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In-Depth Overview of Retail Pet Stores

Ashley Duncan

Animal Legal & Historical Center
Publish Date:
August 2006
Place of Publication: Michigan State University College of Law
Printable Version

In-Depth Overview of Retail Pet Stores


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Over half of all households in America have at least one pet. The most common types of animals kept as pets are birds, cats, dogs, fish, reptiles, and small animals such as hamsters and guinea pigs. While some of these animals are available for adoption at local humane societies, most people buy their pets from retail pet stores. Since there are so many animals being housed at retail pet stores, many welfare issues exist, including the availability of veterinary care, food and water, proper housing, and proper sanitation. This paper will address what federal and state laws are in place to regulate these welfare issues.

Currently, there is no federal law which covers all retail pet stores. The Animal Welfare Act (“AWA”) is a federal law which specifies who may possess and sell certain types of animals and the minimum standards of care for these regulated animals. The AWA does not cover birds, rats, mice, and cold-blooded animals such as reptiles, fish, and amphibians. Furthermore, the AWA specifically excludes retail pet stores from its purview of protection.

While there is a blanket exception for retail pet stores, there is a very small minority of stores that may be covered by the AWA. A retail pet store will be regulated under the AWA if the store is selling any wild or exotic regulated animals. This means that a retail pet store would not become a regulated if it was selling “wild or exotic” reptiles or birds because these animals are always exempt from AWA regulations. However, if a retail pet store was selling a tiger from Asia, for example, that store would become regulated under the AWA because a tiger is a warm-blooded animal falling under AWA regulation and is exotic according to regulatory definitions. A retail pet store would also be regulated by the AWA if it sells any animals to research facilities or exhibits animals outside the store.

It is apparent that the overwhelming majority of pet stores do not sell wild or exotic regulated animals. Therefore, the AWA will not apply to the majority of pet stores. This makes federal law very limited in its application. Since the overwhelming majority of retail pet stores are exempt from federal law, the primary authority on regulation is state law.

The state laws concerning the welfare of animals in retail pet stores vary. Very few states actually address all categories of veterinary care, food and water, proper sanitation and housing. There are fifteen states that do not have any laws regulating retail pet stores. Unless a pet store in one of those fifteen states falls within the small purview of federal laws, the welfare of the animals sold in these states is unregulated.

The only recourse for animal welfare in those states that do not regulate the welfare of animals in retail pet stores would be the state cruelty laws, which vary from state to state. For example, Alabama does not regulate retail pet stores. Yet, if a retail pet store employee in Alabama treats an animal cruelly, and is found guilty under the cruelty code she would be charged with a Class B Misdemeanor.

The majority of the country, however, actually has laws regulating some aspects of retail pet store operations. Overall, these laws attempt to address the welfare issues in retail pet stores, but most states do not adequately address the welfare of animals. In fact, less than half of all states mandate that food and water be provided to animals in pet stores. Out of these states, eight of them only require that food and water is available to dogs and cats. This means that other animals, such as birds and hamsters have no laws ensuring they are consistently and adequately fed and watered.

The health of animals in pet stores requires not only proper nourishment, but also clean and safe living environments. Twenty states plus D.C. have laws requiring animal cages to be cleaned regularly. In twenty-one states plus D.C., there are laws regulating the housing of animals in pet stores. These laws usually require cages to be big enough for the animal to turn around. However, even where adequate housing laws are in place, no states address the lack of animal enrichment in retail pet stores. An example of enrichment for a bird would include a perch, mirrors or toys, or a companion bird. In many cases animals may languish for many weeks or even years before being bought. Lack of enrichment is a big concern because it often results in the psychological distress of an animal, which is evidenced by repetitious behavior such as pacing.

The health and welfare of animals in pet stores also centers on the availability of veterinary care. Only sixteen states have laws mandating veterinary care in pet stores. The strength of these laws varies. For example, Minnesota only requires a veterinary exam before an animal is sold. This potentially means that pet stores in Minnesota are under no legal obligation to provide veterinary care to a sick animal if that animal is not being immediately purchased.

To further assert that the regulation of retail pet stores is lax, less than half of all states require pet stores to operate under a license. Only twenty states plus D.C. require pet stores to be licensed. A business owner must apply for the license which is usually granted by the state’s Department of Agriculture. Pet store license applications often inquire about the proposed methods of sanitization, animal housing, waste management plans, and whether veterinary care will be provided to the animals. The cost of the license varies from state to state. A license costs $50.00 in Iowa and $300.00 in Colorado. Before a license will be issued, an inspection of the premises will be conducted. If the premises are in compliance with state law, a license will be issued.

The source of animals available for sale in pet stores is also of grave concern. The Humane Society of the United States (“HSUS”) is concerned that puppies and dogs sold at retail pet stores actually come from puppy mills rather than reputable breeders. Puppy mills are dog breeding operations that aim to maximize profits at the expense of animal welfare. There are many problems with puppy mills, including overcrowding, inbreeding, minimal veterinary care, and the killing of unwanted animals. 

It is clear that there are many gaps in the protection of animals living in retail pet stores. If consumers are truly concerned about the welfare of animals in the current retail system, they must demand either a cease in the sale of pets at retail stores or a boycott in those stores that exhibit cruel and unhealthy practices. Further, inhumane conditions in pet stores will never be addressed unless concerned customers are willing to report such conditions to local animal control officers. The bottom line is that animals are seen as commodities in the retail pet industry. When profits are at stake, it will always be hard to assure animals are given the care they deserve.

Detailed Discussion of Retail Pet Stores
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