Puppies play in a cage at a pet store in Columbia, Md., in August 2019. (Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press file)

Puppies play in a cage at a pet store in Columbia, Md., in August 2019. (Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press file)

Editorial: State needs better watch on pet store puppy sales

Legislation would limit sales to existing stores while work continues to better regulate breeders.

By The Herald Editorial Board

With the pandemic allowing many of us greater time at home, more have taken the opportunity to expand their families with the addition of a dog or cat. Last July, The Washington Post reported, shelters, nonprofit rescue operations, private breeders and pet stores were seeing more demand than there were dogs and puppies available; some shelters had dozens of applications for the same dog and some breeders were reporting wait lists into this year.

That demand also has increased the opportunity for less reputable breeders — puppy mills and kitten factories across the country — to take advantage of the situation, creating consumer protection issues for potential owners and concerns for the health and welfare of animals.

And it’s revived an effort in the state Legislature to bar the sale of cats and dogs by pet stores in the state, an attempt to sever the link between consumers and puppy mills where lax oversight by state and federal regulators have often allowed less-reputable breeders to thrive, those keeping animals in crowded and poorly equipped facilities that result in disease, health problems and death.

Proposed by state Rep. Amy Walen, D-Kirkland, at the urging of two Bellevue teens and Humane Society interns, House Bill 1424 initially would have banned the sale of cats and kittens by pet stores and would have limited pet stores’ sales of dogs and puppies. Over the course of the session, the bill has been scaled back; cat and kitten sales would be prohibited, but sales of dogs and puppies could continue without restrictions for those stores that offer sales of dogs at the time the law would take effect, effectively a moratorium. According to testimony during public hearings on the legislation, there are only six or seven pet stores currently offering sales of dogs, five of them in Western Washington.

Walen, testifying Tuesday morning before the Senate business committee, said the change in the legislation followed conversations with a range of people, including store owners, and reflects a compromise that seeks to hold things as they are while conversations continue about how best to protect consumer interests, animal welfare and the rights of small business owners.

Finding consensus between each side of the issue, however, may not be easy.

Among those testifying Tuesday, was Larry Zimmer, the owner of a Vancouver, Wash., pet store that sells puppies and kittens. Zimmer, who said he deals only with in-state breeders, said he appreciated that the amended legislation would grandfather his and other businesses, but he still opposed the bill because it would bring things “one step closer to banning sales by legal, licensed, tax-paying businesses.”

Siding with Zimmer were Kayla and Justin Kerr, owners of pet stores in Renton and Puyallup, who said they personally inspect the facilities of the breeders that supply them and warned that the legislation could result in the layoff of hundreds of employees across the state and the loss of millions in tax revenue.

Others weren’t convinced that existing regulations are providing necessary protections, including Lisa Parshley, an Olympia City Council member and veterinarian who testified that her clinic often had to treat stressed and unhealthy animals after long journeys from out-of-state breeders. Carolyn Zimmers, a Poulsbo veterinarian, said her clinic also had treated sick puppies from a pet store that is no longer selling dogs.

Federal regulation of dog breeding operations, under the authority of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has relaxed in recent years, particularly during the Trump administration. Officials in the USDA’s Animal Care division were told in 2019, The Washington Post reported, “to treat those regulated by the agency — breeders, zoos, circuses, horse shows and research labs — more as partners than as potential offenders.”

Citations for violations by the USDA following welfare inspections fell from more than 6,000 in 2014 to just over 1,700 by 2018.

Statewide, regulation regarding dog and cat sales is currently left to individual county and city authority.

Another witness urged caution regarding ending sales by pet stores. Debbie Goodrich, who runs a parrot educational business, Parrot Ambassadors, warned that barring pet store sales wouldn’t necessarily stop puppy mills from operating but could drive their business online to private sales and away from better scrutiny. “It’s much more difficult to enforce standards” online, she said.

Yet, current regulations, state and federal, haven’t ensured adequate protection in some cases.

The U.S. Humane Society, in its “Horrible Hundred” report for 2020 regarding puppy mills and sellers in the U.S., noted violations by a Renton breeder who was cited following a 2019 USDA inspection that found several incidents of dogs suffering from mange and other skin conditions; dogs kept in kennels with accumulated feces and food waste; several dogs with dental and gum disease and five dogs that died between December 2018 and February 2019 because of extremely cold weather.

The breeder was cited by the USDA, which led to the owner’s cancellation of her USDA license last spring. Yet, the Humane Society noted, the breeder retained a relationship with one pet store and continued to sell puppies directly to the public.

The legislation, now in committee in the Senate, passed the House, 68-30, on March 7.

The bill, among the shortest considered this session at just 10 lines, arguably doesn’t do much but prevent the sale of puppies by those who aren’t already selling them, but that step is necessary while options are discussed to address protections for animal welfare and consumers; whether that’s an outright ban on sales by stores or greater regulation of pet stores and the breeders who supply them.

Conversations among all involved — animal welfare groups, breeders, store owners, veterinarians, local officials and pet owners — should continue to establish better oversight and protection for all animals and assurances that the pets that families take into their homes are healthy and have not suffered mistreatment.

In the meantime, those who have the space, time and commitment to care for a dog, cat or other animal can contact their local shelter or rescue operation and adopt a pet, and if those animals have not been spayed or neutered, get them fixed.

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