November 3, 2016

By Steve King

Laws prohibiting the sale of puppies and kittens in pet stores have been getting a lot of attention. More than 150 jurisdictions around the country have passed puppy sale bans in the past few years. Most of these are small cities and towns clustered in South Florida, Southern California, New Jersey and the Chicago suburbs. Some large cities—Boston, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Diego—have recently jumped into the fray.

The impact on the pet industry has been minimal, so far. Many of these jurisdictions had no stores selling puppies within their borders, so the action was largely symbolic or pre-emptive. Others grandfathered in existing stores but prohibited any new businesses selling puppies from moving in. In a handful of locations, stores have been forced to close or move, creating hardship for their owners and employees.

The pet industry has responded by pointing out that pet stores do not contribute in any significant way to the number of dogs or cats surrendered to shelters. Less than 7 percent of dogs acquired in the U.S. come from pet stores. Likewise, puppies sold in pet stores, for the most part, come from USDA-licensed and inspected commercial breeders, not from substandard, unlicensed “puppy mills.”

Nonetheless, we have lost the fight in many of these cities because of the emotional response elicited by horrific pictures of dogs in stacked wire cages, with matted fur covered in feces. It’s easy to see why council members acquiesce to the demands of activists and their followers who pack hearing rooms and flood council phone lines and email accounts with messages.

With so few stores selling puppies, it has been fairly easy for those not directly affected by these bans to shrug their shoulders in the knowledge that there are lots of other places for people to obtain pups. But a truly existential threat to the future of the pet industry has just raised its head in the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts—home to Harvard and a stone’s throw from Boston.

The City Council is considering a bill that would ban sales of virtually all animals that don’t come from a shelter or rescue organization. Birds, guinea pigs, hamsters and even reptiles could not be sold unless sourced from shelters—which would effectively put pet retailers out of the pet-selling business.

Assuming that such a bill could only pass in some liberal bastion of Eastern elitism misses the point. The activists who championed puppy sale bans had little success when they started that campaign. But after a few cities went along, the notion that puppies shouldn’t be sold became less of a radical notion and more of a mainstream concept.

These same activists, emboldened by their success, are taking the long view that banning all pet sales won’t seem that radical once a few jurisdictions go along. And they are using the same playbook that has worked so well with puppies—photos of dead lizards, injured and dead rabbits and hamsters cannibalized in their over-crowded pens. Whether taken out of context or in sub-standard facilities, these photos come to define industry standards in the eyes of lawmakers.

Denigrating animal activists or questioning their motives may feel good, but it is a losing strategy for countering pet sale bans. The industry will only mount a strong defense with a potent offense. Transparency in how we care for animals in the trade is essential. An openness to reasonable regulations and a willingness to police ourselves with industry-developed standards will counter claims that we are in the money business, not the pet care business.

At a time when pet product sales are at an all-time high, it may be easy to ignore the plight of small retailers who get caught up in the frenzy of pet ban laws through no fault of their own. But failure to act collectively now could leave the industry a hollow shell of itself sooner than expected.

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