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   What'sWrong With Pet Shops?

Sometimes someone says "I love working with animals. So what is wrong with opening a shop to sell puppies (or other animals)?" My short answer is that you can't sell aimals for a profit and at the same time do right by them. If your view of pets is that they are just kind of cute livestock then nothing I say is going to matter to you. But if you emotionally care about what happens to these animals then a pet shop that sells live animals isn't the answer.

The advantages and disadvantages of owning a shop that sells live animals depends in great part on your view of those animals.

I can only share with you my views and how those relate to a pet shop.

First, I think that everyone deserves a healthy pet. Since these are living things there is always a risk of health problems. But I do think that a person who brings pets into this world has a duty to try to reduce those risks. A breeder of pets has a responsibility to try their best to breed for good health. Doing that takes both knowledge and the willingness to spend money for testing, and spend time and effort in researching the parents, grandparents, great grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. That requires that most of all of these relatives belong to people who care enough to submit records and information on the relatives. People who claim that mixing lines or breeds results in better health are either ignorant or liars. It can result in better or worse health depending on what you start with, and if you don't know what you are starting with you are not breeding with knowledge, you are gambling. It isn't nice to gamble with people's hearts, nor with the health of their pets.

How does this relate to pet shops? It is very difficult to find pet shop animals in which any attempt has been made to breed for good health by testing for, recording and tracking health issues. It is rare to the point of obscurity that any pet shop or breeder of pet shop animals will require their buyers to test their pets for heart, eye, thyroid, hearing and joint problems (or whatever depending upon breed) and to report the results to a central database so that that information can contribute to avoiding repeating bad risks. Most buyers haven't a clue that they SHOULD report such things. Some (rare) pet shop breeders have tested the parents, but that isn't nearly enough to be useful. It is basic rules of genetics. (See Control of Canine Genetic Diseases). The testing is also expensive. Usually it is done by breeders who are emotionally committed to breeding the most healthy and fit dogs they can. That is what drives them. They aren't breeding for income so they aren't worried about the cost the tests and records need to breed for good health. So it is going to be darned rare that I can find animals that were bred with sufficient effort to breed for good health that I could sell in a pet shop and make a profit.

Second, I think that whether a pet stays in a home, or ends up passed around, or ends up in a shelter, depends upon how ready the person is to provide for the needs of that particular pet. I think it is my responsibility to make sure that a good match is made because that provides the best chance of a permanent home. That means knowing the most likely qualities of the pet I am trying to place. Physical qualities such as size, and coat type (and coat care requirements) are very important in many cases as to whether a pet keeps its home. So are qualities such as activity level indoors, activity level outdoors, temperament, and basic tendencies e.g. retrieving instinct, escape drive, trainability, intelligence, prey drive, herding instinct, protectiveness of territory, protectiveness of pack, aggression toward people, aggression toward other animals, aggression toward other dogs, and similar. Each of these things can matter, sometimes a great deal, to the person who wants to share their home with a pet. Knowing the likely qualities that will apply to a particular pet can make the difference between whether the placement is successful, or if the pet dies in a shelter.

The way I can best live up to my responsibility is to improve my chances of predicting the qualities of the pet I am trying to place. I can do that in an adult animal I have spent a great deal of time with, e.g. I live with it. Or I can base it on the known the qualities of the the parents, grandparents, great grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. If I have a baby animal and I know little or nothing about the qualities of the relatives I have no realistic way of predicting the qualities of the baby animal as pet. I cannot improve the chances of making a good match because I don't really know what I have.

So how does this relate to pet shops? Most of the breeding animals for pet shops spend their lives in cages. They don't live in homes, they never have an opportunity to behave in a natural way toward other dogs, other animals, children, varieties of people, etc. So there isn't any basic information, for the most part, on what the babies produced by the breeding animals will be like. Will they be fearful, bold, dominant, submissive, active, placid, ....? How can you provide a good match when you have no credible information on which to predict the qualities of the animal? You can't. And what gets worse is the causal breeder who may have the breeding animals in their home but who may completely ignore serious problems in temperament or behavior. They ignore it either because they aren't bothered by it, or more often don't even notice it. They aren't thinking about meeting expectations, only that they like (or excuse) what they have. The problem is that if the person who gets the breeding results isn't ready for those qualities it often ends up with a dead animal.

