He gets 80 percent of his dogs from commercial breeders in Nebraska, 10 percent from breeders in Kansas and Oklahoma and 10 percent from two Colorado breeders, he said.
Some animal activists are "radical and fanatical and want to put me out of business," he said. "I obey the law. So do my breeders and the kennels I deal with," Larsen said.
Larsen says that when you are selling 100 puppies a month, there will occasionally be a case of kennel cough or a parasite, and every once in a while, something more serious. But he believes if his dogs were continually getting sick, word would spread and he'd be out of business.
About 2 million puppies are sold online and in U.S. pet stores every year, said Menkin.
The ASPCA and other animal welfare groups have popularized a negative image of commercial dog breeders in recent years, claiming that poor breeding practices and substandard conditions leave some animals with chronic physical ailments, genetic defects or fear of humans.
Whether it's the impact of bad publicity or the recession cutting into purebred dog sales, the number of commercial dog breeders licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture is declining, from 3,486 in 2009, to 2,904 in 2010 and 2,205 in 2011, according to USDA spokesman Dave Sacks said.
Licenses in Missouri, with three times more breeders than any other state, dropped from 1,221 in 2009 to 745 this year, Sacks said. Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, Ohio and Indiana have between 100 and 300 licensed breeders. Sixteen states have none. Sacks says the USDA protects animals by making unannounced inspections of breeding facilities and by regulating food, care and housing for the animals.
Serina Brant believes her golden retriever, Ali, was a puppy mill dog. When Brant bought the 4-month-old pup 10 years ago from Perfect Pets for $400, Ali's papers had numbers instead of names listed for parents. Her first trip to the vet cost $800 to treat giardia, fleas and eye infections, said Brant, of Littleton, Colo.
Two years later, the dog started limping. X-rays showed hip dysplasia. Surgery, at $12,000 for both hips, was an option but came without guarantees, so Brant chose to medicate the dog instead. Then Ali got arthritis.
For the last six years, Ali has to stop every 50 feet to rest. Because of the medication, "we don't think she's in pain," said Brant. But over the years, the medicine has totaled $8,600.
"I am not going to put a dog down just because she's defective. We have the money to provide for her so we will," she said.
But next time she gets a dog, Brant says, she'll adopt one from a shelter.