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Opponents of Proposed Dog Law Expected to Pack Hearing Today

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Opponents of a proposed state law regulating puppy breeders are expected to pack a state senate committee hearing in Sacramento today in an effort to block a measure designed to collect an estimated $80 million a year in sales tax revenues.

The bill by Sen. Herschel Rosenthal (D-Van Nuys) also would give pet buyers legal recourse to collect from breeders the costs of treating a genetically unsound or seriously ill dog. Those provisions, designed to clamp down on breeders who repeatedly sell defective animals to consumers, is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, said Lynette Stevens, Rosenthal’s chief of staff.

A 2-inch-thick report--written after Stevens and another of the senator’s staff conducted an 18-month study--calls dog breeding “a $1 billion-plus ‘underground’ industry that has been allowed to run amok,” and pay no taxes.

It also blamed dog fanciers and hobbyists for widespread genetic problems among purebred animals and for pet overpopulation.

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“Now, over 25% of purebred dogs on the market have some sort of genetic disease,” Stevens said. She cited one breed, for example, in which the dog’s droopy eyes, a prized feature, are enhanced by a thyroid problem.

The study, released Monday, estimates fanciers and hobbyists produce 2.5 million purebred puppies in California a year, generating more than $1 billion in sales.

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Defenders of breeders called the figures grossly exaggerated. “I have no idea how you would get 2.5 million dogs,” said Sharon Coleman, attorney for The Animal Council, a lobbying group for dog and cat owners. She said the American Kennel Club registered 91,548 purebred puppies born in the state in 1997, down from 105,595 in 1994.

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She said estimates that 500,000 puppies a year are born in the state “might be in the ballpark, but I think 2.5 million is quite impossible.”

Stevens said, though, that the report is the most comprehensive study ever undertaken to determine “the hugeness of the industry.” The estimates were based on a survey of purebred puppies advertised for sale in nine newspapers published throughout the state on one day last fall. She said the methodology used to determine the results “was very conservative.”

The study found that none of the more than 400 breeders surveyed collected sales taxes on puppies, largely sold from private homes at an average price of $400 each.

Stevens said she expects a large turnout of opponents at the hearing today. “They are very vocal and very organized,” she said, “because they are protecting a billion dollars in unreported income.”

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The bill extends provisions of a 1991 “puppy mill” law--which applied only to breeders of more than 50 puppies a year--to all breeders who sell more than one litter in three years. It would require all breeders to pay an annual $100 fee to the Department of Corporations for a breeder permit number that would have to be published in all ads.

Breeders who fail to register or knowingly sell dogs that are diseased or ill could face civil fines of as much as $10,000 and be banned from selling dogs for as long as 10 years.

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If passed, the measure also would impose heavy penalties on breeders who fail to collect and pay sales taxes, which run 7% to 8%. Such taxes have long been required of anyone who sells three or more animals a year, but have rarely been enforced.

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Breeders and their representatives contend that purebred puppies are primarily sold by hobbyists as a small business involving little or no profit. However, researchers said they found “the industry is huge: taking in multi-millions of dollars--upon most of which no sales tax is paid,” according to the report.

Coleman said breeders are united in their opposition to the measure “because we don’t feel that dog breeding is a business.” She called worries about pet overpopulation “a politicized term,” because she said the number of animals that end up in shelters and have to be killed yearly is declining.

The proposed law, which has triggered thousands of letters to state officials, has widespread support among animal rescue and humane groups, according to Don Moulds, an analyst for the senate judiciary committee, which will hear the issue today.


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