Obviously just knowing the qualities of the pet is only one half of the puzzle. I also must be good enough at dealing with people as to make certain that they are prepared to deal with those qualities. For example, if a person wants a jack russell terrier puppy I want to know if they have an active lifestyle, do they plan on spending most of their free time doing things where the dog can be included, do they accept that any cat, kitten, squirrel or other small animal may be viewed by their pet as prey and killed, even if they are raised together. And since I care about whether these animals live or die it is important to me that I be able to say "No" to a person who I think is making a wrong choice.

Unfortunately the way most pet shops are run makes it legally very difficult to refuse to sell to someone. The way most shops operate legally a "contract" is formed when the shop owner puts the pet up for sale (offer to sell), and someone accepts the offer by meeting the terms (agreement to pay the price). At that point the shop can't change the terms. The contract has been made and the shop is obligated to sell. It is possible to carefully set things up so the shop can legally withdraw the offer - but few shops care to do so since it can cost them sales and they are in business to make money.

I also believe that when I place an animal in a home that I must take responsibility for that choice. If I choose well, and the placement works, terrific. But if I chose badly and the person now wants to "get rid of" the pet I believe it would be wrong of me to allow that pet to go to a shelter, possibly to die, or to be placed in a cruel or unsuitable home. I care about the animals. It matters to me what happens to them. So I can use the fact that I have them and someone else wants them to help control what happens to them. I can create a contract that requires the person will contact me before selling the pet, and will be required to give it to me as an alternative to placing it in a shelter. And because I know that people are embarrassed or shy about meeting that promise I need to keep in touch to see that things are going well. I can also prevent the issue in the first place by keeping in touch and providing information, advice and resources to avoid problems getting so serious that the person wants to "get rid of" their pet.

Breeders who care about what happens to the animals they create and place do just this. They create enforceable contracts, they keep in touch, the provide mentoring to help everything go right, and they are their to protect what they bred when things don't go right. Here is an example of that kind of breeder

Would you trust someone you don't know to do a good job of placing a pet you care about? I wouldn't, and neither will any breeder who cares about their animals. If they care about what they breed then they should care who has the animal, and what has happened to it. That means they need to know who gets it, what they are like and have the ability to say "no." Any breeder willing to allow a stranger to place their animals is in it for just the money. Ethically I can't give money to encourage that kind of breeder. And the code of ethics for most breeds prohibits selling to pet shops and similar "middle men" because it is so bad for the pet. People who view pets as just livestock don't have a problem with it, but I do.

Notice that I haven't even addressed "puppy mills" directly. I haven't addressed puppy mills because for all the reasons discussed above I don't believe that just having bigger cages or more socialization is enough to get healthy pets that keep their homes. It takes more than better farming, it takes caring and acting on that caring.

Taking in an adult dog with behavior problems isn't an economical thing for a pet shop to do. So pet shops don't. It is something people who love their dogs do. Pet shop are there to make money, not to protect the pets sold there. I don't think it is possible to sell animals for profit and at the same time do right by them.

To me the best way to make money working with animals is to work to improve things for them. That means, to me, helping them keep their homes or avoid the risk of losing their homes. Being a consultant or trainer to help people raise their pets to be great family companions benefits both the animals and the humans. Learning about breeds, and mixed breeds, and how temperament and behavior is inherited as well as the physical qualities, and then helping people make good choices helps both the animal and the human.

In my view there are many ways to work with animals that do them more good than harm. Pet shops, in my view, cannot be run profitably without doing more harm than good. Running a shop that sells pet related items, and provides space for pet adoption groups to place homeless pets is a good thing. And providing space for training is another way a pet supply shop can contribute.

We kill millions of pet animals every year. We can reduce that to a trickle if we stop supporting profit based breeding and selling - and insist on dealing only with those who care what happens to those animals they create / place.


For more information on getting a dog see my Breeders Ethics Page.


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