Why A Relationship With A Pet Shop Is Like A Pact With The Devil


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I live in an area less heralded for its animal welfare record than for its legions of pretty people who (inexplicably) made the word “chic” synonymous with something as dubiously glamorous as a teacup Chihuahua.

In fact, last year the Humane Society of the United States ranked south Florida’s animal welfare record almost rock bottom on a list of 25 major metropolitan areas. Dragging us way down was Miami’s apparent penchant for purebred pets purchased through puppy peddlers.

It’s no secret there’s no love lost between the HSUS and the live-pet retail industry, just as it’s no shock to learn that its anti-pet-shop bias stems from poor regulation of this industry’s living inventory when it comes to health care—our purview.

After all, everyone knows where most of these pets come from (sort of rhymes with “run-of-the-mill”). And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to decipher the code for “high-quality breeder” when applied to the vast range of designer pedigree pooch producers flooding the retail pet market with their wares.

In my experience the so-touted “high-quality breeder” that pet shops claim as their source is about as rare as a bulldog without brachycephalic syndrome.

Puppy mills and their backyard breeding cousins make up a cottage industry that we all know does its product no favors. If you work in small-animal private practice you’ll likely know this first-hand.

If your practice is anything like ours, you’ll have at least some passing knowledge of owners of low-ish quality purebreds willing to trade their AKC registered animals’ offspring for fast cash at the corner Puppy Palace—especially when their website offering “perfect” pups doesn’t recruit enough hits to garner a sufficient clientele for any given litter.

These “breeders” are typically experienced not only in producing pups as quickly as possible but also in hounding us, their vets, with complaints about prices or pleas to “keep down the price.”

The two or three of these clients our practice services also make themselves headache-worthy with demands that we omit certain phrases from their health certificates (e.g. words denoting medial patellar luxations, heart murmurs, crepitance in hips, ridiculous extremes of parasitism, undescended testicles, kennel cough and other maladies).

Unfortunately, doing so likely would constitute fraud, which is not a big deal for them but which puts our licenses on the line should we comply. One of these clients even altered an official document all by herself once or twice.

Then consider the veterinarian who somewhere is signing these official documents immediately before a pet shop sale—sans special mention of obvious congenital anomalies or the presence of severe parasitism or infectious disease, in spite of the initial health certificate detailing otherwise.

It seems to me that this kind of behavior is especially endemic to many pet shop purveyors if the animals I see sourced from these establishments are any guide.

As the interest in pricey purebreds rises (necessarily in direct proportion to the decline in adoptions of “unwanted” pets, assuming the demand for pets is a constant), financial pet transactions go up. According to most state laws, veterinarians are required to “broker” these deals through our official certificates of veterinary inspection and other official paperwork.

Most of the time these vets are offering discounted services in exchange for pet shop privileges. You know the setup. These professionals get first crack at the pet shop’s clientele by offering a “free” first visit or some other discounted service.

While on the surface it may seem like a great practice builder, I’d respectfully submit to these veterinarians that forging such an alliance is like entering into a pact with the devil; it’s fraught with perilous moral ground that pits our professionalism, our ethics and indeed our licenses against what we’ve implicitly decided is best for our businesses.

Not only do we effectively support the puppy mill industry and the irresponsible backyard breeders when we enter into such arrangements, we also find ourselves economically motivated to overlook X, Y or Z ailments in accordance with legal loopholes that allow us to effectively acquit animals of suffering these diseases at the time of their sale.

There are few examples of legal action taken against veterinarians for our role in helping sell tainted merchandise, but that may soon come to an end with increasing scrutiny placed on our role in peddling “lemons.”

I hate to sound like a bleeding-heart welfarist, a holier-than-thou colleague who wants to tell you how you should run your business, but I can’t help thinking that if it weren’t for veterinarians willing to commit unethical (and borderline illegal) acts on paper, the puppy mill and pet shop industry would dry up faster than the demand for milk in China.

Part of the problem is that too few of us—myself included—are willing to report the veterinary signers of legal documents exonerating pets of their obvious health concerns. We balk at displaying the lack of collegiality this kind of condemnation implies.

And yet isn’t our profession and we as individual practitioners more at risk of public censure because of the actions of these colleagues? Don’t we expose ourselves to an increased risk of lawsuits and diminished professional reputations because of the unethical behavior of these colleagues?

I’m certainly not saying that all vets who work with pet shops and backyard breeders are evil or wrong-headed in their choices, but we straddle a line all of us should be wary of crossing.

It only means that we risk losing sight of why we chose this line of work. If we don’t play it just right, we risk our entire profession and our very souls, not just our licenses.

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