The Los Angeles City Council is expected to vote within a month on an ordinance to ban pet stores from selling dogs (as well as cats and rabbits) obtained from any supplier other than a shelter or rescue group. Though we are usually reluctant to support government-imposed constraints on what businesses can buy or sell — and we would ordinarily prefer to see the issue dealt with by tougher regulation — in this case we think the ordinance is justified.
Most dogs sold at commercial pet stores across the country come from large-scale commercial breeders, many or most of which are so-called puppy mills that put profit over the well-being of their dogs, according to animal welfare advocates. Such facilities are legal and must be licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but studies show that many meet only the minimally allowable levels of care, housing, exercise, veterinary attention and record-keeping set by the federal Animal Welfare Act, if that. Some of the most egregious of these operations — where dogs are injured or found dead or conditions are highly unsanitary — are closed down or cited by authorities. But many bad operators continue to exist, overbreeding females in back-to-back heat cycles to the point that their bones break and their teeth fall out. Dogs and puppies alike end up crammed into filthy cages with little opportunity for exercise or socialization. Even the USDA urges breeders to exceed the law's standards.
What's more, the federal law is woefully under-enforced, according to a 2010 audit by the USDA's Office of Inspector General. Animal care inspectors failed to sanction appropriately, or quickly, breeders holding dogs variously infested with ticks or sores, suffering injured limbs, living in fetid cages, unsheltered from cold or hot weather, or using water and food dishes covered in vermin. During the three-year period of the audit, USDA officials made 8,289 inspections and found that 5,261 licensed dealers were in violation of the act. Since the audit, the USDA says the inspection program has been improved.
In the best of all worlds, federal and state laws governing breeding facilities would be overhauled to mandate better conditions for animals. But laws tightening up rules face powerful opposition from the pet industry and legislative allies of breeding businesses. Neither California nor Los Angeles, both of which have been early adopters of animal welfare laws and policies, have the ability to regulate out-of-state businesses.
Until better laws can be passed, the only way for a city to thwart these operations is to stop the flow of their animals into local pet stores. Most stores list the provenance of the animals for sale on cards attached to the kennels — but without actually visiting those breeding facilities, it's almost impossible to know what conditions are like there. Pet store industry representatives argue that some L.A. pet stores get their animals from small, relatively local breeders the retailers trust. Again, there's no way to know for sure what kind of breeding operation it is without visiting it — something that responsible breeders welcome and even request. Reputable breeders rarely sell to pet stores.
Los Angeles' measure is a drastic one, but it would expire in three years, giving officials an opportunity to monitor its effect and decide whether to extend the law, revise it or drop it altogether. If it passes, individuals would still be allowed to buy directly from breeders, and pet stores would be allowed to sell dogs, cats and rabbits that come from shelters, humane societies and registered rescue groups.
Each year the city's shelters euthanize thousands of cats and dogs that might have made wonderful pets. Best Friends Animal Society, a national organization, has already helped some conventional pet stores transition to a humane model and is offering the same assistance to any L.A. stores if the ordinance goes into effect.